Judaism: All That Matters

October 11, 2012

Keith Kahn-Harris, who has written much on heavy metal and other contemporary musical tastes, has also written much on British Jewry. In this short volume he offers an overview of Judaism worldwide, especially in the UK and the US.

His book is far more factual than thematic. It covers briskly the basic topics: the definition of Jewishness, the main texts, the key beliefs, even more the key practices, daily living as an observant Jew, the history of Judaism from the Bible to the present, the branches of Judaism, Zionism, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, Israel and the present outlook of Jews. It is a book filled with pictures and scores of set-off blocks called "Connections", which contain pithy summaries of subjects ranging from the Shema to falafel. And not a few of these connections are familiar Jewish jokes, none of them quite so provocative as, say, the jokes of Frankie Boyle.

At the end of the book are lists - of books, leading songs, unusual Jewish communities, cult figures and objects, and anglicised Yiddish slang words. The book concludes with a popular line about being Jewish for which the author cannot find the source.

On the whole, Kahn-Harris wants to "play nice". Whether the topic is the Middle East or the divisions among branches of Jewry, he strives to lay out the issues without taking sides. His devotion to Judaism is not at issue, but his stand on fundamental issues is intentionally left undeclared.

There are many brief overviews of all subjects. Kahn-Harris' book is part of the publisher's All That Matters series, whose rivals include The Basics (Routledge), Brief Histories (Wiley-Blackwell) and Very Short Introductions (Oxford University Press), in which my book Myth appears. Some of these series are pitched higher than others. In contrast to Kahn-Harris' volume on Judaism, Norman Solomon's volume by the same name in the Very Short Introduction series focuses on ideas rather than facts.

Kahn-Harris' book would have been improved if had he sought to explore the topics he presents - for example, covering not just what observing dietary laws involves but why one is supposed to observe them at all.

I am an American Jew who came to the UK to teach in 1994. I continue to be unsettled by some pronounced differences between Jewry in the UK and Jewry in the US. In the UK, Orthodox Judaism reigns supreme, and Conservatism has had trouble establishing itself. In the US, Orthodoxy is the least popular of the three main branches, and mercifully American Jews are spared any chief rabbi presuming to speak for all.

In the UK, if one dare generalise, Jews feel far less confident than they do in the US. Whether as cause or as effect, UK Jews endure far more explicit expressions of anti-Semitism than do American Jews. To cite a painful case I know at first hand, the organisation representing UK academics, the University and College Union, is pathologically obsessed with damning Israel while ignoring hundreds of far worse and far less ambiguous cases of violations of human rights around the world.

This spring my local branch zealously invited to its meeting two speakers, one of whom has no connection to the university, simply to denounce Israel. This kind of antic would never be tolerated in the US, where any equivalent to the UCU would be decertified. Would that Kahn-Harris had attempted to explain cultural differences, the sources of which are historical.

Overall, this book provides a most helpful compendium of basics about Judaism and Jewishness, although it does get a few facts wrong. I just wish that, even as an introduction, it had gone further.

Judaism: All That Matters

By Keith Kahn-Harris. Hodder Education, 160pp, £7.99. ISBN 9781444156720. Published 13 September 2012

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