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Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance Hardcover – September 16, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Bronfman, a philanthropist, former World Jewish Congress president and former Seagram CEO, bemoans the dry, joyless Judaism of his youth, which he in turn transmitted to his own children. The Holocaust and fear of anti-Semitism are no longer enough to drive Jewish identity and participation, he argues, along with writer Zasloff; only a more open, more celebratory and hopeful communal life will draw and retain young Jews. This community must be pluralistic, unreservedly welcoming intermarried Jews and their spouses, gay Jews and others outside the traditional Jewish mold. (Among the scores of mostly young leaders the authors quote is the first Asian-American rabbi.). Few of these ideas are new, and, occasionally, Bronfman oversimplifies, as when he reduces the complex issue of intermarriage to the need for an open tent, mirroring the hospitality of the biblical Abraham and Sarah. Still, Bronfman has spoken to and learned from a highly diverse group of American Jewish religious and cultural leaders outside the mainstream to fashion a fairly coherent view of what a more vibrant Jewish future might looks like. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.





By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 15 SEPTEMBER 2008 — When Les Misérables was made into a musical in Paris, it started late in the story because French audiences were presumed to know the plot of the Victor Hugo novel.  When the musical was translated into English for its international run, part of that missing backstory needed to be restored.

A non-Jewish reader coming to Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (St. Martin’s Press, 240 pages) may feel like an American in Paris attending a performance of Les Misérables. Before discussing the book, here, vastly oversimplified, is the backstory that the author presumes his Jewish readers to know:

With the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70, Judaism evolved from religion communicated by priests through rituals (that relied heavy on animal sacrifice) to one communicated by rabbis — the word rabbi means "teacher" — through scholarship and study. Judaism was thereby reworked, of necessity, into a faith so direct in its relationship to its God that any ten men could form themselves into an ad hoc synagogue and pray without clerical intermediation. (The more progressive trend is to count women too.)  Judaism gave the West its single, omniscient and omnipotent God and its most famous rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth.

The destruction of the Second Temple was followed by the Diaspora — the purposeful scattering of Jews, and their newly portable, text-based faith, throughout the Roman Empire. That was how Jews ended up all over what became Christian Europe, where they endured anti-Semitic acts ranging from exclusion from trades (almost everywhere) to expulsion (England), to forced conversion (Spain), to riot (Russia), to genocide (Germany).

North America has walked the walk of equality, and after a rocky start, Jews at last find themselves accepted as full citizens. They can easily intermarry, and they do: over half of all marriages of Jews in North America are to non-Jews. That single fact triggers the lead "fear" addressed by Hope, Not Fear: the conventional wisdom that the continent’s Jews, perhaps save the very Orthodox, may intermarry themselves out of existence. The "renaissance" is a series of proposals to refresh and perpetuate Judaism through education, an embrace of modernity, and an understanding of the expectations and the predilections of its youth.

The book is credited to Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff.  Bronfman is the former CEO of Seagram Ltd. of Canada, and Zasloff is an alumna of The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel — a travel and study program for promising Jewish talents sponsored by Bronfman. That Zasloff gets co-authorship credit shows Bronfman to be a gentleman, but it’s really his book, written in the first person singular.

Bronfman follows the conventions of Canadian writing by absorbing Canada into that collective entity with the United States referred to figuratively as "North America," and he follows the conventions of secular and humanistic authors on Judaism by mercifully abjuring quirks such as the use of "G-d" for God (a device employed by the Orthodox due to the Jewish prohibition against uttering the proper name God). Most of all, he deliberately avoids the "they’re still after us" mode of fear mongering that hampers some writing for the Jewish popular market. Indeed, Bronfman sensibly asks that funds drained by fights against lapsed anti-Semites be rechanneled to support the renaissance he advocates.

As for intermarriage, Bronfman notes that, in an open society, people of different confessions will fall in love, however devoted they might be to their respective faiths and backgrounds. He advocates a light, embracing touch: non-Jewish spouses should be invited to synagogues and welcomed there — and encouraged, as respectfully as possible, to raise their children as Jews.

As harmless and obvious as that seems, it is actually a call for a kind of radicalism.  By Christian standards, Judaism is a hard fraternity to rush: there is no proselytizing, conversion is commonly made difficult and even discouraged, and Jewish law (if followed to the letter) declares that the children of Jewish men and non-Jewish women aren’t Jewish. Bronfman is calling for nothing less than a breaking down of the cultural insularity and legal requirements that may well have preserved Jewish faith and identity in the past but that now have become obsolete — even dangerous.

Bronfman takes another somewhat radical position when considering whether Judaism, which is more often debated than understood, is primarily a religion, an ethnicity or civilization.  He takes sides with those secularists who see Judaism as a civilization (with theistic underpinnings). He notes that his own Judaism depends more heavily on study and discussion about texts than spirituality or prayer. Advocates favoring that enlightened position believe that it is more constructive to reflect on the questions of law, community and perseverance raised by the story of Exodus than to reach for the seven heavens or to memorize what each of the foodstuffs on the Seder plate symbolizes.

That perspective, which is quite in harmony with the way the faith has been transmitted since the late first century, is contrary to the common practices that Bronfman has observed in North American Judaism. In his respectful tone, he is mildly scolding of the generations of the twentieth century that never learned the demanding texts of the religion well enough to pass on either their particularity to Judaism or their universality to the human experience. They opted instead to instill the faith by emphasizing its few rituals (which do not include animal sacrifice). Trying to transmit by ritual a religion that was significantly deritualized two millennia ago has proven a theological blunder worthy of that of the pharaoh of Exodus in failing to heed the powers of the Jewish God.

The result is faith-based ignorance, which does no ill to those fundamentalist Christians who believe the Earth was formed one day five thousand years ago and that early farmers practiced dinosaur husbandry. A more mature religion, such as Catholicism, with its ceremonies, pageantry, music and stained glass, is probably not at much risk, if only, in that instance, because priests, nuns and monks have long kept the light of scholarship blazing. For a religion such as Judaism, so dependent on the individual’s knowledge of text and law, the result is that sense of panic and frustration Bronfman addresses in his book.

For a people that prides itself on both mental horsepower and education, it can get quite embarrassing. Back when, for one brief shining moment, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel had the most literary travel section in the USA, it published my report on a visit to Jerusalem.  In the piece, I confessed my ignorance that the emotionally charged "Wailing Wall" was part of a prosaic retaining wall built around the Temple Mount by King Herod the Great.  I’d foolishly thought it was a fragment of the façade of the Second Temple. That led to a reader in Boca Raton snidely writing in that the Wailing Wall surely isn’t a retaining wall, which brought on to a gentle rebuttal from a retired architect from Ft. Lauderdale, who said that it very much is a retaining wall, without which "the Dome of the Rock would come crashing down."  Among the many jokes about Jews, one never heard before that it takes three Jews to get one fact right, but that's what we've come to — one of the problems that Bronfman seeks to remedy in his plan for a renaissance.

The failure in North America of the intergenerational transmission of cultural knowledge is a twentieth-century development that remains to be adequately explored and goes far beyond the experiences of a single religion.  It was during the same period that people who knew the great operas by title and composer had children who might recognize an aria or two; they, in turn, had children who collectively determined, without need of investigation, that all opera was a waste of their precious time.

Bronfman offers further solutions ranging from study in Israel to greater cooperation among Jewish organizations at home, but his main contribution to the debate is to identify the problem succinctly, without the fear against which his argument is framed and always with a sense of optimism.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1st edition (September 16, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312377924
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312377922
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,029,360 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Born in Montreal in 1929 and raised in a proudly Jewish home, Edgar M. Bronfman dedicated his life to Jewish causes. His love for the Jewish people informed his work at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, named for his father, and dedicated to inspiring a vibrant and joyful Jewish future. Bronfman's experience as the CEO of Seagram Company Ltd. for more than thirty years, informed his work as the Founding Chairman of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

For many years, Bronfman served as the as President of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), where he advocated for the release of the Prisoners of Zion from the USSR and convinced Pope John Paul II that the establishment of a Carmelite convent near Auschwitz would be an affront to Jews worldwide. In 1998, Mr. Bronfman succeeded in winning restitution for Holocaust victims whose assets had been held in Swiss banks. He had also served as President of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which is devoted to the return of property and wealth owned by Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

For his philanthropic efforts, Bronfman was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor by President Bill Clinton in 1999. He held honorary doctoral degrees from various institutions of higher learning, including Tel Aviv University, McGill University and Williams College.

Mr. Bronfman passed away in New York City in December 2013.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Kerry M. Olitzky on October 7, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a book by a man who knows what to say and is not afraid to say it. His independent thinking is refreshing. And as a major spokesperson in the community, people listen to what he has to say at a time when others are afraid to say it. Don't wait to borrow the book or wait until it reaches your local library. Buy it now and then begin to implement his suggestions immediately in your community. The Jewish communal future may depend on it.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Victoria Deni on October 6, 2008
Format: Hardcover
What Bronfman says, Reconstructionism has been saying - and practicing - for decades. So his message is not exactly new or original. Then again, since Bronfman represents mainstream Jews and Reconstructionism, alas, doesn't, it's just as well that the mainstream, apparently, finally sees the light.
If you read this book, agree with it, and then wonder where to turn, look for your nearest Reconstructionist congregation. They've been there and done that ages ago. And they still do.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Arlen N. Weinstein on November 2, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This book was not only a technical collaboration between a giant in Jewish philanthropy and a talented writer, but one of the intellect and spirit. It is not only a book of advocacy, but, for me, it is more importantly, a book of learning. Edgar Bronfman and Beth Zasloff have plumbed the Torah that they have internalized and use it as a referent for the many ideas in this book. The conclusions are their own, but they are rooted in the Torah. This is what is unusual about this book. It is informed constantly by the Torah both Beth Zasloff and Edgar Bronfman have learned. They have internalized the lessons that they have learned and they proudly share them throughout the book. Most reviewers focus on what they have said here, but I am deeply impressed, by how they chose to say it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By J. Shawn Landres on October 23, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This important new book is a guide to some of the most creative ideas and initiatives in the Jewish community today. Like the multigenerational partnership of the authors themselves, it demonstrates that innovation is not limited to the young, nor frustration to the unaffiliated. The interviews with thinkers and activists from across the spectrum of Jewish life reveal that as diverse as their perspectives are, they all have (at least) one thing in common: for them, creating a Jewish life and a Jewish community is about building a future, not surviving the past. Hear, hear.
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