Rabbi David Forman got some bad news from his publisher the other day: his latest book is selling well.
Which makes "50 Ways to be Jewish" a failure, if you believe the rabbi’s words.
The book, produced by Gefen Publishing House in Jerusalem, is a personal, eclectic, traditional but innovative guide to Judaism for those who don’t know the hows and the whys.
"Most of us Jews are truly uninformed when it comes to the most basic elements of Jewish life," Rabbi Forman, director of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations office in Jerusalem, writes in the introduction. "As far as this author is concerned, if this book sells relatively well, then its entire thesis will be proven wrong, because to buy this Jewish manual means that Jews really are curious about their Judaism. Therefore, the success of this book will be ultimately determined by how many Jews fail to purchase it."
"50 Ways to be Jewish" is already in its second printing after selling 2,500 copies.
Rabbi Forman, a Boston native who says he is "approaching his 60th birthday," has lived in Israel since 1972 and founded Israeli Rabbis for Human Rights. "Politically I’m liberal, religiously I’m traditional," he says.
The rabbi is reaching his intended audience, "people my age and their children, who are now making their life choices about who their partners are going to be," he says in a telephone interview.
He was inspired to write the book by his preparations for his 40th high school reunion a few years ago. Rabbi Forman contacted 15 old classmates; 13 had intermarried. "All of them immediately started to be very defensive," he says.
How does he reach his friends’ Jewish children to keep them within the fold, the rabbi asked himself. The answer was a book on ways to "maintain Jewish life." Originally there were 18. Rabbi Forman kept jotting down ideas and the number rose to 32. More ideas sent it to 50, "a nice, round number," the rabbi says.
His ways range from the predictable (synagogue, Sabbath, holidays) to the edgy (sex life, gay and lesbian friends) to the intriguing ("Your sports," "Your Sinatra").
"Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ became his theme song, and the sentiments expressed in it became the watchword for many of us: the wisdom being that we must stick to our guns and be certain to always do things ‘our way,’ " Rabbi Forman writes. "The forty-ninth way to be Jewish is to be able to say that I tried to do things the ‘right way,’ not my way or his way or her way, but rather a Jewish way … with care, sensitivity, thoroughness, respect, dignity, reflection and wisdom."
The musical, pop-cultural reference keeps with the theme of the rabbi’s book, which in addition to scores of footnotes explaining Jewish terms, features frequent lyrics by such icons as Simon and Garfunkel, John Lennon and Bob Dylan.
"My generation can relate well to music," says Rabbi Forman. "It’s a primer. I wanted it to be accessible and readable. No one should expect to find it a really academic approach to Jewish life."
Which means, he explains in 296 pages, there’s a Jewish way to buy a car, a Jewish way to choose diapers, a Jewish way to travel, a Jewish way to age.
"I wanted the Jews I know to think with a Jewish kopf," Rabbi Forman says, using the Yiddish word for head. "I start off with a view that everything that forms what we do comes out of" (or should come out of) "a deep Jewish background."
So far, he says, readers’ reactions and sales have been good. (Royalties are going to his human rights group and Victims of Palestinian Terror.) U.S. synagogues have asked him to come as scholar-in-residence to discuss the book’s theme.
"50 Ways to be Jewish" is Rabbi Forman’s third book, and he’s already planning his fourth.
"I’m thinking," he says, "of ’50 More Ways to be Jewish.’ "