I first heard Jonathan Sarna speak in 2000 on an American Academy of Religion author-meets-critics panel that examined George Marsden's Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. I remember Sarna's incisive comments, wit, and arresting lecture style. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.
Since then I've followed his work and scholarship and so perked up this morning when I read an interview with Sarna in my local newspaper on his newest book: A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew. The book is modeled after George Weigel's Letters to a Young Catholic. Although Sarna doesn't mention it, I should also note here Tony Campolo's Letters to a Young Evangelical.
Sarna is also a columnist with On Faith. The YouTube clip is from a 2005 lecture in Santa Barbara, California, on the history of Judaism.
Here's the interview with Sarna from the 2/7/09 issue of the Houston Chronicle.
If you have a question about American Judaism, the go-to guy these days is Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. His book, American Judaism, (Yale University Press, $20) won the 2004 National Jewish Book Award.
A Time for Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew (Basic Books.$25), is his latest. It’s a series of 13 letters to his daughter that address holidays in the Jewish calendar. After telling the story of each holiday, Sarna goes into issues that concern Jewish youth, including intermarriage and anti-semitism, social justice, the Holocaust and the environment. Sarna was in Houston recently for a lecture at the Jewish Community Center and sat down with Houston Chronicle reporter Barbara Karkabi.
Q: Why did you write your book around the Jewish holidays?
A: My editor gave me a beautiful book, Letters to a Young Catholic by George Weigel. He takes Catholic stories and uses them as a way of understanding Catholicism. Judaism really sanctifies time. I began to think about the relationship of our Jewish holidays to the central issues that young Jews are interested in.
Q: Why did you start with Passover?
A: By starting with freedom and ending with the joyous, uplifting holiday of Purim, I thought the narrative would work better. There are actually two Jewish New Years; Rosh Hashanah is one. But the Bible argues that the New Year begins with Passover because the Jewish people started anew. I’m using Exodus 12 as my validator.
Q: This is very different from your other, more scholarly, books.
A: It was totally different from anything I have done before and probably from anything I will do again. My editor felt there were themes in American Judaism, that deserved to be put into simpler language and presented in a different way. I have a son and daughter in their late teens, early 20s, and I have spent much of my career teaching. So I thought I could write for that age.
Q: And the response?
A: Very positive, with good reviews and comments. I’m waiting for more young people to read it. I didn’t gear it to adults, but, on the other hand, I think many are reading it and using it to talk to their children.
Q: Would it be good for non-Jews too?
A: Yes, just as I read the Catholic book. It didn’t say: “Warning, not to be read by non-Catholics.” It’s not a how-to book; the world didn’t need another one. But it was a way of thinking of these holidays, bringing them to life and making them relevant. I don’t think Tu be-Av is known to even some of my more Jewishly learned readers. It’s about love and marriage and a day in ancient Israel when the unmarried women wore white garments and went to dance in the vineyards, calling out to eligible bachelors: “Lift up your eyes and choose wisely.”
Q: How does the book keep Jewish youth interested?
A: I tried to write it in an engaging way. I think that to the extent that young Jews and all Jews are sensitive to the rhythms of their own calendar, that will remind them of the distinctive features of their culture. In part it’s the balancing of the American calendar and the Jewish calendar that helps to shape American Jews. There are so many holidays in the fall, it’s hard to observe all of them when I’m working. But it’s very important to think: “What are my priorities? How do I want to be known? What kind of a Jew do I want to be.”
Q: Do you have a favorite holiday?
A: I personally always loved Passover; maybe that’s why I wrote about it first. Not only are there wonderful rituals, but I think that to anyone in America, the central theme of Passover — freedom — resonates greatly. To have a seder is a very remarkable, moving ritual with passages that can remain relevant into history. None of the holidays have quite as much preparation; you have to clean your whole house. As far as my wife is concerned, without Passover, I would never clean my study.
Q: What does your faith mean to you?
A: I’m impressed by Judaism as a way of life. Remember that in Judaism, the commandments and the fulfilment of the commandments, as well as a life of study and learning, are very important. I’m not saying that Judaism is without belief, that’s certainly not true. But belief is actually in many ways secondary to study and the performance of ritual commandments. It’s what I make of being Jewish and the faith that defines me. That, to me, is a very powerful idea.