A primer on Orthodox Judaism

When I taught high school-age teens a long time ago, I’d often tease at semester’s start with this question: What do Orthodox Jews, Catholic nuns and the Amish have in common? And of course, the answer is: distinguished modes of dress, by which they can easily be identified.
I’ve just read Eli Schlossberg’s “The World of Orthodox Judaism.” It’s not a new book; it was published in 1996. But it is spot-on with its description of how folks might recognize some of our own Orthodox by their dress: from high fur hats and visible tzitzit on some men, to long skirts and sleeves on some women. But, what about the others?
This book is a basic primer for people — which includes some Jews — who know little about today’s more mainstream Orthodoxy. Schlossberg’s background is what I think we in the United States can safely call “traditional” Judaism: not Chasidic or Modern Orthodox, not Conservative or Reform. In public, he appears as a quintessential American businessman, but his head is always covered. In just 100 pages — including a glossary of essential terms — he explains the essentials of his own life: synagogue, kashrut, Shabbos (his spelling), and so much more, in ways that can open the minds of honest questioners from many faiths — including some non-Orthodox Jews.
This book’s covers have none of the usual “blurbs” by famous people. On the front is Joseph Robert Goren’s portrait of how many folks — rightly or wrongly — might portray a Jew: a bearded elder, head covered with both kippah and tallit, cradling a Torah. On the back, however, is a straightforward statement of purpose: “‘The World of Orthodox Judaism’ is a concise resource for anyone interested in learning more about the customs and standards of Orthodox Jewish life.”
The author dedicates the book to his father, “a deeply religious Orthodox Jew who was the first to teach me about our beautiful religious heritage, and today continues to inspire me by example…he serves as a role model for me and for every Orthodox Jewish businessman.” In its pages, Schlossberg details how he himself carries on the family’s gourmet food business — and indeed, his entire life — in full observance of Jewish law.
When my daughter was born many years ago (she and the famed Barbie doll approached 60 together!), my hospital roommate was a young woman from an observant Orthodox community in Chicago. She explained to me how her husband had prepared for the arrival of their child, if it should have happened on Shabbat, when he would be unable to drive. Each Friday evening, before beginning his walk to shul, he drained his gas tank of all but the pre-figured amount of fuel it would take to reach the nearest hospital, where he would then leave the car running, to stop on its own. This, she told me, was the modern equivalent of summoning a midwife. And, this couple also handled elevators just as Schlossberg describes in his book: by waiting for someone else to arrive and push the buttons.
If these and other behaviors seem strange, unnecessary and even humorous to someone learning about them for the first time, the author’s explanations are without apology. Instead, he shows how they reflect the adaptability of Judaism’s ancient laws to the many challenging changes of modern times.
Schlossberg’s brief personal introduction makes the following promise: “If you work with an Orthodox Jew or live near an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, you have probably noticed that observant Jews seem to act in some unusual ways. If you have not had the opportunity — or have been too polite — to ask, this booklet is for you…” But what he calls a “booklet” is truly a very slim encyclopedia.
You can purchase this book on Amazon — used, for as little as $6; on Kindle for just under $18 — not quite chai, but close enough! I recommend it highly.

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