Q&A: Abigail Pogrebin Talks About Her Year of Living Jewishly -- Very Jewishly

In his foreword to Abigail Pogrebin’s My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, A. J. Jacobs -- her childhood friend and author of his own not-dissimilar book, The Year of Living Biblically -- noted their common theme: “head to toe immersion in a topic” –- specifically, the topic of living a Jewish life.  In Pogrebin's case, it meant that for 12 months, she steeped herself in the Jewish calendar by talking to rabbis, reading entire books about a single prayer, and observing holidays she hadn't even known existed.

Pogrebin’s book, which emerged out of her column in The Forward, is informed by her boundless curiosity and her previous work as a journalist –- which included serving as a producer for Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes" –- and the knowledge she accrued as the author of Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish.  Pogrebin’s book is also born of a hunger for an authentic taste of Judaism. “For most of her life, Abby was loosely connected to her heritage,” writes Jacobs. “To borrow a phrase from my own book, Abby was Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden was Italian. Not Very. (No offense to the Olive Garden. Great breadsticks.)”

Pogrebin describes the Jewish year she lived for her book as: “Fifty-One Rabbis, six days of fasting, countless prayers, one day without deodorant, a couple of barrels of booze (Shabbat wine and Simchat Torah scotch among them), and untold amounts of revelation, joy, and, of course, guilt.” She talked with The National about the year, her favorite holiday, and why we all need to stop more.

Q: As you write, you’re generally leery of “seekers,” and books claiming to offer a recipe for life. So, how do you make an un-recipe book?

A: It’s a great question. I think the only way to make an un-recipe book is to offer the ingredients without offering any instructions.  The Jewish calendar has the ingredients for a meaningful, challenging, food-filled and food-deprived year, not to mention a richer life, but I can’t guarantee that outcome, nor would I try.  I can only offer the origins, teachings, interpretations and practices of a holiday and then report what happened to me when I learned and observed them.   So I hope what I offer is not an itinerary to find meaning, but a map if someone wants to take his or her journey and discover where it leads.

Q: As you recounted your journey step-by-step in columns in the Forward, did readers respond? Did their comments or questions influence your thinking and lead it to evolve?

A: Yes, readers were responding all the time – I had set up a Forward email account when I was writing this, and my in-box became a hub of regular advice, critiques, suggestions, encouragement and scolding – an entirely Jewish conversation.   I read every response and was often affected by someone’s personal story or I was attuned to the perspective or facts I might be missing.   These exchanges became an integral part of the year for me; seeing first-hand, in real time, how bottomless the angles and approaches are to any one holiday, only confirmed why this tradition endures after thousands of years.  It’s never finished, never dull, always inviting another take.   I needed teachers every step of the way, and they were at the ready – whether I sought them out or not.

Q: At one point, you write: “I need more ‘atzeret’ in my life.” Can you explain that? And don’t we all need more ‘atzeret’?

A: I can’t speak to whether everyone needs more atzeret – more stopping – in their lives, but certainly in New York City, it looks to me that most of us could use some slowing down.  For me, I struggle daily with the nagging insistence of my email backlog, my unending to-do list, and a sense that I’m always behind, rushing, or disappointing someone.  The holiday of Shemini Atzeret introduced the idea that there is value in hanging back, sitting still, not doing.  That has stayed with me, and I hope I can activate it to interrupt my racing routine.

Q: Do you have a favorite holiday?

A: Passover.  Even after this entire deep dive into every holiday, it’s still Passover.  But Passover has changed for me.  It’s more challenging now.  There’s more to think about now. 

Q: Looking back on this project, how did it change you?

A: It made me more grateful, more mindful, more aware of the fragility of things: that another year is never guaranteed, and therefore I have to look at how I’m living this one.  I’m also more acutely aware of how tradition becomes a home base – a place to come back to, even when I’m changing constantly, or when the world is roiling around me.  The holiday prayers or rituals may stay the same, but the holiday’s meaning morphs according to where we each are, what we’re feeling, when we come back around to it.  I do believe Judaism rises to meet us – wherever the calendar happens to land.