Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Year in the Life books Part V: Religion

Often I end up reading two books about nearly the same topic either simultaneously, or one right after the other. Such was the case in 2003, when I read two books about contemporary rabbis and their congregations.

Fried, Stephen. The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader. New York : Bantam Books, 2002.
Wilkes, Paul. And They Shall Be My People: An American Rabbi and His Congregation. 1st Grove Press pbk ed. New York: Grove Press; 1994.

Both of these cover more than a year. Fried sets out to chronicle a process--really, two processes--the retiring of a popular, long-time rabbi at a large Conservative synagogue in the Philadelphia area, and the congregation's search for a new rabbi. Wilkes hangs his tale on the efforts of a rabbi at a Conservative synagogue in Worcester, Massachusetts, to put together and then lead members of his congregation on a trip to Israel.

Both writers do end up covering the day-to-day life in the synagogue. It wasn't news to me that there are strong interpersonal conflicts in congregations--both my parents were very active in their respective congregations as I was growing up. But I haven't read many vivid chronicles of those conflicts, until I found these books. I learned a lot about the practice of Conservative Judaism, and the debates within it. The books cover all kinds of topics: the importance of Jerusalem to Judaism, the role of and pressures on a cleric's spouse, how to keep the sabbath in this day and age, tithing, merits of church schools, and the tensions between leading a congregation spiritually and leading it in more worldly matters.

I liked Fried's book a bit better than Wilkes, maybe because I read it first. Fried's book includes his own return to practicing Judaism after his father's death. While Wilkes does have a lot about the daily life of the synagogue, it also devotes a lot of space to the synagogue group's visit to the Holy Land--interesting, but not what I was looking for in the book.

Keeler, Robert F. Parish! The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Story of a Vibrant Catholic Community. New York: Crossroad, 1997.

Keeler expands his award-winning series from Newsday newspaper about an active parish in Long Island, New York, to book length. Individual chapters are devoted to different aspects or groups within this parish. Keeler doesn't focus on one or two individuals, as Fried and Wilkes do, but the people he portrays are very interesting. I recall quite a bit about how this church is preparing for the projected shortage in priests, in terms of encouraging the lay congregation to be more active, and considering combining parishes.

Other entries with "Year in the Life" books: June 20, 2006–restaurants/chefs; June 22, 2006–part II: education; August 26, 2006–part III: theater and business; Oct 11, 2006–part IVa: sports; Feb 21, 2007–part IVb: sports; April 6, 2007–part IVc: sports; and May 2, 2007–part VI: miscellaneous.