Why do people quit Judaism for years, sometimes much of a lifetime? You'll find some preliminary answers in Chapter 2, "Lost on the Way to Sinai: Wandering Off a Jewish Path:"

"Talk to American Jewry's former expatriates and you'll find more disappointed lovers than harsh critics of religion. For many of them, the face of Judaism—family, clergy, a teacher, or even an entire congregation—fell critically short of its touted ideals. At a critical moment, someone's hypocritical pronouncement, cold judgment, or rigid insistence on tradition over compassion trumped the justice, the loving-kindness, and the essential sense of welcome that is at the heart of Jewish heritage.

Many disenchanted Jews, like foiled romantics, are also hungering for more meaningful relationships with something greater than themselves, something more than they actually discerned in congregational life. Synagogues may begin as idealistic enterprises, they suggest, but too often come to revolve around dues rather than divinity, internal politics rather than a transcendent community."


Meet one of several returning Jews in Chapter 4, "Dipping a Toe in the Mikvah: First Steps to a Jewish Life." You'll hear about a Florida lawyer's hesitant return to his spiritual heritage:

"David Abraham gave Judaism a second chance after two dramatic life passages—a neighbor's violent death and his son's bar mitzvah, which took place a month after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These reminders of mortality surfaced around the time the Miami lawyer, forty-seven, was fielding religious questions from an old friend. Their conversations left Abraham feeling abashed about his paper-thin knowledge of his own heritage.

Visiting his family's Conservative synagogue, which he had largely avoided up until then, Abraham "sat as far from other people as I could because I was embarrassed about how little Hebrew I knew and how little I remembered of what a Saturday morning service is about.' That first step led to others. Abraham found he enjoyed meeting other congregants and learning from them. ' "Judaism is basically this treasure chest and I just had never opened it,' Abraham said of his religious rediscovery. "The amazing thing is that I didn't realize I had the key."


In Chapter 8, "Wrestling with Angels: Traditions that Chafe," Jewish seekers talk candidly about the things they still struggle with in Judaism. Yet, despite occasional qualms, they have made their peace with the faith of their families.

"From community strife and Israeli policies to gay and lesbian inclusion and the vestiges of discrimination against women: the more than sixty people I interviewed for this book harbor their share of discomfort with Jewish institutions. Indeed the issues they raised have a familiar ring, since many of them surface in periodic surveys of the unaffiliated.

Yet if Judaism's real shortcomings were enough to drive every questioning Jew away forever, I would have no book to write. Clearly, the people profiled here have mastered the art of living in a community rife with both holiness and human frailty. Their attitude recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald's observation that, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.'

Coming to terms with Jewish heritage, for the thoughtful seeker, means embracing a paradox: as Jews, we aim high, striving to be "a light onto the nations,' and yet often fall woefully short of the mark, as we freely confess throughout the High Holy Days. To acknowledge and try to fix our failings as individuals and as a people is not to diminish the value of Jewish ethics, the power of Jewish ritual, and the grandeur of the messianic aspiration that, together, we can birth a better world."


The Jewish arts have provided a vital door into Jewish life for some who have not found an easy fit in religious institutions, as examined in Chapter 10, "Fiddler at the Door: The Arts as a Portal." Take Chicago native Susan Stone, who discovered both spiritual wisdom and her own Jewish niche in the ancient tradition of storytelling:

"The closing decades of the twentieth century saw people of many cultures reclaiming their oral traditions. Among those exploring the spoken word were a host of Jews who brought the age-old art of storytelling back into the Jewish community. As they have recreated the tales of generations past, some find themselves rewriting their own life stories. Storyteller and children's librarian Susan Stone, for one, grew up in a traditional shul northwest of her native Chicago, where a bat mitzvah meant a small Friday evening affair without a Torah reading. As she became an adult, she realized that the roles for women in this Jewish community did not match her thirst for knowledge and self-expression. "I just didn't know how to be Jewish in a way that fit my life," said Stone, sixty, adding, "I love being domestic and baking cakes, but I also love learning and I didn't feel there was a place for me."

She practiced a minimalist faith, celebrating only the High Holy Days, Pesach, and Chanukah, until, in her early thirties, she picked up an obscure collection of Jewish tales of fantasy and the occult. Trained in the theater, she was tapped to tell her first (non-Jewish story) at a Halloween party. Word of mouth led to more gigs, as she gravitated to her passion: Jewish stories, when she began to study, record and perform for area audiences. "All of a sudden, this was a way to combine who I was—a performing artist and a Jewish neshama [soul],' Stone said."


In the final chapter, "Kissing the Mezuzah: Lessons of the Journey," you'll hear what Jewish seekers around the country gain from their spiritual explorations:

"In our spiritual quests, most of us act less like Moses and more like a hiker unsure of the trail ahead. Yet all of us also carry in our spiritual backpacks the potential for deep wisdom and for metamorphosis as radical as a larvae turning into a butterfly. We have seen in the preceding stories how people can powerfully transform their lives: a skeptical scientist turns witness to the Divine, a Communist stalwart evolves into a Jewish storyteller, a high-tech executive becomes a rabbi.

Some, perhaps most, spiritual journeys involve changes in miniature—a kinder atmosphere at home, a more contemplative work commute or lunch break, a new volunteer commitment, or a financial contribution to a community cause. Such small steps forward may be hard to perceive. Indeed, they may remain undetectable to anyone but the travelers themselves. Yet they can bring a measure of peace, an ounce of celebration to life's triumphs and challenges. And they can infuse our days with meaning."

Excerpts are from Journeys to a Jewish Life: Inspiring Stories from the Spiritual Journeys of American Jews, c. 2007 by Paula Amann (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing). Order by mail or call 800-962-4544 or on-line at www.jewishlights.com. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091.