Book Review: Here is Our Light, Humanistic Jewish Holiday and Life-Cycle Liturgy for Inspiration and Reflection (Ben Yehuda Press)

Here is Our Light, edited by Rabbi Miriam Jerris and Sheila Malcolm, is a collection of original liturgical pieces and short liturgical commentaries. Although Humanistic Jewish congregations also use some traditional Jewish sources, contemporary and older music and poetry, and material adapted from general secular culture, this particular book only contains new liturgical creations written specifically for Humanistic Judaism. Some of the original liturgical pieces are quite good, and this is particularly true of the pieces written to celebrate life cycle events. For these pieces alone, this volume would be a worthwhile addition to the bookshelf of Jewish clergy or a liberal or humanistic Jew interested in DIY liturgy.

There are also some gems among the original liturgy written for Shabbat and holidays. All of the blessings for children and poems written for Shabbat, including the reinterpretation of Psalm 104, are beautiful, and feel like true liturgical offerings, and some may even find a place at my own Shabbat table.

Although many of the offerings are lovely, I would have wanted both more depth from the original commentaries around each of the holidays as well as the particular offerings for individual holidays. Two pages of translations of the 4 Questions into other languages and a page of song parody for Purim feel like pointless additions, for example. Knowing the depth of poetic capacity of the movement apparent elsewhere in the book, I would have liked to see a deeper exploration of the humanistic meaning of Passover in particular.

Although Hebrew liturgy made up a small number of these texts, I was sorry these were not both more plentiful and better written. Many of the Hebrew re-writings of traditional liturgy included sound peculiar to this Hebrew speaker’s ear, several suffer from grammatical or spelling errors, and most don’t feel nearly as weighty as the liturgy they are replacing. The choice of Hebrew font was particularly unfortunate. A smaller critique of the Hebrew selections is the lack of a unified transliteration system. Each original piece is accompanied by the transliteration preferred by its author (and some pieces only include transliteration and no Hebrew writing). Although I understand that choice, it makes the collection lack a unified feeling. Much of the apparent oddness of these texts might have been ameliorated by including sheet music so that readers might know how they are actually used in a liturgical context (I went looking, and found at least some examples of how these liturgies are sung here.). Almost everything sounds better if sung to a melody that already sounds “traditional.”

As an outsider to Humanistic Judaism, my appreciation for these works, and my capacity to actually use them, is hampered by both lack of musical notation and lack of understanding as to how these liturgical pieces might fit into a fuller holiday or life cycle liturgy. A handful of sample service outlines would bridge the gap for many readers who have not experienced a Humanistic Jewish service firsthand. Although several pieces in this volume are labeled as a “full liturgy” or “sample service,” almost none seem substantial enough to actually fulfill that purpose. The closest example is the sample adult Purim service, which includes suggested songs between readings.

Although I found this book at times uneven, I did find several pieces I might use for my own purposes as Jewish clergy and as a parent in a Jewish home. This book would be particularly suited for secular Jews looking for more sustenance around life cycle events and Jewish holiday celebrations, and for those Jews who find themselves ambivalent about or who reject God language in most forms of Jewish prayer. It would also bring meaning to many inter-religious household practices.

Rabbi Ariann Weitzman is the Associate Rabbi and Director of Congregational Learning at Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue in Montclair, NJ.

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