Culture, Religion

What will be our Jewish Catalog?

Over at Nextbook, one woman’s musings about the role of The Jewish Catalog (the first, need you ask?) in her life and on her parents’ shelf.
I like the way she describes the ubiquitous nature of The Jewish Catalog.

““On the ‘hip’ level,” she told me recently, “we were probably down in the negative range.”
But some things were, perhaps, unavoidable then, like inane news about Lindsay Lohan is today. By the time I was born in 1975, our house was punctuated with little emblems of the era; these shone for me like beacons. Despite my parents’ heavy Neil Diamond predilection, for instance, some Joan Baez and Simon and Garfunkel albums seemed to have fallen from a planet of fairies into our living room. My parents had chunky macramé plant hangers and trippy Marimekko hangings on the wall. And on their bookshelf was an oversized red volume called The Jewish Catalog.
The Jewish Catalog, a 320-page tome first published in 1973, was not necessarily a hippie artifact. But it had a profound effect on me growing up that I associated with hippie culture, subtly signaling that Judaism, like life, was a sort of groovy pursuit to be embarked upon however you wished.”

I had a similarly surprising experience while searching through my bubbie’s shelves a few years ago for a siddur; I found two copies of Gates of Repentance with High Holiday tickets from 1973 and, you guessed it, an original copy of The Jewish Catalog. My bubbie was even farther from the world of happy hippies and their handmade kippot; she was the one yelling at my mother to be in by 11pm when she was in college and at my father to cut his hair and get a job.
About integrating past experience with Judaism with a do-it-yourself spirit:

“Most of their friends had copies of The Jewish Catalog, and for my mother, it was a user-friendly guide to a Jewish life she had never actually lived. Suddenly making Shabbat dinners, she mined it for recipes and information on the order of blessings. Celebrating holidays other than Passover and Rosh Hashanah, she consulted it for instructions on how to, say, decorate a sukkah. For my yeshiva-educated father, who was well acquainted with much of the information contained in the Catalog, it was meaningful in a different way. Like many kids who grew up Orthodox in the generation following the Holocaust, he’d grown up thinking Judaism was a strict, dour affair, but the catalog was evidence to him that in fact it could be fun. Together, my parents used it to help craft an earnest, positive Jewish household. And when I discovered it on their bookshelf, The Jewish Catalog let me believe that somewhere out there beyond the cut lawns and latticework sidewalks of suburban Chicago was an even greater Jewish fantasy world where everyone really did sit around crocheting yarmulkes and sewing needlepoint challah covers, and they looked really happy doing it. Jews looking happy being Jewish. Amazing.”

What will our generation of thinkers and innovators’ contribution to this spirit be? Will it be a book? Will it be havurot that last? Will it be our blogs? And can this maybe move from fantasy to reality (or has it already done so)?
Full article here.

6 thoughts on “What will be our Jewish Catalog?

  1. Yay Jewish Catalog!!!
    I found two copies of Gates of Repentance with High Holiday tickets from 1973
    Weird! Gates of Repentance wasn’t even published until 1978. (My parents have a copy, with a handwritten inscription from my grandfather, dated 1979, saying “To Ploni and Plonit, for whom the new year promises to bring fulfillment something something.” He meant me!) She must have really cared about those tickets, to move them to the new machzor when the time came.
    Will it be havurot that last?
    Is this intended as a jab at the old-school havurot? If so, please explain. Most of the major havurot of the Jewish Catalog era are still around, whether or not they are communities that you or I would want to be part of.

  2. Ha!
    When describing my parents to new friends/dates, etc, I often simply say, “You know, they were Jewish catalog Jews”, which for me meant shorthand for “they grew up in boring, uninspiring urban bar-mitzvah/confirmation class factory-farm style Conservative synagogues and used the Jewish Catalog to learn all that neat hippie Jew stuff that I always thought was just a part of being Jewish.”

  3. I have a copy! I bought it at a used bookstore for 5 shekels (like most of the other books in my house which are really and exceptionally important to me), and it always makes me cry just a little bit. really.

  4. And, to follow Mobius’ correction, the Jewish Catalog is Shocken Books’ second most popular title (behind the bible). It was and is both ubiquitous and informative, and it was intended to be the Jewish version of the Whole Earth Catalog (the similarities between the Jewish and Whole Earth Catalogs) demand a bit more than this space affords, but my question is: do the “we,” implied in the post’s title “need” a Jewish Catalog? or does the Jewish Catalog fit the bill just fine, thank you (aesthetics notwithstanding)?

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