Home-brewed Hebrews

Home-brewed Hebrews

For my first sukka, which I built in the early 1990s, I used two-by-fours and cinder blocks for the frame. The “walls” were billowing bed sheets, and I bought cornstalks for the roof. The whole project took most of a day and a few fingernails. While the result had a laid-back charm, it mostly looked like a fixer-upper in Hooverville. 

I’d gotten the plans out of The First Jewish Catalog, which even then was a bit of an artifact of the hippy-dippy ’70s, when it was published. The Catalog, subtitled “A Do-It-Yourself Kit,” was ostensibly a product of the Jewish counterculture, although most of its editors and contributors could boast excellent Jewish and even rabbinic educations. Its inspiration was The Whole Earth Catalog, a source of “tools and ideas” compiled by writer and activist Stewart Brand. In Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Innovators, he places Brand at the center of a “loose alliance of community organizers, communal-minded hippies, do-it-yourself hobbyists, and homebrew hackers, most of whom were suspicious of centralized authority.” The WEC listed books and offered advice about composting, primitive computing, star gazing, pottery making, low-cost shelters, and environmental theory and activism. 

The Jewish Catalog combined Whole Earth’s DIY ethos and antiauthoritarian spirit with a strong dose of Jewish tradition. Its tone was liberal and egalitarian, but it respected the Halacha. (It was published, after all, by the venerable Jewish Publication Society.) The Jewish Catalog had instructions on how to make a seder, craft your own tallit, and bake a hallah. Its target audience seemed to be young Jews who wanted to return to the traditions of their grandparents, but weren’t exactly sure how.

That was me when I discovered the Catalog, and in the first years of our marriage the only book that got more use was the Moosewood Cookbook. I consulted the Catalog when I didn’t know a blessing, was confused about kashrut, or needed a reminder about this thing called “Shemini Atzeret” (which was not, as it turned out, Sholom Aleichem’s less talented brother). 

“Do-it-yourself,” of course, flies in the face of another Jewish tradition — that is, consulting a rabbi. The Jewish Catalog, not surprisingly, was also a product of the havura movement. We belonged to a havura in those days. Prayers were led by congregants and decisions were reached by committee. In a pinch, we could consult a rabbi or Jewish scholar who happened to be sitting in the pews. 

Although both the Jewish and Whole Earth catalogues were essentially “outsider” enterprises, they both anticipated, and in some cases inspired, what became mainstream preoccupations.

In the case of the WEC, those included organic gardening, farm-to-table eating, “sustainable” architecture, alternative energy, and the “maker” movement. Ironically or not, it also birthed the tech fetishism and connectivity we live with today. Steve Jobs famously described the WEC as “sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.”

The Jewish Catalog, meanwhile, empowered an influential generation of Jewish leaders and lay people. It turned their discontent with the prevalent forms of synagogue and organizational Judaism into something homegrown and individualistic (and was criticized at the time for exactly that). Most of its contributors (and plenty of its readers) have gone on to lead congregations and Jewish organizations. You see its DNA in various projects that aim to provide new “tools” for under-educated or under-“engaged” Jews: the PJ Library of free Jewish books for young families, environmental organizations like Hazon and Urban Adamah, alternative spiritual communities like Ikar and Hadar, and how-to resources like MyJewishLearning and G-dcast.

Heady stuff, but what I remember best about the Jewish Catalog is how accessible and friendly it was. Jewish tradition — its texts, its language, its rituals, its relentless calendar, and its history — can be intimidating for those who didn’t grow up observant or Jewishly educated. There were other books on “making a Jewish home,” but they tended to be thick on technicalities and thin on assurances that “you can do it.” 

We stopped being “Catalog” Jews when we joined a synagogue led by a full-time rabbi, let a custodian clean up after kiddush — and ordered a pre-fab sukka. It has a metal frame that fits like Lego pieces, tarp walls attached with Velcro, and a large, one-piece bamboo mat for the roof. There isn’t a nail or screw in the whole thing. My middle son and I slapped it up in less than an hour last weekend. 

At this point I’m supposed to talk about how I miss our homely, do-it-yourself sukka, our homemade Jewish lives, the thrill of doing something for the first time. And there is some of that. But I feel we live a nice compromise between then and now. Judaism has always been a combination of home and institution, the street and the synagogue. Smart organizations are reaching people where they live and gently guiding them toward synagogues and organizations. And the best of them know that, while Judaism respects its past and reveres its authorities, there are some things you have to let people do for themselves.

read more: