Judaism Unbound Episode 84: The Jewish Catalog, Then and Now - Riv-Ellen Prell


Dan and Lex are joined by Anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell, author of Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism. Prell outlines the evolution, impact, and legacy of an important work called The Jewish Catalog, which was patterned after The Whole Earth Catalog and designed as a "Do-It-Yourself Kit" for living a Jewish life. She also discusses the broader political and social context within which it was published, comparing and contrasting the era of the late 60s and early 70s with the times in which we live today. [1]

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Image Credit: Riv-Ellen Prell

Image Credit: Riv-Ellen Prell

(0:01 - 18:51: In response to a question from Dan as to whether the project of Judaism Unbound resembles the projects of The Jewish Catalog and the havurah movement, [2] Prell provides an overview of the American context of the late 60s and early 70s, emphasizing the Baby Boomer generation that came of age during those years. She outlines some of the key characteristics and principles that came to define the activist work that occurred in this era and looks at some of the ways that Jews built communities based on those principles and on elements of the Judaism that they inherited (and hoped to re-invent). In the context of this background, Prell discusses the goals of the havurah movement and The Jewish Catalog for innovation in American-Jewish life. [3] In particular, she emphasizes the the aesthetics of The Jewish Catalog, giving her insights on what they reflected about its authors and the context in which they wrote. [4]

(18:52 - 30:32): Prell explores the extent to which The Jewish Catalog represented a radical form of transformation along with the ways that, while innovative, it did not seek to drastically re-invent Judaism itself. She asks whether the concept of "tradition" can, itself, be a radical one. She also comments on the central role that dynamics of authority play in all of these conversations, highlighting the term invoked in this podcast -- "unbound" -- asking, if there is an authority (God or otherwise) that Jews are bound to, or if, alternatively, Jews in 2017 are truly unbound. 

Image Credit: RareBookCellar.com

Image Credit: RareBookCellar.com

(30:33 - 53:35): In past episodes, guests (along with Dan and Lex) have reflected on the twin ideas of "folk Judaism" and "elite Judaism." [5] Prell explores and questions that duality, bringing expertise from her field of anthropology to that ongoing theme of the podcast. She also contrasts the era of the 60s and 70s with the context of our world in the 21st century. [6] To close the episode, Prell returns to the topic of the havurah, reflecting on its relationship to longstanding quest of American Jews to balance Jewishness and American-ness.

[1] For Riv-Ellen Prell's bio, click here. Order a copy of her book Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism by clicking here

[2] Learn more about The Jewish Catalog by reading this 2017 article, authored by Mark Oppenheimer and featured in Tablet, that reflects on its legacy, entitled "DIY Judaism."

[3] Prell explains that The Jewish Catalog's title, aesthetics, and framework were deeply influenced by The Whole Earth Catalog, and that it also drew from Our Bodies, Our Selves. Learn more about those influential works by clicking here (Whole Earth Catalog) and here (Our Bodies, Ourselves).

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[4] To read Marshall Sklare's critique of The Jewish Catalog, published in Commentary Magazine, click here. To read a wide variety of reader responses to it, including one from Rabbi Yitz (Irving) Greenberg, click here.

[5] For further discussion of the ideas of Folk and Elite Judaism, listen to Episode 77: Folk Judaism.

[6] Prell invokes recent debates about whether Gal Gadot, the star of Wonder Woman, is white, in comparing and contrasting the era of the 60s and 70s with our context in 2017. For an insightful article on this topic, we recommend "What Jews of Color Hear When You Say Gal Gadot Isn't White," written by Mark Tseng-Putterman and Rebecca Pierce and featured in The Forward.