“Who Is a Jew?”

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Meryl Hyman, like scores of writers and thinkers before her, has weighed in on a fundamental question that has led to ongoing strife among the various branches of Judaism and that has, thus far, proved to be intractable of solution. She also points out how the convoluted political party situation in Israel has resulted in religious laws that impact the daily life of the people there, even the most secular. Some of these deal with who can legitimately perform marriages and conversions and, of course, who is to be considered a Jew.

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Hyman met with several eminent—and one or two “ordinary”—people in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel to discuss this vexing issue. A few of the people with whom she wanted to meet—mainly ultra-Orthodox rabbis—refused to see her. She did get to talk to numerous rabbis of all persuasions, persons high up in Jewish organizations and the former mayor of Jerusalem. Perhaps disappointingly to her, many agreed that she was not a Jew, but most at least had compassion for her sometimes palpable sense of frustration about her status.

Although the author writes with genuine feeling about a dilemma with which she has coped for much of her life, she has perhaps personalized the subject too much. By the very nature of its format, “WHO IS A JEW?”: CONVERSATIONS, NOT CONCLUSIONS is repetitious and sometimes a bit tedious to read. It is really suitable only for Jewish audiences.

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