The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia

How does one review an encyclopedia? Look specific things up in it? Dip into it randomly? Read it in order cover-to-cover?

I suppose one solution is for us to look up a term that we are familiar with, and then evaluate the entry for that term. Repeat for more entries. This method might work for a conventional encyclopedia, but The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between is not any sort of conventional encyclopedia. Very few items have long, thorough entries; most (with some major exceptions) have just a sentence or two, more like a dictionary. Also, it makes no pretense of being objective, and its points of view shine through in many places. Feel free to ask questions, to disagree — this is a Jewish encyclopedia, after all! The blurb on the back cover (self-serving, of course, like all such blurbs) describes it this way: “a deeply knowing, highly entertaining, and yes, just a little bit irreverent, this unputdownable encyclopedia of all things Jewish and Jew-ish covers culture, religion, history, habits, language, and more.” That may be self-serving, but I’ll buy all of it. It’s all of that. I even learned a lot from this book.

Which brings us back to the original question: how to “read” and review an encyclopedia? I settled on a compromise: skim it cover-to-cover in order, but stop to read only those entries that instantly grab my attention. That worked pretty well. Try it yourself; you’ll like it.

I ought to give a representative sample of the terms in the encyclopedia. But how to do that? With such a diverse field, it’s not at all clear what’s representative. So I settled on a compromise, just as I did with the reading: I will give you the first term on every 25th page, which should be relatively random. Here’s what I found:

p. 25: Bagel Jews.

p. 50: Break-fast.

p. 75: Delicatessen.

p. 100: Food and Jews.

p. 125: Havdalah.

p. 150: Judea and Samaria.

p. 175: Maus.

p. 200: Politics and Jews.

p. 225: Sarah.

p. 250: Spinagogue.

p. 275: Uganda.

p. 300: YIVO.

OK, that’s pretty representative. And pretty random. The only one I had never even heard of was “spinagogue,” which is defined as

the twenty-first-century practice of attending Soul-Cycle on Jewish holiday as a way to reflect, recharge, and tap it back.

Who knew?

Categories: Books, Life