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Authentic Jewish Voice?

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I'm writing about Jewish characters, but I'm not Jewish myself nor do I know anyone who is. How can I learn to write with an authentic Jewish voice? I'm not really looking to write a religious book, but I know being Jewish must have some affect on who they are, right? How do I find that out?
#1 - June 21, 2011, 09:23 PM

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Hi Jillifish,  It really depends on the kind of character you're talking about.  A yenta style bubbie? A grandfather (Zayda)?  Is your novel set in present day?  will your characters use any Hebrew words?  Yiddish words?  For example, growing up my grandma (bubbie) would throw Yiddish words into conversations.  something like:  "Did you see Helen's daughter yesterday?  Such a shana punim on that girl.". Shana punim is Yiddish for beautiful face.  Also, are you looking for the voice or more of the culture?  I'm happy to help however I can. Do you live in a city?  If so, there are JCC's in most larger ones.  That's Jewish Community Center.  You could sit there  for a while and get a feel for it.  Or even go to a temple for Friday night services.  Though that would be getting more into the religious aspects and you mentioned this isn't a religious story. One more thing... There are some great books and movies to check out too.
#2 - June 21, 2011, 11:53 PM

Well, there's a range of Jewish characters: Twelve year old quintuplets, their older siblings, their parents and grandparents. Hebrew is good, but I don't think they'd speak Yiddish. That's just Ashkenazi Jews, right? My characters are Sephardic. And I'm thinking they're Conservative.
#3 - June 22, 2011, 12:15 AM

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Barbara  Krasner has a blog called The Whole Megillah. You might check there for info.  http://thewholemegillah.wordpress.com/

anita
#4 - June 22, 2011, 06:31 AM

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Would you ask how to write an authentic Chriistian voice? Probably not, because every Christian person is unique.  So is every Jewish person. There are many kinds of Jewish voices. I'm Jewish, but most people wouldn't know that just by talking to me. And most people wouldn't know someone's Christian just by talking to them. Just like Christians speak differently depending on where they live, how old they are, how educated, etc., so do Jews.
#5 - June 22, 2011, 07:36 AM
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Debby G, you're absolutely right, of course... and yet, I can pick up a book and know what the author is trying to tell me about a character if they use a particular voice – that voice might be Jewish. It doesn't mean ALL Jewish people speak like that but it means that particular character does and so I know they are very likely to be Jewish.

#6 - June 22, 2011, 08:04 AM

Just thought I'd share my experience when I was working on an historical fiction novel with a main character who was Jewish and whose family was religious.  My writing group had several Jewish members and they all told me to consider rewriting the story with a non-Jewish main character because there were so many small details of my characters' daily lives that would be hard to write for me to write authentically as a non-Jew.  At the time, I was pretty upset and indignant, as I'd spent a lot of time on my manuscript and didn't see any reason why I couldn't, with research and the help of Jewish readers and friends, get the details right. The main character had to be Jewish as she was based on a real person from history.     In retrospect and after writing several other books with characters outside my race/religion/culture,  I am starting to see what they meant.  Authenticity is really important these days, and there are going to be a lot of critics out there who will be on the look out for those tiny details... so I think you are facing a challenge.   However I'd be the last person to say "don't do it," because I also feel that writers are constantly jumping into other people's skins and trying to see the world as they do, and have every right to do this.   You're smart to get some opinions and advice on this.     Good luck! 
#7 - June 22, 2011, 09:35 AM

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I agree that you'd need certain authentic details throughout the story, but I don't know that this extends to the character's voice, per se. One middle grade book about to be released is BEYOND LUCKY, by Sarah Aronson. The main character is Jewish, but the story isn't about being Jewish, even though the MC's bar mitzvah is coming up (but never plays out in the actual story). If you took away all of the references to Judiaism, I would not be able to tell that this character is Jewish just from his voice.

Hope that makes sense...
#8 - June 22, 2011, 02:33 PM
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I do have some Jewish references, such as the quints wearing Star of David necklaces and eating grilled cheese for lunch (instead of a burger) so they can have ice cream for dessert. But I'm not sure if that's enough?
#9 - June 22, 2011, 02:55 PM

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I don't know that this is necessarily a voice thing. It's more of a "you don't know what you don't know" problem and it can happen any time you are writing out of your place and/or time.

I am writing a book that takes place in 1939 Northern Ireland. There's a lot I don't know about that place and time, and it's tough finding accurate details that make it real.

I don't think this is a matter of voice, but more a "getting the facts right" problem that can be so hard to do. Perhaps by voice you mean the expressions characters use, etc?

anita
#10 - June 22, 2011, 03:34 PM

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#11 - June 28, 2011, 06:01 PM

There is a lot of diversity within the Jewish community and a wide spectrum of belief and practice, just as you find in the Christian community.  The big elements of practice are whether and how your characters keep kosher (what they eat), whether and how they keep Shabbat (rest/prayer on the seventh day of the week), whether and how they observe the Jewish holidays, and whether and how they celebrate life-cycle events like births, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage, and death.  Once you've addressed those in a consistent way, then you can start to address specific elements of language and culture. Oy! That does sound like a lot of work.
#12 - June 28, 2011, 06:29 PM
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#13 - June 28, 2011, 09:51 PM

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Tem2 makes a good point. There are many varieties of Judaism. Not as broad as Christianity, with people being Baptist, Lutheran, Protestant, etc., but pretty broad. There are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Chabad, and Reconstructionist synagogues, and many Jews don't belong to a synagogue at all.

To use your example, I'm a Reform Jew and don't keep kosher, so I wouldn't have to worry about having ice cream for dessert after a meat meal. Some Reform Jews do keep kosher, but consider dessert a separate course so wouldn't worry about it anyway. Most Orthodox Jews keep kosher and wouldn't eat ice cream after having meat at their meal. Some people who keep kosher have separate plates, utensils, cooking items, etc. for meat vs. milk dishes. Some Conservative Jews keep kosher and some don't. Some Jews keep kosher just by avoiding shellfish and pork. Some keep kosher at home, but not when they go out or are at someone else's house.

I have a Jewish star necklace that I wear sometimes, maybe once a month. Some Jews may wear it every day, just because of their personality, not their religious beliefs. Some Jews may never wear one. (It's like whether a Christian wears a necklace with a cross around her neck.)

Jewish culture tends to emphasize getting a good education, close families, celebrating with food, and strong women. However, every Jew is different and you wouldn't want to stereotype. E.g. having a fat, nagging Jewish mother character could be offensive.

I think if you want to write a Jewish character without knowing any Jewish people, you owe it to Jewish people to do a lot of research first and write with care. There's a lot more to Judaism than wearing Star of David necklaces and not eating a burger and ice cream at the same meal.
#14 - June 29, 2011, 07:05 AM
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You don't have to be Jewish to write an authentic-seeming 'Jewish voice,' but you should be very familiar, and have a fantastic ear.

I feel this about anyone writing not from their 'own world.'
#15 - June 29, 2011, 12:11 PM
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Excellent advice and help from all of the above.
I got strange looks last week when I told a small room of strangers that I could never drink a glass of milk with meat. I don't keep kosher. It's the way we were raised at home.  No mixing milk and meat. There are cultural parts of the religion that seep in whether you follow the religion to the letter and law. :>

I just have to mention here -- with a smile-- that I took a quick look at the original poster's name and I thought it was "GefilteFilsh." (For the record, a Jewish food staple that I wouldn't eat without a hammer to my head.)  :!

Maybe I'm in need of a laugh because THAT made me laugh!

#16 - June 29, 2011, 02:38 PM

Jillifish, I'm curious . . . what made you want to write about Jewish characters? I have to admit, as a Jew, I was a little flummoxed when I read your question. Then I thought about a picture book of mine that's coming out soon which takes place in Cameroon in the 1930s. I've never been to Cameroon or even Africa, and I don't know anyone from Cameroon. I did it because I had a story I really wanted to tell based on something that really happened, so it had to be Cameroon. I relied partly on book research and partly on correspondence with a woman who grew up in Cameroon during that time, who was very generously willing to help me out.

I think the reason I felt okay about doing this was that (a) it's historical, (b) there aren't a ton of Cameroonian children's authors writing for the U.S. market, and (c) it's a picture book. (Writing a novel would have required a depth of understanding of the culture that I couldn't possibly acquire without living there.) I don't know what grade level you're writing for, or whether your book is contemporary or historical, but you are up against a major challenge, which is that there are many many many Jewish authors writing about Jewish characters--and also, editors who read your work may very well be Jewish themselves, and almost certainly will know plenty of Jews.

I don't know if you feel like sharing more about your project, but I suspect I'm not the only one who's curious!
#17 - June 29, 2011, 03:30 PM
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you wouldn't want to stereotype. E.g. having a fat, nagging Jewish mother character could be offensive...

That's true. All the nagging Jewish mothers I know are quite trim.

*ducks from flying objects*
#18 - June 29, 2011, 03:36 PM
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I've read books where the author had me totally convinced they knew the culture. And I've read books about some part of the American subculture I'm a part of and wanted to throw them because they were so off. It's the small details that convince or turn the reader off. You don't want to sound like a tourist looking in. You want to sound like a voice coming from within. Hard for sure--but not impossible.
#19 - June 29, 2011, 03:45 PM

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A non-Jewish friend of mine wrote a Jewish book last year, and won lots of awards for it in the Jewish community. It can be done.  But he'd worked for years at the Yiddish Book Center, spent a year researching the novel, etc.  It isn't something you want to just "add on."  Because yeah, as a Jewish reader, I'd be very bothered if I read a book that didn't ring true, especially if it was stereotyping.
#20 - June 29, 2011, 10:23 PM

My story is a MG mystery. I really don't understand how some people can say that there is basically nothing to it, that Jewish voices sound like any other except for Jewish references, but then others make it sound like I haven't any hope of sounding authentic unless I was raised Jewish. I'm confused.

I'm trying to study, but the more I read books with Jewish characters, the confused I'm getting. I'm not seeing much different from myself, except occasional words in Hebrew or Yiddish. What kinds of little details am I missing? What books or videos or whatever should I study so I can write more confidently? I'm very sorry, but I just don't understand.
#21 - June 29, 2011, 10:37 PM

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Jillifish, I understand that it is a bit frustrating to get lots of different answers and seeming riddles when you just probably want THE KEY... but the fact is, there pretty much isn't such a thing as a *universal* Jewish experience, and no two Jewish readers are going to approach a text in the same way. It is like if you were to write from the perspective of a teenage boy -- there are billions of teenage boys. You can't say "this is what teenage boys are like always" because they AREN'T. They just aren't. But somehow, the reader can feel if the voice "rings true" -- it isn't something you achieve just by throwing in some gameboy references or curse words -- voice something a bit more elemental and difficult to pin down then that, and is highly dependent on the character.

Where were they raised, what is their income level, who were their parents, grandparents, is the family together, how long have they been in this country, how old are they, what kind of food do they like, are they good in school, are they a rebel, what is their personality like... etc etc.   I am not saying you have to ANSWER these questions in the text, or describe it all in the least -- I just mean, all these things will inform a character's voice and contribute to their authenticity, as much as (or more than) whether or not they are Jewish.

...you are up against a major challenge, which is that there are many many many Jewish authors writing about Jewish characters--and also, editors who read your work may very well be Jewish themselves, and almost certainly will know plenty of Jews.

This is a fact. 

You might have heard the old story about the town where they had to remove the clock because every Jew that came by reset it according to his watch.

In other words - you are likely to get a thousand answers for what a Jewish Voice is like and what Authentic Jews sound like and whether or not you should even try... and none of them are likely to be the right answer. Or any of them might be. And maybe the answer is, remove the clock, and just tell the story the way you want to tell it.
#22 - June 29, 2011, 10:57 PM
« Last Edit: June 29, 2011, 11:01 PM by literaticat »
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I think another reason for the contradictory-seeming advice is that it depends at what level you're drawing the character. If you were writing a realistic story about this character's home and religious life, then you would need to get it absolutely right. I think you mentioned something (in a post that's gone now?) about a Jewish camp as a setting--that would be a toughie if you've never been to one.

But in a lighthearted mystery you might have a Jewish character with little or nothing particularly Jewish in the characterization, and it could be fine, because most American Jews are pretty typically American in most ways. In that case, you just need to be careful about throwing in the Jewish touches. (There's a chapter book series that absolutely makes me cringe because it has a Hispanic boy who is always saying "Si!" and stuff like that. He speaks fluent English, but he just can't seem to remember the simplest words.)

I write a chapter book mystery series with a multicultural cast, but there is nothing especially "black" or "Hispanic" or "Asian" about the black and Hispanic and Asian characters. I haven't gotten any complaints, because it's written on a light, humorous level and it's meant to reflect ordinary suburban kids in a typical chapter book style. If I started tossing in ethnic details, I think it would grate.

In other words, you might be fine without the magen David or the kashrut, but once you include it, you need to know what you're talking about. (For instance, that had better be kosher beef in the hamburgers they're not eating, if they are concerning themselves with whether they can eat ice cream afterward! And they would certainly have two sets of dishes.) And you need to be characterizing non-Jewish characters at the same level.

Did you say . . . quints?
#23 - June 30, 2011, 06:21 AM
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I think another reason for the contradictory-seeming advice is that it depends at what level you're drawing the character. If you were writing a realistic story about this character's home and religious life, then you would need to get it absolutely right. I think you mentioned something (in a post that's gone now?) about a Jewish camp as a setting--that would be a toughie if you've never been to one.

But in a lighthearted mystery you might have a Jewish character with little or nothing particularly Jewish in the characterization, and it could be fine, because most American Jews are pretty typically American in most ways. In that case, you just need to be careful about throwing in the Jewish touches. (There's a chapter book series that absolutely makes me cringe because it has a Hispanic boy who is always saying "Si!" and stuff like that. He speaks fluent English, but he just can't seem to remember the simplest words.)

More excellent points from Mara!  :ladybug:

There is a huge difference between a serious family story, and a lighthearted mystery. Fact is, in most situations that would come up in a typical middle grade mystery, there'd be no reason for anyone to know that a kid is Jewish, Hindu, or anything else. An observant Jewish kid isn't thinking "now, I mustn't eat dairy with meat, for I am a Jew!" -- they just wouldn't eat it, and so why would they mention it (or why would the narrator mention it) - for cryin out loud, there are mysteries to solve!

In Laurel Snyder's book ANY WHICH WALL (she's OhMyLorelei above), the family is Jewish. There is no particular indication that they are, aside from their surname. They don't go to shul or observe shabbat or speak Yiddish or anything else. It doesn't come up, as far as I recall. They are just Jewish.  (Like, I am an atheist. I don't mention it, there is no reason you would know it, I just AM. My neighbor is a very observant Catholic. She doesn't talk about church or God all the time, we generally talk about gardening or weather or gossip about the other neighbors. There is no reason you'd know it unless you happened to go to her house between 9 and 10 and observe the fact that she goes to Mass every day, or if you had dinner with her on Fridays and noted that there was fish being served.

People's faith (or lack of it) is often marked by what they DON'T do. If I were writing a lighthearted mystery story about my neighbor, I would probably not mention the fish or ashes on her forehead (because the story doesn't have to do with dinner or Ash Wednesday). Her character would be straitlaced, neat, well-put-together, older, kind but conservative, slightly old-fashioned but generally good-hearted. I would never say "she doesn't curse because she is a strictly observant Catholic" -- she just would never curse. 

I have no idea if I am being helpful or making things more confusing, so I will shut up now.   :flower
#24 - June 30, 2011, 07:02 AM
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Well I'm a religious mutt - my Jewish mother decided to start attending the Episcopal church prior to my birth - so I was baptized and confirmed as an Episcopal.  Then I attended Catholic high school along with my Jewish first cousins.

In the South, there's not a huge "Jewish" culture.  My cousins are all Reform jews, don't keep Kosher, rarely go to temple, and put up Christmas trees every year.  We did celebrate Passover at my aunt's house every year.  But as for voice?  We sounded like every other south Alabama redneck on the block.  I just grew up knowing what a goy was.  And a few other choice Yiddish words.  I loved matzah ball soup.  But we were big ham eaters!  So like others have said, I don't think there's a prescription for Jewish voice.
#25 - June 30, 2011, 07:29 AM
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I guess I'm curious why you're so interested in writing Jewish characters, when you say you aren't sure what that is.  I mean, I think it's amazing how writing can expose us to new ideas/people, teach us about the world beyond our own experience. But I'm just curious what the appeal is.  Why a Jewish character and not a Muslim one? Or Hndu? Or whatever?

As a Jew, and a mom, I am always on the lookout for books for my kids to read.  But as someone said about, that's as much about what isn't in them as what is.  Things to NOT put in a Jewish book (unless there is a reason to address them from a Jewish perspective):

Jesus. Christmas. Easter. Easter Candy. Christmas presents. Santa Clause. Church. Sunday Dinner.  Crosses.  Depending on the family, Halloween is also out, and Valentines Day, and so on.  A lot of families that don't keep kosher simply never have pork around. It's cultural, not religious. They just wouldn't have bacon. Or if they do, it's got a joke attached to it, or defiance.  They wouldn't eat ham.

In fact, much of the Jewish experience is an "outsider" experience. That's not something you can just add in. For instance: It is INFURIATING that people have birthday parties for their kids on Saturday morning, when (for people who go to shul, that's not a time we can do things). Jewish families more often have kid birthday parties on Sunday, because there's no conflict for us that day. Make sense? It's not about dropping in random Yiddishism, it's that if you have a kid who is religious, you can't then send them to a birthday party on Saturday.  Or off to "solve a mystery."

It all depends on the book you're writing.  If you just want to name the family a Jewish name, to add diversity to a book, you can do that. But then they can't (without some amount of discussion or confusion or conflict) engage with the trappings of Christianity. Even in a secular Jewish family, there's going to be a conversation at the dinner table about the "Winter Holiday Festival" at the school.    Or whatever.  The 4th of July parade with all the church floats. The fact that the next door neighbors have a crucifix on the wall.  Which would freak them out. A minority character, on some level, lives differently in the world. So you have to AVOID that stuff if you don't want to engage it.

The other thing I'll say is that the BIG warning is when someone writes something with a Jewish character (I've taught kids who do this) who use words wrong, or use the wrong words altogether, in an attempt to sound Jewish.  Dropping an Oy Vey at a moment that doesn't ring true.  Or having someone randomly say Shalom.  Weird.  Also--JEWS DON'T EVER USE THE WORD YAHWEH!  That's a Christian word, though for some reason people think it belongs to us. The minute I see it anywhere, I basically assume evangelical Christianity.  Oh, and we don't say "The Old Testament."  Because to us there isn't a new one.  Etc. Etc.

I'm going on too long, but I think my point is that it's less about what you put in, and more about how your characters react to "the what." Whether Woody Allen or Chaim Potak or EL Konigsberg, there's a relationship of Jewish characters to the world. The deeper you go, the more you reveal it.  I think this is why you've gotten such a range of answers. One one level, writing a secular Jew is easy because, "They're basically like everyone else." On the other hand, there are deep levels of detail that will, in a real Jewish character, reveal themselves if you peel back a layer.  Nervousness in the majority culture. Resentment over Xmas holdiday. Jealousy over Xmas.  The experience, in a kid, of having to miss school for the fall holidays and then make up the work.  From a young age, on some level, minorities are learning to be minorities. Even in secular, affluent, happy homes.  That's going to be very hard to drop into a book. 

I think you can write in a Jewish name, and have Jewish friends vet the book for you. But if you want to write REAL Jewish identity, you've got a lot of mulling to do. And you should hang around a bunch of Jews!
#26 - June 30, 2011, 07:35 AM

Dropping an Oy Vey at a moment that doesn't ring true.  Or having someone randomly say Shalom.  Weird. 

And if I may indulge in a totally random airing of a pet peeve: CHUTZPAH IS NOT AN ADMIRABLE QUALITY! Despite that bizarre ad campaign way back when about "the spaghetti sauce with chutzpah," it does not mean "moxie" or "spunk" or anything like that. It means "nerve" in a bad way, often involving hypocrisy. Like a politician who preaches family values while he's cheating on his wife. That's chutzpah.
#27 - June 30, 2011, 07:47 AM
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Right!  And "kvell" isn't just to be excited and happy. It's sort of braggy, not in a bad way. But it's an accomplishment. You don't "kvell" over ice cream, but maybe if your kid made ice cream from scratch, ou'd kvell over the fact that they did it so well!

I'm Jewish, and I write Jewish characters and books, and I still get VERY nervous and have my work vetted by a range of Jewish folks, to make sure I'm not missing something.
#28 - June 30, 2011, 08:05 AM

And, you know, there's no way to be sure that NOBODY will see something as inauthentic. I recently sold my first Jewish-themed PB and there was much back-and-forth and tweaking to make it clear that a character was the type of Jew who might do X but not Y. But I feel certain that when it comes out there will be people who object.
#29 - June 30, 2011, 08:14 AM
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Literaticat has a great point about what a character simply doesn't do as being an important part of their character. You don't have to make a big deal about it, you just have to get it right. Like if you were writing about a Mormon character, you would never ever put a cup of coffee in their hands. You wouldn't need to make a big deal about it--you would just leave it out. So like Ohmylorelei says, they're not going to get excited about Christmas. (Or if they do, it's with the realization something is not right about that.) They're not going to be chowing down on bacon at camp. They're going to be American, yes, but there may be points where they recognize where they are at odds with the rest of America as well.

The biggest problem for you is that you may not know any Jews, but the highest concentration of Jewish-Americans happens to be in the same place publishing makes its headquarters. The same people judging your writing will be the very people you are writing about. So...it will be a challenge. (But we writers like challenges, right?)

When I was a kid I lived in New Jersey. Half my friends were Catholic and half were Jewish. So in elementary school, my Catholic friends went to CCD during the week, and my Hebrew friends went to Hebrew school. (I went to primary.) We didn't go through all the details together, but we were all aware that there was this extra religious education we all had some night of the week.

I once ran across a book for Muslim teens about how to be a regular American kid but true to your beliefs. I can't remember the title--but I wonder if there is something like that for Jewish kids? That would be a great resource, because it would show you where the culture aligns with generic America and where it doesn't. (And yes--there are all kinds of Jews like there are all kinds of Christians--but it would give you a range, at least.)

I think one of the most important things you can do is have someone from within the culture read your draft before you submit it anywhere. Just to catch things in context that you may not be aware of. You may not know any Jews in person, but if you post an open request in the crit section here or on the SCBWI boards, looking for someone to especially keep an eye on that aspect of the book, you might be able to find someone.

I guess my question for everyone else is, for a writer who wants to get it right, what are the best kinds of sources to look at? For example, ARE there any kind of publications for Jewish kids/teens aimed at being Jewish in the regular world? Of course there are so many different ways of being Jewish--but sometimes when you're researching, you need enough background info so that you know what questions you need to be asking.

And yes, as Mara and Ohmylorelei say, no matter how much research you do and how many people vet it, there will always be people who object.
#30 - June 30, 2011, 08:26 AM

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