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February 11 , 2009

Contemporary American Judaism

Transformation and Renewal


No longer controlled by a handful of institutional leaders based in remote headquarters and rabbinical seminaries, American Judaism is being transformed by the spiritual decisions of tens of thousands of Jews living in all corners of the United States. A pulpit rabbi and himself an American Jew, Dana Evan Kaplan follows this religious individualism from its postwar suburban roots to the hippie revolution of the 1960s and the multiple postmodern identities of today.

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From Hebrew tattooing to Jewish Buddhist meditation, Kaplan describes the remaking of historical tradition in ways that channel multiple ethnic and national identities. While pessimists worry about the vanishing American Jew, Kaplan focuses on the creative responses to contemporary spiritual trends that have made a Jewish religious renaissance possible. He believes that the reorientation of American Judaism has been a "bottom up" process, resisted by elites who have only reluctantly responded to the demands of the "spiritual marketplace." The American Jewish denominational structure is therefore weakening at the same time that religious experimentation is rising, leading to innovative approaches that are supplanting existing institutions. The result, as Kaplan makes clear, is an exciting transformation of what it means to be a religious Jew in twenty-first century America.

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