Book Review: Finding Ourselves in the Crowd: What 18 Out-of-the-Box Jews Can Teach Us About Individuality in Orthodoxy by Gila Manolson (distributed by Feldheim Publishes 2020)
Reviewed by Rebecca Klempner
Gila Manolson, author of best-selling books The Magic Touch and Outside/Inside, has a new book out: Finding Ourselves in the Crowd: What 18 Out-of-the-Box Jews Can Teach Us About Individuality in Orthodoxy. Like the other two, it’s sure to be a conversation starter.
With approbations from Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz and Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits, Manolson explores the paths taken by Jews whose professions, life choices, or causes raised eyebrows in the community, yet who stayed firmly on the path of what we call “Torah Judaism.” As Rabbi Breitowitz points out, it’s virtually impossible for any reader to agree with every person profiled here. (I winced a couple of times, just as I cheered on many of the other people in the book.) Nonetheless, their life stories tell us a lot about how to identify our tafkid, our unique role in life, and how to negotiate barriers in the observant world. Some of these have more to do with culture and custom than Torah law, but learning to work around them is necessary for anyone who wants to stay in the community.
The individuals profiled include some relatively famous trailblazers like Rabbi Natan Slifkin (“The Zoo Rabbi”) and Ann Koffsky (an author/illustrator who advocates for women’s images in Jewish media) as well as less famous ones. The latter includes the subjects of the two chapters which moved me the most: Dr. Rachel Levmore, the author of Spare Your Eyes Tears and the creator of the Israeli version of the halachic prenuptial agreement, describing her path to Talmud study and advocacy for agunos; and “Dr. Devorah Horowitz,” a Chassidishe psychologist who specializes in abuse-related trauma.
In a line drawn from the words of the Piaseczner Rebbe, Manolson urges readers, “Are you a unique individual or just part of the human race? Differentiate. Reveal what makes you special. Become a person who chooses, and serve Hashem.” To accomplish this, Manolson and her subjects urge Jews not only to delve into their more unusual drives and talents, but to get guidance from teachers and rebbeim who know us well to ensure we don’t truly leave the path of Torah.
The message of Finding Ourselves in the Crowd could not be more timely. Dr. Miriam Leah Gamliel, an arts activist in the Orthodox world, recently published an article in Editage (Feb. 18, 2020) based on her dissertation research. In it, she writes that many of the artists she interviewed as part of her project who were born Orthodox left the Orthodox world when they were told their creativity had no place in the community.
Finding ways to include “out-of-the-box” thinkers in our Orthodox communities doesn’t just give us music we like to listen to and museums we like to visit. It feeds the souls of our fellow Jews and keeps our community whole. Manolson’s book can therefore not only serve as a guide for the “creative types” among us, but a reminder of what we can lose if we don’t make space for them.