This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Although meant to be a hip and humorous guide to modern Judaism, Lisa Alcalay Klug’s Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe requires forty years of patience to schlep through. The book is packed with what is meant to be cute little “yiddish-isms” that get tiresome very early on: shnooked, shtickl, sh’mantra… How many words starting with “sh” can you possibly fit into one book? The author herself states at one point that the “sh” words can go “…on and on without end!” It certainly seemed that way.
Klug’s writing style is sprinkled with awkward phrases that I can only guess are attempts at sounding hip and/or cute. Here’s an excerpt from the first page of the first chapter:
“…as a Heebster, you don’t just survive, you thrive! Being Jewish is about much more than bagels and loxy. It’s about moxie, about feeling Yiddishe foxy! Because when you’re of Da Tribe, you’ve got Da Vibe. It’s not about deprivation. It’s about celebration, exclamation and exaltation! When you embrace Da Place, you’re blessed with grace. So let go of the pain. You’re a link in the chain. Shun shame and embrace fame. Take charge and live large.”
If you thought the above excerpt was clever, then you should definitely check out this book. However, if you groaned when you read it, like I did, then you’ll have a tough time getting all the way through the guide. By the time I was done with this book, I was glad to leave all the “kabba lah lahs,” “oyPods” and “Mani’s” behind.
Another big problem with this book is that it is not very accessible to outsiders. I’m Jewish and attended religious school for over a decade and there were many jokes in “Cool Jew” that went over my head. I imagine non-Jewish readers will be quickly fazed by all the inside jokes.
The book is packed with quizzes that force you to turn the book upside down to find the answers. With a quiz appearing every third page or so, I was quickly tempted to start skipping the quizzes because I was tired of constantly flipping the book. It’s a shame, really, because the most interesting info about modern Judaism was located in the quizzes (such as different classic Jewish dishes and Yiddish words).
Not everything about this book was annoying. In between silly rap songs and overly-cutesy turns of phrase in modern Yiddish, occasional nuggets of interesting information shined through. For example, the descriptions of G-d and Birthmarks in the unfortunately titled Kabba Lah Lah chapter. And the descriptions of many Jewish dishes. And the multitude of Jewish-themed websites that I had no idea existed. It’s too bad a lot of the good stuff was buried beneath writing that tried too hard to be funny in a way that few will get.
And this might just be a personal peeve, but I was hoping for more information about the less mainstream Jews. Perhaps 80%-90% of the book was focused on Ashkenazi and Hasidic habits, dishes, customs, etc. There was mention of Shephardic Jews, but hardly any information about what differentiates them from the other groups. Bukharian Jews, of which there might be more than 50,000 living in the USA (concentrated mostly in Queens, NY) only get a mention about having a unique yarmulke and language (to add insult to injury, the word “Bukharian” is misspelled in one place). The section about the lost tribes of Israel would have been the perfect place to go into detail about the customs, traditions and cuisine of this sizable group that were cutoff from mainstream Jewry for over 2,000 years. I guess Klug thinks all Jews eat cholent, gribenes and herring (I’ve personally had none of the above).
The bottom line is this: there are some sections of Cool Jew that yield thoughtful and interesting information. Unfortunately, wading through Klug’s annoyingly insistent yiddishified language and humor will have you running to a different source for information about Jewry (Wikipedia?). Or, if you come from a European Jewish background, you might understand more of the book, but I can’t imagine how you could read this book without wincing at the non-stop barrage of bad puns.
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