Self-help handbooks help adults create Jewish homes and lives

The books also demonstrate the eagerness of Jewish teachers to accept students at various levels of development and learning, and to teach adults those basic skills and values that used to be learned by children, either at school or, more often, at home.

The tables of contents of "The How To Handbook for Jewish Living" and "The Second How To Handbook for Jewish Living" are instructive. They include such "how-to" topics as: making aliyah to the Torah, putting on a tallit, waving a lulav, lighting a chanukiah and memorial candle, putting up a mezuzah, dancing the hora, preparing for Shabbat, getting ready for Rosh Hashanah and making a blessing.

That such instruction is now necessary is sad. These were things that Jews used to learn by watching their parents. Now parents need a book in order to learn how to do these things themselves.

Surely the saddest comment I get every year is from the parent who says to me: "Rabbi, you have a wonderful Hebrew school! My child was able to conduct our whole seder, thanks to you." Whenever a parent says that to me I wince, because the whole idea of the seder is for the parent to tell the child what happened when we went out of Egypt. There is something bizarre about the child telling the parent the story.

Rabbis Kerry M. Olitzky and Ronald H. Isaacs, who wrote the "How To" handbooks, understand the realities of our time, and instead of bewailing the situation, they have set out to do something about it. They are convinced (and I hope that the response to these two volumes proves them right) that there is a generation out there that knows very little but cares very much, and that wants to learn the "hows" of Jewish life.

This generation wants to take ownership of its religious life and does not want to sit passively while the religious professionals pray for them or to them and perform all the rituals.

This generation wants to take an active role.

So there are chapters in the handbooks on how to make a sukkah, how to make matzah and how to celebrate a simcha. Readers will be instructed on blowing a shofar, leading a seder, braiding a challah. You can even read about how to visit the sick, and how to construct your own theology.

This handbook highlights one of the most significant changes now taking place in Jewish life. A generation ago Jews attended services in awesomely large sanctuaries, sat back docilely and watched what happened on the bimah, and listened respectfully to a rabbi who spoke from six feet above contradiction.

Now the awesome sanctuary is being replaced by smaller ones, with Shabbat services geared to differing spiritual needs. The rabbi today often wears a lapel mike and goes out into the congregation for a give-and-take discussion. And people take turns writing prayers or giving their responses to the Torah reading.

The handbooks' authors give readers the tools with which to proceed.

If you need some guidance or encouragement before taking on a new Jewish mitzvah, you will find this new second volume valuable. And if you want to understand the dynamics of Jewish life and the opportunities for renaissance that are unfolding — instead of just bewailing the situation — you will find this book instructive.