Zack Bodner speaks during a book launch event at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, Oct. 14, 2021. (Photo/Saul Bromberger)
Zack Bodner speaks during a book launch event at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, Oct. 14, 2021. (Photo/Saul Bromberger)

In new book, Palo Alto JCC boss wants you to ‘do Jewish’

American Jewish lingo is full of Yiddishisms that need no translation, such as shmoozing and shvitzing. But tachlis, meaning “getting down to business” or “getting down to brass tacks,” is less commonly used.

Zack Bodner, the president and chief executive officer of the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, wants to reinvent the word, and in doing so, provide a new framework for Jewish living.

In his new book, “Why Do Jewish? A Manifesto for 21st Century Jewish Peoplehood,” published Oct. 19 by Israel-based Gefen Publishing House and available from Amazon on Nov. 25, Bodner claims that Judaism is losing its relevance in the daily lives of many American Jews.

“Today, in the 21st century, living Jewishly ought to mean more than who your mother was,” he writes in the book’s first chapter. “Doing Jewish means taking some specific actions, living by some specific values, celebrating some specific moments, and recognizing you are part of some specific family.”

In an interview with J., Bodner said his personal version of “doing Jewish” (a phrase used in recent years by synagogues, JCCs and Jewish thinkers all over the country) is complicated and being fine-tuned on a regular basis. For instance, his Israeli in-laws, who live across the street from his wife and three children in Silicon Valley, eat shellfish, but he doesn’t. Does that mean his children shouldn’t, either?

His response to this question comprises the thesis of his book: Learn what you like and don’t like about Jewish culture, religion and practices, then decide for yourself which aspects and values you want to embrace.

“I really do feel like if they are willing to be thoughtful, and come to their own conclusions about how they want to do Jewish, and not just have what’s been shoved down their throat, I’ll be proud of them,” Bodner said of his children, who are 17, 14 and 9. “Even if I disagree with them.”

In the 241-page book, a pandemic project, Bodner presents a roadmap for how others can “do Jewish” by using tachlis as an acronym: T: tikkun olam. A: art and culture. C: community. H: holidays and rituals. L: learning. I: Israel. S: Shabbat and spirituality.

Not using “Torah” as the “T” was intentional, Bodner said. The book is meant for the vast majority of American Jews who identify as secular, and he writes about Judaism more as a lifestyle than a religion.

“Folks can read it and say, ‘This is a menu for secular Judaism. This is a roadmap for cultural Judaism,’” he said. “And those who are more observant or more halachic might look at it and say, ‘You know, this is not legitimate.’ But I’m hoping not.”

In a nod to the cultural Judaism Bodner celebrates, items served at an Oct. 14 book launch at the Palo Alto JCC included pastrami sandwiches on rye, bagels and lox, and chocolate babka. In attendance were Bodner’s friends and family and curious others, not all of them Jewish.

One of them was Julie Grabscheid of Mountain View, a Christian whose husband is Jewish. She said their two teenage daughters are being raised with a mix of both religious traditions.

“What’s kind of funny is for Yom Kippur I’m the one who fasts for our family,” Grabscheid said.

“Doing Jewish” in her family means embracing aspects of Jewish food, family, philanthropy and nature, she said. “Those are such core, big wonderful things, so doing Jewish really wasn’t such a far step away from my Italian-Christian roots.”

Bodner said the main takeaway from his book is that Jews “don’t have to feel like they’re a bad Jew because they’re not doing it the ‘pure way’ or the authentic way. They’re changing it up. They’re doing what works for them. And I want them to feel really good about that.”

“Why Do Jewish? A Manifesto for 21st Century Jewish Peoplehood” by Zack Bodner (Gefen Publishing House, 241 pages). The book is available for preorder at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and Amazon.

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for KTVU Fox 2 News. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.