Nearly Everything You Wanted to Know but Were Too Afraid to Ask

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Peter Cave, Dan Cohn-Sherbok
  • London, England: 
    Equinox Publishing Limited
    , November
     318 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jews: Nearly Everything You Wanted to Know but Were Too Afraid to Ask is littered with jokes. Author Dan Cohn-Sherbok explains that jokes—specifically those self-deprecating in nature— are an essential part of Jewish life, and the inclusion of those jokes gives a flavor of what it means to be Jewish (xv). Cohn-Sherbok, one of the two authors of this dialogical book, explains and explores why humor is important. Throughout this book, Cohn-Sherbok illustrates Jewish jokes and comics to lighten the heaviness of the general topics covered. 

Cohn-Sherbok and co-author Peter Cave, had known each other for “some time” before endeavoring to write this book (xi). Cohn-Sherbok and Cave speak with separate voices throughout the text, utilizing their cultural and academic capital as their landing points. Cohn-Sherbok write this book as a reflection of their conversations over the years. 

Reminiscent of Paulo Friere’s and Myles Horton’s We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (Jericho Books, 2015), the authors debate, dialogue, and discuss in the hopes that “this … will stimulate others to ponder critical questions regarding Judaism generally and more particularly the Jewish state, its significance for modern Jews and non-Jews, and its role in world affairs” (xvi). Each chapter asks large questions ranging from: Who is a Jew? (chapter 1) to What has Israel done for the World? (chapter 21). Cohn-Sherbok and Cave do not shy away from asking the tough questions of one another either. Cave adamantly pushes Cohn-Sherbok to question belief, faith, and religious affiliation, while the latter pushes against his philosopher-friend’s systematic ideologies of religion more generally. This book, divided into three sections, explores (1) Jews, Judaism, and Jerusalem; (2) Israel as This is our land,; and (3) Israel, Integrity, and reasons to wail.

Cohn-Sherbok and Cave work in-sync to produce a text that is both theologically informative about Judaism(s)—continuously noted by Cohn-Sherbok—as well as philosophically critical of categories of religion and of Judaism(s). Cave, in chapter 3—“What is Jewish Morality”—asks Cohn-Sherbok “[y]es, Jews have distinctive traditions. Yes, Jews face horrors of antisemitism and perplexities of their Israeli homeland … [but] is there anything distinctively Jewish about Jewish morality?” (37) This is but one example of such large, over-arching questions that consistently come up, causing Cohn-Sherbok to wrestle with his doubts and dubiousness towards Judaism. 

Although the dialogical model makes for an interesting book, the philosophical push-back from Cave is, at times, distracting. The subtitle, “Nearly everything you wanted to know,” is somewhat misleading. The debate and conversation between Cohn-Sherbok and Cave takes center stage to the everything-about-Jews implication of the text. While the work is useful in thinking through deeper questions about Judaism more broadly, such as systems of belief, questions of belief, and the large “elephant in the room” topic—the Palestinian- Israeli conflict—it would not hold up as a broad introductory text to “Judaism” or “Judaisms.” Each chapter opens with Cohn-Sherbok offering a one-to-two-page introduction to “set the stage for discussion.” It is in these first pages that the reader receives historical and factual information on the topic at hand, and after this brief “history,” the debate ensues. The dialogical model, while sometimes helpful, may not have been the most useful pedagogical tool for this book. Jews, ultimately, could be read three ways: reading only the accounts from Cohn-Sherbok as a way of understanding Judaism; reading only the accounts from Cave as an analytical tool for understanding philosophical critique of Judaism; or reading the book as an interesting, albeit factually sparse, conversation between two friends of differing disciplinary backgrounds. 

For this type of text to work, the devil is in the details. “Everything you wanted to know” differs between people—Jew, non-Jew, and atheist alike. In 2018, the interests of many readers of Judaism centered around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This book pivots on an axis informed by the creation of a Jewish state, and the consequences and conflicts that have arisen since the 1940s. As an informational account of a modern issue—with historical depth—it is very well situated to teach. However, as a general “guide” to Judaism, it falls short. 

The final section—the Epilogue—offers final remarks from both Cohn-Sherbok and Cave. Cohn-Sherbok, in reflecting on his conversation with Cave, notes: “[o]ur aim has been to stimulate reflection and encourage others to think about the questions we have asked. If we have succeeded in awakening a sense of curiosity, then we will have succeeded” (288). While it did not offer the overview of Judaism innately implied in the title, the work opens possibilities for conversations between people of different disciplinary backgrounds while also offering reassurance to non-Jews that is okay to ask the hard questions. Cave, as he does in all of the preceding chapters, offers the final word: “Jews—Israel, Judaism—are guilty of many injustices as well as justices. There are invisible worms within their riches, but those worms are to be found in all nations, ethnicities, religions—indeed, in us all. Let us not pretend otherwise” (293). While it did not offer a solution it did, however, offer a charge: question everything. Ultimately, Jews: Nearly Everything You Wanted to Know is thought provoking and evocative, and may even offend some. Nonetheless, it offers space for readers to question and to quarrel, and to criticize and commiserate with people on both side of the Palestinian-Israeli dividing line.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Madison Tarleton is a doctoral student at the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology Joint Doctoral Program in Religion.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Cave read philosophy at University College London and King’s College Cambridge.

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is an American rabbi and Professor Emeritus of Judaism at the University of Wales.


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