The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Becoming Orthodox

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The cover of The Baal Teshuva Survival Guide, a handbook to making it as a newly-minted Orthodox Jew, depicts a life preserver being tossed over a body of water.

the baal teshuva survival guideGet it? It’s a really clever way of showing what’s inside the book. You, the reader, are the baal teshuva — the person who’s drowning in the ocean of Orthodox Judaism. This book is your life preserver. If you read the book, it will help you float.

It’s true that Orthodox Judaism has a lot in common with a large body of water. It’s huge, it’s inhabited by a zillion organisms of every conceivable size and shape and opinion, and there are very few road maps. And, like a really smart and accomplished oceanographer, The Baal Teshuva Survival Guide contains a lot of information. Choosing a rabbi, fitting in with a community of Orthodox people who are notoriously secluded and sometimes unwelcoming, how to absorb entire new arenas of Jewish law that you never knew existed.

The thing is — the water on the cover doesn’t have any splashes.

If someone throws you a life preserver, chances are you’re drowning. If the water is calm, sedate, unmoving — well, either you’re floating peacefully, or you’re already dead.

The Baal Teshuva Survival Guide is actually an excellent book. It’s informative, well-organized, and packed full of useful facts and stories — and it is packed full, with more than 400 pages of articles. Most of them are shorter than a page or two, and easily digestible. Lisa Aiken, Ph.D., both a clinical psychologist and accomplished author, takes on both the recent phenomenon of the baal teshuva explosion, as well as the idea itself of being a returnee to the faith.

The problem is, the stories in the Guide are more anecdotal and less in the how-to vein. It’s not a guide to becoming a baal teshuva at all — it’s a guide for, once you’ve already taken on all the burdens and onuses of Orthodox Judaism, settling into your new lifestyle. More passionate than dogmatic, the book pursues the why and the who and the where much more actively than the how. While the title of this book might lead someone to purchase it to learn about becoming more observant, and guiding them through a difficult, intense and life-changing process, step by step, this feels like it’s written to inspire people to tug a friend’s sleeve and say, “Hey — this sounds so much like me!”