Via a participant-observer approach, Synagogue Life analyzes the
three essential dimensions of synagogue life: the houses of prayer,
study, and assembly. In each Heilman documents the rich detail of
the synagogue experience while articulating the social and cultural
drama inherent in them. He illustrates how people come to the
synagogue not only for spiritual purposes but also to find out
where and how they fit into life in the neighborhood in which they
In his new introduction, Heilman discusses what led him to write
this book and the process of personal transformation through which
he, as an Orthodox Jew, had to go in order to turn a disciplined
eye on the world from which he came. Rather than using the
stranger-as-native approach of classic anthropology, he had instead
to begin as a native who discoverd how to look at a
once-taken-for-granted synagogue life like a stranger. In the
afterword, arguing for the efficacy of this approach, Heilman
offers guidance on how natives can use their special familiarity
and still be trained to distance themselves from their own group,
making use of the disciplines of sociology and anthropology.
Synagogue Life offers a fascinating portrait that has something to
say to social scientists as well as all those curious about what
happens in the main arena of Orthodox Jewish community life.
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