We found out that Jews don’t have to pay a rabbi to be religious for them,” Michael Strassfeld declares. He and his wife, Sharon, both 27, are the authors of a 464-page directory, The Second Jewish Catalog, which provides sprightly information on the customs of birth, bar mitzvahs, marriage, prayer and education. It also is packed with such esoterica as where to find Jewish genealogists, an electric typewriter with a Hebrew keyboard, and Jewish information hotlines. “This book shows people how to plug into the Jewish life,” says Strassfeld.
Michael is the son of a Boston rabbi, and Sharon the daughter of a nonkosher caterer in Providence, R.I. They became immersed in their faith after he graduated from Brandeis University with a major in Jewish studies and she from the University of Massachussetts in English. Disillusioned by the Vietnam war, they saw in Judaism an answer to their search for values. “We were part of the Jewish counterculture,” Michael explains. The young couple joined a religious commune in Somerville, Mass. called a havurah (meaning “fellowship”) that had neither presiding rabbi nor cantor. Their group drew on the traditionalism of Orthodox Jews, the critical scholarship of Conservatives, the social action of the Reform group and the fervor of the Hasidim. While havurah members lived separately in apartments, they joined together for the Sabbath, holidays and for group therapy.
The Strassfelds, who met in high school at a Jewish youth group, moved to New York shortly after they married seven years ago. In 1971 they began work on the first Jewish Catalog, a do-it-yourself primer on Jewish traditions. It was published two years later and sold more than 200,000 copies. Its sequel has already moved 75,000 copies. “After the first catalogue we got so many inquiries and suggestions that we did the second one,” Strassfeld says.
They enjoy camping vacations but are never far from their work. “We found out about a beekeeping rabbi,” Michael says with a smile, “so now we’ll have to do a third catalogue.”