Generation J

As the child of a devoutly secular Jewish home, the last place Lisa Schiffman expected to be on Rosh Hashanah was sitting in worship with her parents and her self-avowed "lapsed Unitarian" husband.

It was a highly unorthodox service. The leaders of Aquarian Minyan - a "Jewish renewal" flock near the University of California at Berkeley - spread pillows on the floor and asked worshippers to bring drums. While the Hebrew prayers remained safely foreign, Schiffman noted that an awkward word - "God" - appeared frequently in the English parts of the rite.

"I can't pray to God," she wrote afterwards. "I'm not sure I believe in God - so I substitute the words 'our highest selves.' That'll work for now."

That was in 1996, before her diary evolved into "Generation J," a book that traces her wanderings through Judaism, alternative Judaism, New Age mysticism, Buddhism and all points in between. This year, the young poet and Internet professional initially decided not to attend a Rosh Hashanah service. Then she was surprised to realize she might regret not joining other Jews to hear the ram's horn blast that opens the High Holy Days. The season begins at sundown Friday (Sept. 10) and ends with Yom Kippur on Sept. 20.

"I'm getting comfortable thinking in terms of God being a kind of divine presence in our lives," said Schiffman. "'God has become a wide, wide word for me. That word means many things to me, now."

This is what life is like for non-practicing Jews born after the Holocaust, she said. They are marrying non-Jews in record numbers. They are turning to other religions in record numbers. They attend classes about Judaism, but can't seem to join a congregation. Many Jews are even having doubts about the skepticism taught by their parents.

Schiffman calls this phenomenon "Generation J." This is the "generation of Jews who grew up with television, with Barbie, with rhinoplasty as a way of life. Millions of Jews -- the unaffiliated, secular, atheist, indifferent, or simply confused -- are lost. We can't say whether our Jewishness is a religion, a race, or a tribal remnant." Her conclusion is stark: "We can neither claim nor escape our Judaism."

As Schiffman tells her story, the God of Abraham and Sarah does play a poignant role - captured in the voices of a diverse collection of Jews who describe their lives of faith, prayer, ritual, tradition and law. A woman who guides Schiffman through a ritual bath of cleansing - the mikvah - put it this way: "There is a God. There is a creator who created the world. He gave us instructions." An Orthodox jazz musician tells the writer: "The way to know God is to fulfill his will, and God's will for a Jew is to go to the Torah and follow the mitzvot. That's our path."

Schiffman's response is blunt: "I needed another way to God."

But she eventually takes a small leap of faith -- nailing to the doorpost a mezuzah given to her by her husband. This is the small, ornate container that tells visitors they are entering a Jewish home. Inside is a parchment scroll and, by tradition, its first lines proclaim: "Listen, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength."

This was a highly symbolic step, said Schiffman. But it's also symbolic that, a few pages later, she finds herself sitting in a tattoo shop having her upper torso painted with a long, snaking vine in preparation for her naked role as the maiden of honor -- sort of -- in a friend's pagan wedding. Schiffman tells the artist to have the temporary tattoo end with a large Star of David on her back.

"I know that I'm not Orthodox," said Schiffman. "I'm not kosher and I still haven't joined a synagogue. I don't even know what the 613 mitzvot are that we are supposed to keep. I know that I have come a long way, but I still don't know where I am. But I am a Jew."