Journalist Hunter S. Thompson didn’t make his name by playing it safe or fitting into a mold. Instead, the sunglasses-adorning, firearm-wielding writer opted to dive into each of his subjects head on, fearlessly immersing himself in whatever world about which he was assigned to write.
Nowhere is his bold journalistic style on display better than his magnum opus “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a rebellious, narcotics-heavy inspection of the city’s seedy culture, thereby crystallizing the practice of what Thompson called gonzo journalism.
Not exactly fodder that most rabbis would dare to touch.
But Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein seems far from an average rabbi. With his book “Gonzo Judaism,” released in paperback last month on Trumpeter, he aims to wake up Judaism as if he were Thompson waking up journalism.
In less than 200 pages, he sets up an itemized plan for Jews to shake off the dust that’s settled so heavily on modern Judaism and dive into a new, refreshing take on an ancient faith.
And, largely, he succeeds.
Goldstein’s writing is quick and direct; he’s bold enough to say things most Jews, especially those in the Jewish nonprofit and religious sector, are afraid to utter. Namely, that Jews are often too caught up in preserving the past and living in fear, as he writes, than embracing what is so vibrant about Judaism.
“I’m sick of watching the same hangdog, lachrymose faces of older men — and they’re invariably older and male — uttering the same reactionary, predictable, alarmist messages about what great, grave danger the Jewish people are in. I’m sick of Abe Foxman, sick of Rabbi Marvin Heir, even sick of Elie Wiesel,” he writes. “Who in their right mind would want to be part of a religious community whose motto, based on its past behavior, might as well be ‘Come Survive with Us?’ ”
Strong words. And that’s just in the book’s introduction.
Goldstein then outlines just how exactly to go gonzo on Judaism: bring it to the people (outside the synagogue walls), emphasize personal connections with God away from formal prayer and relate Israel trips to the state’s history rather than just a cheap, subsidized vacation.
“Gonzo Judaism” could have easily slipped into a foaming-mouthed rant, but Goldstein clearly believes in his cause. He founded The New Shul, a progressive synagogue in New York, and has written almost a dozen books as well as articles for Newsweek and The New York Times. The man means business when he writes about shaking things up, and he supplants his arguments in “Gonzo Judaism” with many accounts of organizations, synagogues and individuals adhering to some of his ideas with success.
Is Goldstein’s brand of Judaism really gonzo in the way Hunter S. Thompson approached journalism? Well, maybe. Goldstein doesn’t write too much further than suggesting the benefits of a bottle of vodka when talking about faith in a discussion group; still, his message is the same: loosen up a bit, folks. If Judaism isn’t enjoyable, vibrant and embraced vigorously, then what’s the point?
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)