A week before his bar mitzvah, Ed Feinstein recalls in his new book "Tough Questions Jews Ask: A Young Adult's Guide to Building a Jewish Life" (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003), he was in a panic. "I was scheduled to stand up in front of the rabbi, my family and the congregation and tell everyone how proud I was to be Jewish. But I was so full of questions: 'Why am I Jewish? Do I really believe in all this? Do I really believe in God?'"
The teenage Feinstein expressed his concerns to his Uncle Mottel, a rabbi at an Orthodox college in Chicago, and he was relieved when his uncle responded by saying, "Every day, I wonder why I'm a Jew. But that's part of being Jewish. Wrestling, asking, wondering, searching is just what God wants us to do. God loves good questions."
More than three decades later, Feinstein continues to be inspired by that long-ago conversation. Spending the last 10 years at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, he has embraced and encouraged his own congregants -- particularly children -- to ask him "the questions that won't go away."
Feinstein compiled the questions youngsters ask most frequently, along with his responses, in "Tough Questions."
"When you're respectful of their questions, [children] open up," the new author said. "If you make a kid feel embarrassed to ask, you end up with a person who has a sour feeling about being a Jew."
Without realizing his ideas would culminate in a book, Feinstein began writing down his thoughts more than six years ago. He collected the most common questions children asked him -- most having to do with why bad things happen to good people.
With a note of sadness in his voice, Feinstein remembers youngsters questioning God when dealing with a parent's battle with cancer. "Who do you go to [when that happens]?" the rabbi said. "[A child might wonder], 'How does my life have any order now?'"
In response, Feinstein handed each distraught child a packet containing his thoughts on the topic. Soon, his collection of tentative answers had grown to the point that it was clear to him that he had the beginnings of a book.
While the book is targeted at children and teenagers, it is also relevant for adults, who may have the same questions -- or may be called upon by their children to provide answers.
With the current political climate of the world, Feinstein's book comes at a time when spiritual quests are growing. While books such as "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" by Harold S. Kushner (Avon Books, 1981) address theological questions for adults, Feinstein's has created a primer that is accessible to teenage and adult readers, who might be seeking a simpler approach to questions.
"The secret of the book is that you don't answer theological questions, but you provide a framework for helping people think about them," Feinstein said.
In a chapter titled, "Why Are There So Many Different Religions? Aren't They All the Same?" a student asks the question after attending church with a non-Jewish friend. In response, Feinstein gives the analogy of his childhood experiences of eating dinner at different friends' houses and noticing the differences between each family, including the variety of conversations, jokes, foods and attitudes toward table manners.
"Religions are like families," the rabbi explains in his book. "Each religion has its own stories, its own ways of celebrating special days and its own ways of talking to God."
Feinstein, who sets aside time each Tuesday morning to answer questions raised by Valley Beth Shalom Day School students, admitted that he continues to ask questions, as encouraged by Uncle Mottel.
"There are questions built into the human condition that we never stop asking," he explained. "You find that thinking helps you pursue tentative answers to the great questions, and my goal is to engage [people] in the ability to think deeply and to give them resources."
Rabbi Ed Feinstein will offer his insights at a book signing at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventural Blvd., Encino on Tues., April 1, at 7:30 p.m. "Tough Questions Jews Ask: A Young Adult's Guide to Building a Jewish Life," now available in bookstores, will also be available for purchase at the book signing. For more information about the event, call (818) 788-6000.
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