What is an "observant" Jew?

Joshunda Sanders of the American-Statesman in Austin has a fascinating and compelling story about a local man. It begins with a great vignette:

A gray-haired couple held hands beneath a lush plant at Magnolia Cafe on South Congress Avenue, staring at each other with secret smiles as they sang in Hebrew. The woman wore a pixie cut that made her look younger than her silver hair suggested. The man, gripping her delicate hands, made his Texas A&M class ring bulge like a cuff from his ring finger. A pen's cap shaped like the silver arm of a guitar clutched the pocket of his country-style blue-and-white shirt. They sang a soft song in Hebrew for a few moments before a breakfast of omelets and fruit.

"It's basically the Jewish version of 'Thank you for the grub, now let's eat,'" Brian Turner, 53, explained. Turner is likely the only observant Jew in Austin who is also a well-regarded country music singer. The blend of his guitar playing and singing in bands like WhoDo and his deep Texas roots surprise even those who have played with him a long time.

In July, he became the fourth generation in his family to serve as president of Congregation Beth Israel. Before him, his mother served in that position, as did his grandfather and his great-grandfather.

Now, I loved this story and we'll look at a few more paragraphs below, but the use of the word "observant" in this context is worth a discussion. In most religion news contexts, observant is a word used to denote someone who is careful in the observing of a law, custom, religious ritual, or the like.

When describing Jews, the word has some deeper meaning reflecting differing ways of being a Jew. Particularly since this story didn't describe the synagogue's affiliation, the use of the word observant implies something incorrect here. Turner is president of Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue that is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism. When we use "observant" to describe Jewish practice, it suggests a strict keeping of the commandments and laws.

Different types of Jews view the Torah differently, from strict observance or keeping of the laws and traditions to more flexible practices -- even to the opposite of observance.

I got the impression that the subject of the article was, well, observant when his position as president of a Reform synagogue would suggest more flexible interpretations. So just a good reminder when writing about Jews to use the term "observant" even more carefully. And since the word is somewhat subjective, perhaps it's better to describe precisely how someone practices their religion.

OK, back to the story. I thought it was just a charming look at an interesting guy. Sanders did a good job of letting other people describe the man:

Last month, before the High Holy Days, he released "Shabbat on Shoal Creek," a collection of traditional Jewish songs sung with his trademark country twang. During the past two years, as one of the Friday night cantoral soloists in the congregation, he contributed to one of the most significant elements of Jewish services — the liturgical music. Because Turner has been playing music for 30 years, he put together "Shabbat on Shoal Creek," which features Floyd Domino on piano, journalist John Burnett on harmonica and some other musicians Turner often sings with. ...

"Brian never breaks character," Domino said. Domino is best known for his work with the band Asleep at the Wheel and has known Turner for about 20 years. As a secular Jewish person from California who moved to Austin to reinvent himself like many others do, Domino said that he was fascinated by Turner being "an amalgam of a bunch of things you usually don't see in one place — Texas, Jewish country singer and Aggie. That is the real person; that's not a persona. Brian is who he is, he didn't become that." ...

Larry Wright, 64, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, author of "The Looming Tower" and keyboardist for WhoDo, said that he met Turner before the band realized they needed the kind of magnetic performer he was. "He had a repertory of songs that were just terrific songs and perfect for our group," he said. "I didn't know about BT's Jewish heritage," he said, referring to Turner by the band's nickname for Turner. But it was that Jewish heritage that made Wright realize that he was looking at something of a rare bird. "He's got all these relatives from New York, the Jewish side of his family. They look at him like he's something out of a fairy tale, with the chaw in his mouth and the guitar and the hat. That's when I became acquainted with his Jewish roots, which I had no idea were as profound and deep as they actually are."

Anyway, a great story but one that could have used a bit more precision when talking about the particularities of his practice. Perhaps some readers could give some guidance as to the best ways to describe differences in Jewish practice and belief.

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