Fielding provocative questions on Jewish life is author’s strong suit

JFSA-NW to host ‘Jewish Dear Abby’

Gil Mann
Gil Mann

If you’re on the fence about attending “Sex, G-d, Christians and Jews: Struggling with Jewish Identity Today,” keynote speaker Gil Mann makes this promise: “I pretty much am positive that anyone who comes to this program will come out thinking a little differently about their being Jewish. And I think they may even come out thinking, ‘Wow. I never thought it was kosher to ask those questions. But I see I’m not alone.’ I’ve heard that from many people who’ve attended my lectures. ‘I thought I was the only one and thanks for giving me permission to ask my questions.’”

Permission to ask questions about Jewish living is Mann’s forte. A self-described “sort of Jewish Dear Abby,” he’s been answering them for the past 20 years in online forums and in his magazine, “Being Jewish: Relevant Judaism for Modern Life.”

Many of those questions are compiled in his latest book, “Sex, God, Christmas & Jews: Intimate Emails About Faith and Life Challenges,” which Mann is donating to everyone who attends the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Northwest Division campaign event on Jan. 19.

“Over the years, people wrote me thousands of emails, asking questions about Jewish identity,” says Mann. “Out of those emails, a picture emerges of Jews trying to understand how they can make their Judaism relevant in their lives: What makes sense, what doesn’t make sense, what they find attractive in the non-Jewish world and why. I’m going to share a lot of what I’ve heard and my thoughts on how you can reconcile being a Jew in the modern world, and still feel great about being Jewish and find it relevant. I’ll share a lot of people’s intimate thoughts, emails and questions. They’re quite thought provoking, and they’re real.”

He’ll discuss real life issues that have come up, such as “I’m not going to circumcise my son,” or “I’m really angry with God,” or “I’m dating a non-Jew and will my family ever accept this person?” So how did Mann become an online Jewish advice columnist? After working as a news producer for the Minneapolis/St. Paul ABC affiliate station, he and his wife founded LEARN-PC Video Systems in 1983 in their basement. The company quickly grew into one of the leading producers of PC training materials in the country, developing alliances with Microsoft, Intel, Lotus and others. So in 1992, Mann was able to retire and “pour my heart into the things that I really love, which wasn’t computers.”

He wrote his first book in 1996: “How to Get More Out of Being Jewish Even If: A. You are not sure you believe in God, B. You think going to synagogue is a waste of time, C. You think keeping kosher is stupid, D. You hated Hebrew school, or E. All of the above!.” Based on interviews with Jews from varying backgrounds, it addressed the major issues that affect Jews regardless of their age, sex or level of practice. After the book was published, he was asked to host a Jewish forum for America Online, “Judaism Today: Where Do I Fit?” Emails started pouring in. He picked one each week and wrote a public response to it, which became the “Jewish E-Mail” column, syndicated to Jewish websites and newspapers in the U.S. and Canada.

“People wrote to me, in part, because I don’t represent any movement. I’m not a rabbi, I’m not a professor. I’m just a guy who listens, and I’ve listened to a lot of Jews talk about their lives,” says Mann. “I try not to judge. But I also love being Jewish myself, so I share my opinions. People are free to do what they want with them, but it does seem that many people resonate with what I have to say. So I’ll share those thoughts and take a lot of questions.”

As a full-time volunteer, Mann served as president of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and Beth El Synagogue, and as vice president of the Jewish Community Center. In August 2014 he was asked to step in as interim CEO of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, a position he held for 11 months at a monthly salary of $1. “People offered to double my salary on a regular basis. It was very generous of them,” Mann quips. “Everyone thought that was such an original joke.”

Gil Mann in clown regalia at the Mayo Clinic
Gil Mann in clown regalia at the Mayo Clinic

After reading an article about hospital clowning in Israel, Mann was inspired to volunteer as a hospital clown for adult patients. Now he teaches doctors, nurses and other medical professionals at hospitals (including the Mayo Clinic) about the healing power of humor.

He said that he’s encountered very few clowns for adult patients. “That’s a shame, because adults need it more than kids do. That’s part of my presentation to doctors. They do massage therapy, art therapy, pet therapy, but they don’t do much humor therapy for adults.”

The day after he fields questions about Judaism in Tucson, Mann will rush back to Minneapolis to facilitate Q & A with a hospital clown from Israel. “Hospital clowning in Israel is huge. They probably lead the world in hospital clowning — many people don’t realize that. You can get a master’s degree in hospital clowning from the University of Haifa.”

The JFSA Northwest Division Campaign event “Sex, G-d, Christians and Jews: Struggling with Jewish Identity Today” with Gil Mann will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 19, at 6 p.m. at Omni Tucson National Resort, 2727 W. Club Drive. Tickets are $36 per person and include dinner and dessert. RSVP to Karen Graham at 577-9393 or kgraham@jfsa.org, or visit jfsa.org/community/nwjewish.

Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is an award-winning writer and editor living in Tucson.