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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion, and Culture by Judith R. Baskin and Kenneth Seeskin (Comprehensive Surveys of Religion: Cambridge University Press) is a comprehensive and engaging overview of Jewish life, from its origins in the ancient Near East to its impact on contemporary popular culture. The twenty-one essays, arranged historically and thematically, and written specially for this volume by leading scholars, examine the development of Judaism and the evolution of Jewish history and culture over many centuries and in a range of locales. They emphasize the ongoing diversity and creativity of the Jewish experience. Unlike previous anthologies, which concentrate on elite groups and expressions of a male-oriented rabbinic culture, this volume also includes the range of experiences of ordinary people and looks at the lives and achievements of women in every place and era. The many illustrations, maps, timeline, and glossary of important terms enhance this book's accessibility to students and general readers.

Our book is entitled The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion, and Culture. The wordiness of the title indicates the difficulty of identifying the exact nature of the Jewish experience and the proper perspective from which to view Jews and Judaism. Readers may ask: Are Jews a national entity with a common history based on collective experiences? Are they best understood as a religious community with shared beliefs and rituals? Or are Jews an ethnic group with common cultural traditions? The truth is that no one category is entirely accurate. Jews are citizens of the many nations in which they live. Some live in countries where they are a small minority of the population; others live in Israel, a state built on the idea of Jewish nationhood. Some Jews are devoutly observant of the traditional beliefs and practices of Judaism. Many Jews have found intellectual and spiritual meaning in modernized approaches to Jewish convictions and customs. Others, who have abandoned religious ritual and live secular lives, define themselves by their Jewish ethnic origins and shared social values and mores. However, there is no single Jewish ethnicity or point of view. Contemporary Jews come from many parts of Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. These diverse communities have been shaped by the variety of majority cultures in which they developed. In fact, the many ways in which Jewish life and Judaism have been and continue to be expressed may explain why other national groups and spiritual communities have often had difficulty understanding Jews.

The essays in this volume address these conundrums from a variety of points of view and from both historical and thematic perspectives. One reality, however, is constant throughout: It is difficult to read any part of this book and not be struck by the durability and adaptability of the Jewish people. For much of their history, Jews have been stateless and scattered. They found unity in a common legal and religious heritage, together with a shared sense of destiny. This destiny was rooted in the ties of history and kinship linking the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. Over the centuries, living in exile in diverse lands, Jews imbued every aspect of life with the conviction that return to the Land of Israel, the reestablishment of Jewish political autonomy, the reign of a divinely appointed human messianic leader or leaders, and the universal recognition of the uniqueness of the one God were all but imminent. Messianic expectation is an ongoing and constant element of Jewish religious, philosophical, mystical, artistic, and political life and continues to play a role into the contemporary era, whether in efforts to hasten a messianic era of universal peace and human understanding or in parochial beliefs concerning the messianic qualities of specific individuals.

For two and a half millennia, since the destruction of their First Temple and their exile to Babylonia in 586 BCE, most Jews have lived in Diaspora, in dispersion among other nations. History records that Jews established spheres of economic influence and centers of learning throughout Mesopotamia, the Roman Empire, North Africa, Spain, the Ottoman Empire, Central and Eastern Europe, Western Europe, North America, Central and South America, and the modern Middle East. There have been Jewish enclaves in parts of Africa, China, India, and present-day Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, as well.

In these locales, Jews have been a minority community, bearing the indignities and discrimination that minority status brings. In more than a few instances, Jews have suffered persecutions, massacres, and expulsions. In the fourth decade of the twentieth century, there was a systematic attempt to destroy them entirely. Yet, Jews have shown an ability to adapt to the environments in which they have found themselves. They have learned from the peoples among whom they have lived, and they have contributed significantly to the cultures around them. In addition to maintaining the mother tongue of Hebrew as the language of revealed scripture and worship, Jews have created significant bodies of literature in Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, French, German, Russian, English, Italian, and Spanish, among others. Jews have also created distinctive languages, such as Yiddish and Ladino, which are based on the languages of regions where they lived and written in Hebrew characters. Despite Jewish migrations, these languages persisted as sources of ethnic continuity far from the lands of their origins.

Another lesson of the Jewish experience is that minority status and geographic mobility, both optional and enforced, can create opportunities as well as problems. In order to preserve a distinct identity and ensure survival, Jews learned early on to form cohesive communities with accepted lines of authority, religious and educational institutions, and self-help organizations. Similarly, mobility taught Jews to accustom themselves to new circumstances, to learn new languages, and to negotiate different sets of social customs, diverse legal structures, and a range of cultural contexts. With each geographic and social transformation came innovation, and with innovation, new life and creativity. Since the late nineteenth century, some Jews have also confronted the challenges of modern nationalism. The endeavor of political Zionism led to the establishment of a productive Jewish presence in the Land of Israel that resulted in the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. The rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language, the ingathering of exiles from every corner of the Jewish world, the ongoing invention of a vibrant and creative Israeli culture, as well as ongoing conflict with other inhabitants of the region are among the achievements and difficulties that accompany Jewish sovereignty in the twenty-first century.

Durability and adaptability are also evident when we shift the focus from the people to the religion. The Hebrew Bible tells us that Israelite religion began with a covenant between Abraham and God, a covenant that continued with his son Isaac and grandson Jacob. Jacob (also called Israel) passed this covenant and its attendant traditions to his twelve sons and their progeny. Ultimately this commitment with God was accepted and ratified by an entire people in a moment of epiphany and divine revelation at Mount Sinai. Biblical religion preserved a series of laws governing all aspects of moral and spiritual life, established a priestly caste who oversaw ritualized sacrifices and communal observances at a central shrine, and produced a series of prophets who upbraided the people, often harshly, when they failed to live up to the ethical ideals to which they had committed themselves.

But this is only the beginning of the story. With the destruction of the First and Second Jerusalem Temples, Israelite religion was able to evolve. It developed into Judaism, a system of worship that no longer depended on sacrifice and priestly supervision but instead came to emphasize the religious significance of every aspect of daily life. In this way, acts of loving kindness, adherence to dietary laws and festival observances, and obedience to shared commandments came to epitomize service to God. The development of Rabbinic Judaism and the codification of these traditions in an ongoing series of written works eventually provided Jews, scattered throughout an ever-expanding Diaspora, with a shared pattern of practice encompassing every aspect of life. The Rabbis also developed a rich body of theological and philosophical ideals that sustained Jewish creativity and encouraged intellectual growth and exploration throughout the centuries.

Prior to the late eighteenth century, Jews lived in autonomous and in many ways separate communities within larger cultures. Each community dealt with civil authorities as a corporate entity, and acts of individual Jews had consequences for the entire Jewish collective, for good or ill. A Jew who refused to conform to the community's norms could be expelled from Jewish life and would have no place to go beyond conversion to the majority creed. The onset of modernity in Europe eventually brought Jews the rights and obligations of citizenship in the countries in which they lived. These new allegiances freed individual Jews from a primarily communal Jewish identity and loosened enforced adherence to the norms and practices of a self-governing and inward-looking Jewish society.

Individual Jews and the Jewish people are still contending with the challenges of the modern world. Over the past two and a half centuries, many individuals born to Jewish parents have chosen to discard their Jewish origins to pursue the opportunities available in free and open societies. At the same time, others found innovative ways to reshape their religious beliefs and practices in response to the modern world, creating a range of Jewish religious movements. Meanwhile, Jews who understood their Jewishness as a national identity played a central role in establishing the State of Israel. The Jewish encounter with an ever-changing reality is ongoing. In each generation, religious leaders and scholars have uttered dire predictions about the imminence of Jewish decline and disappearance. Yet, so far, at least, Jewish communities around the world continue to respond to new political circumstances, social mores, and technologies with a loyalty to Jewish values and a spirit of innovation.

Minority status has also allowed Judaism and many Jews to see beyond the things that commonly divide people and produce enmity. The Hebrew Bible demands worship of a God who cannot be represented in a visual medium and who has no resemblance to any created entity — in either corporeality, gender, or mortality. Moreover, later biblical prophets insisted on the uniqueness and universality of this God who is the creator and beneficent deity of all human beings. By the same token, the Hebrew Bible claims that the Israelites were strangers in a foreign land and thus know what it is like to suffer discrimination. According to Deuteronomy 23:7, "You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land." More emphatic is the sentiment expressed at Leviticus 19:34: "The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love the stranger as you love yourself." Deuteronomy 10:18 proclaims that God executes justice for the widow and the orphan, the people at the bottom of the social scale, and loves the stranger, the person who may not look like you or sound like you. The prophet Amos insists that the covenant with God demands that "righteousness well up like water, / Righteousness like an unfailing stream" (5:24). Or as the prophet Micah puts it, "He has told you, 0 man, what is good, / And what God requires of you: / Only to do justice / And to love goodness, / And to walk modestly with your God" (6:8).

As a minority living among other nations, Jews have traditionally sided with the forces of toleration and understanding. One way to measure the openness of a society is to look at the way it treats its Jews, assuming that it allows Jews at all. In a similar way, to study broad historical changes like the rise of modernity in Europe, the formation of the nation-state, or the extension of voting rights and educational opportunities is to ask about the status of Jews. As Leora Batnitzky points out in her chapter, there is something about modernity that requires Judaism. This is true not only because Jews have generally benefited from modernity but also because, in many instances, they have helped articulate its ideals: freedom of thought, respect for human dignity, equal protection under the law. Finally, no one can attempt to understand the Jewish experience without considering the centrality of the written word and its interpretation in all of Jewish religious life, history, and culture. Traditionally, Jews believed that each of the books that make up the Hebrew Bible reflected God's revelation in some way, and they looked to this "Written Torah" for guidance in every aspect of human life. Yet, a religion based upon static texts, however holy, cannot easily adjust to the ever-varying conditions of human existence. That Judaism has endured is due, in large part, to traditions of biblical interpretation, known since the rabbinic period as "Oral Torah." In every era, expositors of the divine message have discovered new meanings in the Torah and demonstrated their relevance to an ever-evolving Jewish community.

At the conclusion of one of his talmudic readings, the twentieth-century French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas declared that the most glorious title for God is "Parent of orphans and Champion of widows" (Psalm 68:6). He suggested that the encounter with this exemplar of compassion is best achieved in engagement with divine revelation:

Consecration to God: his epiphany, beyond all theology and any visible
image, however complete, is repeated in the daily Sinai of [human beings] sitting before an astonishing book, ever again in progress because of its very completeness.

Jewish engagement with this "astonishing book" of revelation over the past two millennia in a range of diverse forms and from many points of view is discussed in detail throughout this volume.

As editors, we resist the temptation to suggest that such a rich and constantly evolving history, religion, and culture can be explained by one common, unifying thread. In addition to broad trends, the human experience contains anomalies, reversals, and exceptions. As this volume reveals, the Jewish experience is replete with internal disputes and schisms, orthodox and liberal movements, rationalist thinkers and ecstatic mystics, appeals for a return to tradition, and calls for greater innovation. We hope our readers will gain an appreciation for its rich diversity. This volume examines the Jewish experience and Judaism both historically and systematically. In addition to breadth of coverage, its essays demonstrate the current state of our field. Fifty years ago, Jewish Studies were rarely taught at secular institutions. Today most leading institutions have active programs offering instruction on the undergraduate and, in many cases, the graduate level as well. In earlier years, Jewish Studies dealt almost exclusively with the lives and achievements of a male elite. Today it is different. In addition to an essay devoted to Jewish private life, many of the chapters in this volume address the lives and achievements of women and the experiences and contributions of ordinary men.

So varied is the Jewish experience that no single volume can include everything. We apologize that limitations of space prevented us from including chapters on literature, music, the lively and fine arts, and specific studies on Jewish communities in parts of the world such as Latin America, South Asia, and the Far East. Readers may wish to consult The Cambridge Dictionary of Jewish History, Religion, and Culture, a companion volume to the present work, which includes articles on a far more extensive range of topics than we could address here.

Important terms or ideas are defined in the Glossary, and a Timeline provides a chronological presentation of events across geographical regions. Regarding transliteration, we have made an attempt throughout to balance the needs of consistency with those of familiarity.

Small Miracles for the Jewish Heart: Extraordinary Coincidences from Yesterday and Today by Yitta Halberstam, Judith Leventhal (Adams Media) teach us that God is with us always, even during our everyday lives. The stories in this best-selling series recognize and acknowledge that divine influence makes us fuller and better people. Take for example God speaking to people through car license plates. San Francisco's Beth Schwartz was driving to court for an appearance with her ex‑husband. Beth's head was tight with tension and stress because of a messy divorce. Ahead of her was a truck with the license plate "SCHNEIDER" ‑‑the very name of the judge hearing her case. Just then a car pulled in front of her. It's license plate was "RDY 2 WIN". That plate inspired Beth with confidence and assurance as she strode into the courtroom. She later walked out a winner saying both license plates instilled her with hope and determination. Beth is convinced God used the license plates to speak to her.
The idea of divine messages appear as miracles and coincidences that are happening all the time to all people. Inspiration and miracles serve to buoy our lives, especially when times are rough. That is when we turn to a higher power. However, the message in Small Miracles for the Jewish Heart is that this power is with us during tough or ordinary times. Stories in this amazing book recognize that a divine influence enhances our lives and moves us toward not taking life for granted but rather "to stop and smell the roses." There are times when lost and found stories resonate with strange, seemingly miraculous coincidence. That's the case with a pair of lost charm holders, "reunited" after being found by the same woman months apart. Rabel Jaskow spotted a slightly battered gold charm holder complete with charms on a sidewalk. She took it to the local police station. Police told her, if no one claimed it, the holder was hers. Six month later, the charm holder was in her possession. In an ironic twist, Rabel found another charm holder‑ an exact copy of the first one. Again, she took it to police. History repeated itself and she became the owner of a matching his and hers set.

In Small Miracles for the Jewish Heart, Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal interviewed dozens of Jewish people from around the country who personally experienced far‑reaching consequences of miraculous and extraordinary coincidences. The Jewish people have always believed in miracles. That was so during biblical times. Halbertstam and Leventhal demonstrate that to many small miracles continue to happen today.

This collection of wonderful true stories with Jewish themes has universal appeal. Such as the orphan miracle: Initial rejection of an orphan by a Baltimore couple ultimately reunites with her aunt. Anya and Sol Gold wanted to adopt a toddler but their only choice was a nine‑year‑old. Still looking a year later, the Gold's changed their mind inquiring about the nine year old. After adopting her, Anya miraculously discovered the girl was her dead sister's daughter.

Dozens of anecdotes spotlight individual instances of how miracles are hiding in the common place events of life. For instance, misdialing a telephone number saves a Rabbi's life. While traveling in New York City, a Rabbi experiences sharp chest pains so he dials his doctor's telephone number. Actually, it is the residential number of a patient the doctor was visiting. Telephone numbers were precisely the same except for one digit. By misdialing, the Rabbi had actually reached the "right" number and saved his own life. Initially, the stories seem commonplace, but blossomed into anything but commonplace. Another instance a special rose brings a message of love from the dead. Overcome with sadness because her mother is terminally ill, Gail Raab neglects to maintain her beloved rose garden with regular watering. The roses died. On a scorching June summer day, her mother passed away. Ironically, that death brought life to a single beautiful rose. The rose suddenly blossomed on the day of her mom's funeral, convincing the woman that the rose was a message that her mom was fine and resting in a place of beauty and greatness.

This little volume will inspire and give hope as well as open eyes to see new miracles in the every day. Gilberte the Cabbage Patch Doll. 1980 was the year of the Cabbage Patch doll but it was nearly impossible to buy one of these individually named dolls because of the sales and marketing frenzy. Four‑year‑old Rebecca cried for one. Her frazzled mom did everything to find one while telling Rebecca the doll would be a birthday present from her grandmothers. Finally, Rebecca's mother learned a local toy store received a Cabbage Patch doll shipment. Regrettably though, she could not select a doll. She had to take what they gave her. What she got was a doll named Gliberte. That was the combined name of Gilette and Berte‑Rebecca's grandmothers. pg. 159

A chance walk and a menorah reunite mother and son. While war is horrific, it also creates long‑lasting friendships as it did for a WWII veteran. Patrolling a European village searching for Nazis, Private Winneger befriended David, a young Jewish boy. During a scuffle with David, a menorah fell from his hands. Winneger retrieved it, handing it to David whose father was murdered in a concentration camp murder but his mother's fate was unknown. Private Winneger took the boy under his wing, taking him to Winneger's New York City home and adopting him. Some time later, a German woman spotted the prized menorah David had displayed in his window. She knocked on the door, asking to see the menorah. Private Winneger obliged, offering David to explain the object's history. Ironically, the menorah not only belonged to David but also to this woman. She was David's mother!

Through the Unknown, Remembered Gate: A Spiritual Journey by Emily Benedek (Schocken Books) Emily Benedek, the author of two highly regarded books on the traditions and conflicts of Native Americans of the Southwest (The Wind Won't Know Me: A History of the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute and Beyond the Four Corners of the World: A Navajo Woman's Journey), suddenly found herself in the mid-1990s grappling with certain traditions and conflicts of her own. Stricken with a case of temporary blindness, she had an experience unprecedented in her lifewhich she was able to understand only as an apprehension of the divine.
Stirred and confused, Benedek took herself to a humble storefront synagogue in Dallas, where she was then living. Among the welcoming congregants she began a spiritual journey that gradually led her back to Jewish practice and belief.

As we accompany Benedek on her journey, we come to know the wise and imaginative psychoanalyst who served as one of her guides... an Orthodox family in Rockland County whose lives are devoted entirely to Torah yet who are open to Benedek's questioning and probing, particularly on the subject of the differing roles of men and women in Orthodoxy... Texans, Israelis, and Brooklynites, teachers and students, and the vibrant Conservative Congregation B'nai Jeshurun on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where Benedek eventually finds her most comfortable spiritual home.
And ultimately, of course, we come to know Emily Benedek, an independent and principled modern woman who has found a path through T. S. Eliot's "unknown, remembered gate" in the Jewish life and identity that connect her to her rich and powerful heritage. Curious, sensitive, perceptive, and questing, she gives us in this compelling memoir a beautiful story, beautifully told.

Benedek's journey more deeply into Judaism is well written and interesting. Especially fascinating were her observations and participation in the Orthodox community as part of a journey that ultimately leads her to a Conservative Jewish congregation. There were times that the book dragged and became redundant. For example, Benedek goes on and on and on about her therapy sessions. This part could have been condensed so that the reader understood that therapy was important to her journey without having to read every detail of every therapy session she ever attended. She also wasn't completely clear about the kinds of Orthodox communities she was hanging out with -- she does not fully embrace ultra-orthodox lifestyles, but had she ever considered modern Orthodoxy? This was never addressed, she just went from ultra-Orthodox to Conservative, but modern-Orthodox is a category between the two. Even with these criticisms, however, the book is a compelling read and Benedek portrays an honest, thoroughly questioning journey into faith.


Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew by Eugene B. Borowitz (Jewish Publication Society) The postmodern Jew seeks a Judaism that weaves God, folk, and self into a seamless whole. In twenty searching chapters, acclaimed author Eugene Borowitz creatively exlores his theory of Covenant, linking self to folk and God through the contemporary idiom of relationship. Widely regarded as one of liberal Judaism's leading theologians, Rabbi Borowitz has long championed the need for Jews to return to the Covenant--to a personal relationship with God.

Since the death of Abraham Joshua Heschel, many have waited for a Jewish voice that would speak with the same incisiveness and compassion, and with the same ancient wisdom and illustrious clarity. Now Borowitz argues persuasively for the particularity of all human life, while addressing a broadly inclusive readership. He demonstrates the relevance of pre-modern rabbinic thought for our post-modern age. This is a thoroughly Jewish book that is decidedly not just a book for Jews. The postmodern Jew seeks a Judaism that weaves God, folk, and self into a seamless whole. In twenty searching chapters, Borowitz creatively explores his theory of Covenant, linking self to folk and God through the contemporary idiom of relationship.

Widely regarded as one of liberal Judaism's leading theologians, Rabbi Borowitz has long championed the need for Jews to return to the Covenant-a personal relationship with God; moreover, he argues that it is possible to do so without embracing the rigidity of fundamentalism.

Most contemporary Jews, regardless of denomination, respect their rabbis' rulings. Privately, however, they insist on making up their own minds about what they believe to be their Jewish duty. Committed to democracy and empowered by education, they equate personal dignity with substantial autonomy. For that reason, and because they cannot identify with any system that might lead to extremism and intolerance, they cannot be Orthodox.

Rabbi Borowitz rejects as untenable two cornerstones of post-World War II Judaism: first, that Judaism consists essentially of human activity-ethics and ethnicity-God having, at best, a marginal role in the Jewish consciousness; and second, that universal human experience has greater truth and value than any particular form of that experience. He argues that the Holocaust and other lesser disillusionments have shown humankind unworthy of our ultimate concern; true values will be found only in God.

In this volume, Rabbi Borowitz straightforwardly faces fundamental theological issues: "The who/what of God," "What does God still do?" and "What can we do about our will-to-doevil?" He concludes by articulating his own vision of a Jewish concern: a theology of contemporary Jewish duty.

Renewing the Covenant presents the first systematic statement of theology since Abraham J. Heschel set forth his distinctive, comprehensive philosophy of Judaism. In the range of questions it asks, in4he reach of its religiosity, in the intensity with which it poses the fateful questions of Jewish faith, this unique book will long be discussed by thoughtful readers

Ancient Israel's Faith and History: An Introduction to the Bible in Context by George E. Mendenhall, edited by Gary A. Herion (Westminster John Knox Press) Relying on archeological artifacts and anthropological study, Mendenhall re-tells the story of Israels history and faith. While careful not to move beyond the evidence, Mendenhall is not shy about providing an account of the theological dimensions of Israels history.


Exploring Jewish Tradition: A Transliterated Guide to Everyday Practice and Observance by Rabbi Abraham B. Witty and Rachel J. Witty (Doubleday) If you want to introduce Jewish traditions into your home, would like to learn about the Jewish faith of your neighbor, plan to host a traditional seder, or are just curious about a term or ritual, Exploring Jewish Tradition addresses all your needs. This thorough review of Judaism as it has been practiced by Jewish men, women, and children for thousands of years provides concise directions for observing traditions, captioned illustrations that illuminate and enhance the text, and overall guidance about how to live a Jewish life.
Organized into ten chapters, hundreds of transliterated terms are linked together in a friendly narrative that leads the readers step-by-step through the vocabulary and concepts of Jewish tradition.

The text includes chapters on the interpretation and significance of the word "Torah," the foundation of all Jewish knowledge; the synagogue and its artifacts; prayer and Jewish liturgy; the Jewish (lunarsolar) calendar; the Sabbath; the high holy days; the pilgrimage festivals; the minor festivals; the Jewish life cycle; and special words and phrases that are used in everyday Jewish life.

Exploring Jewish Tradition is a guidebook not only for the traditional Jew but for the uncertain newcomer, the inquisitive non-Jew, or anyone else who has ever wondered about the difference between Torah and Talmud, Kiddush and Kaddish, Shabbat and Shevat, or mezuzah and mazal.

 JEWS: The Essence and Character of a People by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer($25.00, hardcover, 304 pages, Harper San Francisco, ISBN: 0060638346) PAPERBACK

The 50th anniversary of the state of Israel was celebrated in May, 1998. Just in time comes the controversial new work by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer JEWS: The Essence and Character of a People. Destined to become a definitive work for Jews and non-Jews alike, JEWS presents provocatively bold answers to age-old questions that are sure to spark debate and perhaps even fierce controversy with today’s Jewish leaders. Co-written with Aron Hirt-Manheimer, editor of Reform Judaism, Hertzberg shatters taboos with his main premise that there is a definable Jewish collective character: He writes, "Jews are a peculiar people… [and] it is our goal to describe Jews as they really are. and not as Jewish … publicists might want our people to be portrayed"

Hertzberg and Hirt-Manheimer also dare to address scandalous hot-button questions such as:

  • Why might Jews be partly responsible for Anti-Semitism?
  • Do Jews have a propensity for genius?
  • Are the Jews a vanishing people?
  • What is the biggest stumbling block to Mid-East peace today?
  • How do Jews view themselves?
  • What makes a Jew a Jew?
  • Why have Jews endured separate and unique by an act of will?

Arthur Hertzberg is uniquely qualified to answer such questions. Not only was he in Israel in 1948 working as a young man for its settlement, but he is a rabbi, author, and premier American scholar of Zionism and Jewish History, and has known and debated nearly every Israeli leader since its formation. He is the former President of the American Jewish Congress and is Vice President of the World Jewish Congress. In addition, he has held academic posts at numerous institutions including Princeton University, Oxford University, New York University, and the Sorbonne and is the author of over a dozen books including The Zionist Idea (Jewish Publication Society). In the light of this celebration, Hertzberg does not ask the typical question, "What does this mean for Jews?" but rather the vastly more compelling query, What does it mean to be a Jew?"

In their compelling introduction to JEWS, Hertzberg and Hirt-Manheimer explain why their book is critical to the debates on Judaism, American-Jewry, and an understanding of the future of Israel and its people:

This is a scandalous book. It runs counter to the polite and politically correct portraits of the Jews. It dares to define the lasting Jewish character. Such heresy is sure to evoke some shrill reactions from Jews, and non-Jews, who will accuse us of producing a reactionary and damaging work Indeed, a number of publishers in the United States and in Europe turned this book down, fearing that it would bring the wrath of the Jewish establishment upon them. Obviously, defining the Jewish character is a cause for trepidation: it is the breaking of a post-Holocaust taboo.

There is another, darker reason for the visceral rejection of defining Jewish group characteristics. It derives from the legacy of Jew-hatred that in our own time reached such ferocity it nearly destroyed European Jewry. We understand, therefore, why many Jews deny the existence of common Jewish traits. Anyone who makes such a claim, they say, is either an anti-Semite who defines us by exclusion, or a misguided or self-hating Jew who is strengthening the hand of the enemy.

To speak about the continuing character causes instant discomfort to many Jews … Our insistence on saying, publicly and in many languages, that there is a definable Jewish character contradicts the counter message that Jews, in various degrees of assimilation, have been sending for some two hundred years, since the beginning of their emancipation in Europe.…

JEWS’ exploration of Jewish identity is based on what Hertzberg sees as the three main descriptions of a Jew: the Jew as the chosen, the factious, the outsider. This deeply rooted religious and cultural premise has been handed down from Abraham, argues Hertzberg, and all Jews must come to understand and accept it, not hide beneath the covers of assimilation. His views on assimilation also lead to his startling definitions of Anti-Semitism and the role Jews play:

But do the Jews make any contribution to Anti-Semitism? The answer is fundamentally and unavoidably, yes. Their contribution to Jew-hatred is that they insist on being Jews; by definition they challenge the dominant dogmas.At its root, anti-Semitism is an angry reaction to the Jews, who have been among the most persistent dissenters in every society in which they have lived

As the founders of modern Zionism put it, Theodor Herzl and Leon Pinsker said, anti-Semitism is the most pervasive expression of xenophobia hatred of the stranger … So long as Jews cling to their own faith and their own values, they call into question the majority faith and culture.


"Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that each person is a charabanc (that is, a public conveyance) on whom all his ancestors ride. That is a valid description of the essential and committed Jew. … Jews may argue with God and scream at one another with factional passion, but what keeps them together as a people is the conviction that they are the descendants of great ancestors. They want their children to continue the line." (p. 64)

"Contemporary Jews are descendants of stubborn people who resisted hostile cultures and powers for many centuries. Something of these ancestors lives within them. The lasting character of the Jews contains an element of defiance. But it is more than an act of resistance to alien cultures and other gods, or even to persecution. The source of the Jews’ determination to prevail is the fierce conviction that their values are the right ones." (p. 78)

"The economic exploitation of the Jew is a common expression of anti-Semitism, but it is not the cause. What gives particular impetus to this hatred is the perception that Jews are the enemies of conventional society, and therefore whatever they possess does not really belong to them; it has been stolen from the rightful owners of the land. When the Jews are perceived as ‘having too much,’ or when peasants want to avoid paying their bills, the obvious response is, ‘What, me, a Christian, pay that Jew?"’ (p. 85)

"The basic ingredients of [Jewish] identity would consist of pride in the Jewish past; a sense of specialness; defense of Jewish rights; protection of the poor; and the professed longing for return to Zion. What Disraeli affirmed as Jewishness amounted to group pride, Jewish nationalism, and social conscience. He omitted Jewish religion and Jewish culture because they had no special meaning to him. The same may be said for Jews today. They are "proud to be Jews," suffering the woes of all Jews, but they have no time for Jewish study, and they avoid that primal authority figure, the God of their ancestors." (p. 207)

"In some ways Israel is an ordinary state with a Jewish president, prime minister, generals, ambassadors, and everything else that comes with sovereignty. And yet Israel is not just another state among states. HerzI dreamed of Jewish "normalcy," but he failed to understand that the Jews will never agree to be like everyone else, not in the Diaspora and not in their own land. The otherness of the Jewish people transcends boundaries; it is a state of mind." (p. 216)

"If Jewish loyalty is based on nothing more than the hope that Jews will continue to choose Jewish music and art or Jewish religious rituals because they make them feel better as people, the hope is vain. If Judaism is in competition with other religious forms to make the individual feel spiritually or culturally enriched, the Jewish experience will no doubt win some of the time, but today, when one can summon up instantly by the computer the cultural and religious experiences of a hundred peoples, Judaism will not always compete well. Those Jews who feel now like having their spiritual needs met by a half hour of Kabbalah may wake up one morning in an ashram in northern India. By its very nature, new age religion, for which the wants, needs, yearnings, and heartaches of the individual are the ultimate standard, is a very porous form of Jewish commitment." (p. 258)

"Debates about whether non-believers can be ‘good Jews’ are irrelevant. [There is a kind of disbelief that] is the rejection of the specific rituals enjoined by Judaism. But these unbelievers busy themselves with nearly superhuman efforts in defending the State of Israel, in creating Jewish schools and cultural institutions, and in volunteering for various Jewish political organizations. The people who perform such tasks sometimes have trouble producing a coherent rationale for clinging to their Jewishness, but they feel compelled and even possessed to do so. The people who engage in such labors are asserting their commitment to the continued existence of Jewish otherness … I do not care what such Jews say they are doing. If they raise their children to follow after them in these compulsions, the God of the Jews is alive and well among them." (p. 260)

"The point must be made openly and unmistakably. The greatest threat to the Jewish people today comes not from the outside; it comes from the element of the Jewish people that regards itself as beyond criticism and sees itself as the judge and the jury of all the rest. … Yitzhak Rabin was shot because he knew that Israel could not survive alone and defiant. Those who agree with Rabin and those who do not are now in violent confrontation, and the strife is worsening. … The new messianists, and the ultra-Orthodox who are often their kindred spirits, are not only misleading Israel, they are also threatening the Jewish world as a whole." (P. 274 & 276)

DISTANT SISTERS: The Women I Left Behind by Judith Rotem, Foreward by Nessa Rapoport (The Jewish Publication Society, 0-8276-0583-8 )

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women do not wear veils, but their long, guarding garb and head coverings an eternal partition dividing them from their contemporary western sisters. Author Judith Rotem was born into one such Orthodox family in Budapest. In the early 1950s, her family moved into Bnei-Brak, an Israeli town whose population includes many of the very religious Jews known as the haredim. Rotem married at age 18 and went through ten pregnancies in twelve years, losing two babies and suffering a near-fatal premature delivery. After twenty years of marriage, she divorced her husband and haredi society, and took her daughters with her. Her son remains a haredi.

Ten years after Rotem left the ultra-Orthodox community, she returned to try to understand her former life, in which women are expected both to raise a houseful of children and to support their husbands while the men study Torah. She interviewed dozens of these women (often without their husbands’ approval) about such topics as marriage and divorce, children, "superwomanism," mothers and daughters, menopause, mikvah laws, the gap between men and women, the rejection of books, and new attitudes regarding materialistic life. Although her appraisal of their lives is often harsh, she is never critical of the women themselves, whom she sees as her sisters, even as she distances herself from them.

Judith Rotem lives in Israel. After divorcing her haredi husband, she supported her six daughters (and haredi son) by writing magazine articles and ghostwriting autobiographies, primarily of Holocaust survivors.

It is not surprising, then, that an author who declares herself part of the haredi community, writes under a pseudonym and takes pains to hide her identity and place, like another Salman Rushdie.

Perhaps in order to crush the seeds of danger, a surprising phenomenon is emerging in the field of haredi female reading. I am referring to religious literature, towards which intelligent haredi women are gravitating. Rivki (age thirty-three), an open and effervescent woman, dressed according to the rules of fashion as well as halakhah, tells me about her literary preferences. She enjoys reading books on religious thought. The letters of the biblical commentator Nahmanides, for example, envelop her in a sense of peace and security, and reinforce her religious awareness.

Ayala (thirty-seven) also gave up "forbidden" books in favor of sacred texts. "It’s been a long time since I’ve read light, common literature," she says. "I don’t enjoy it. My religious texts are good for me. ‘A Letter from Elijah’ by Rav Dessler [a twentieth-century rabbi whose writings on moral conduct are popular among haredi readers], biographies of rabbis and righteous men, Jewish philosophy." She is immersed in books, reading them over and over, feeling spiritually uplifted and satisfied. Ayala even gives up participation in courses, the great love of her past; her preoccupation with books fulfills her.

At the same time, it must be said that haredi women, for the most part, are not outstanding consumers of literature, art, and music, even if one occasionally encounters a haredi woman who is trying her hand, in a heartwarming way, at drawing, playing a musical instrument, or writing.

In its fear of the power of the book, the haredi world is turning its back on the aesthetic, spiritual, and creative values that are embedded in real literature.

The haredi world is not equipped to wrestle with western culture. Film is considered a destructive and impure medium, and those families who own television sets and video players (and many do) make sure to keep them in the bedroom, safely concealed by sophisticated wooden doors, carefully hidden from the eyes of strangers and children.

In its struggle with western culture, the haredi community chooses to throw out the baby with the bathwater, just to be on the safe side. It strives to receive the gifts of modern culture with an open heart, and to convert them to haredi’ut, just as it does with technological innovations. Haredi literature, film, theater, television, and art are castles in the air, a remote and repressed fantasy. The few who do not fit the norm are the exceptions that prove the rule.

And in the meantime, the haredi woman with a passion for books patronizes the forbidden culture, drinking it ardently. There is nothing as sweet as stolen water.

In the war of the book, I think, there are only the conquered. The victors, such as they are, lose not only aesthetic and spiritual assets, the topsoil of human creativity, but also something of inestimable value— freedom of thought.

Perhaps it is here that the roads fork. It is here that the milestones, identical in so many ways, separate and drift apart. In general society, freedom of thought is a dominant principle. The haredi community is dominated by an all-consuming principle that negates all others: the absolute obligation to obey the commandment of halakhah.

The clay that is given to the haredi woman is mixed from this principle. From this, she is expected to keep house, to establish a family, to live her life. And, to paraphrase the Biblical verse, be-dameha hi haya—in her blood she shall live.


The Untold Story of Henrietta Szold

edited by Baila Round Shargel

Jewish Publication Society

$34.95, cloth, notes, index


Love is one of life’s profoundest mysteries, and an accomplished woman’s obsession with a man who rejects her is an especially baffling conundrum. Such a drama was enacted in New York City just after the turn of the twentieth century between a young Talmudic genius and a multi-talented middle-aged woman. Their intimate, complex, and ultimately aborted friendship has been a matter of record for nine decades, yet the relationship has more often been subjected to whispers than disinterested examination.

Since the 1920s Henrietta Szold (1860-1945) and Louis Ginzberg (1873-1953) have functioned as icons in the Jewish world. Szold, founder of Hadassah, has inspired women by her selfless devotion to Zionism, modern medicine, and the rescue of children from the Nazi inferno. Ginzberg’s peerless Talmudic erudition still stimulates scholars. This study aims to consider with dispassion six years near the midpoint of their lives, 1903 to 1909. It was a pivotal period for each of them, but for different reasons. During this interval Ginzberg won his reputation in the pantheon of Jewish scholars. For Szold it was a season of self-redefinition through suffering, of belated yet peremptory expulsion from an Eden of sexual ignorance and personal innocence.

Henrietta Szold was a brilliant American Jewish scholar who reached distinction as one of the pioneering Jewish women leaders in the early twentieth century. She became a recognized voice for the Zionist movement and is best known as the founder of Hadassah, today the largest Jewish organization in the world. Her public work is so significant, her life so full and long, that admirers today remember her as a dynamic intellectual, too involved with building the Zionist homeland to have ever contemplated her own personal happiness. Yet in her earlier years, when she was editor at The Jewish Publication Society, she fell in love with the respected scholar and writer Louis Ginzberg with whom she collaborated on a multitude of scholarly and communal projects. Before the forty-two-year-old Szold met Ginzberg, romance was foreign to her, but from the moment she set eyes on the twenty-nine year old professor, she was deeply in love.

At age twenty-nine, slightly older than the other young men when he assumed his position, Ginzberg was already on the road to an enduring reputation as a scholar unmatched in the field of Talmud. He had mastered both the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud in Europe and in America would ultimately produce monumental Talmudic analyses. But during his first years in this country, 1900 to 1902, he composed short pieces; no fewer than 406 articles in German, which were translated for the new English language Jewish Encyclopedia. At the same time he was recruited for a second, even more ambitious project. The Legends of the Jews merged all the rabbinic fables and parables about the central biblical figures Into a seamless, continuous narratives

The two were an inseparable couple, always seen together—at the Jewish Theological Seminary , at her home, at synagogue, at social events, out on long walks in elegant Riverside Park over looking the Hudson River. Shy about personal matters and chained to her Victorian upbringing, Szold never spoke of her feelings. Painfully aware of the thirteen year discrepancy in their ages, she never revealed her all-consuming infatuation to Ginzberg or anyone else. Nevertheless, the fact that he unburdened himself to her, divulging his deepest hopes, even an occasional feeling of inadequacy, led her to believe that her love was returned in some measure.

Ginzberg’s sudden engagement to a beautiful and younger woman set the tongues of Jewish New York wagging and triggered in Szold a nervous breakdown. Her recuperation from disappointment and shame took more than three years. Only then did she muster the resolution to found Hadassah.

This book tells the story of Szold’s lost love in her own words through her correspondence with Ginzberg and a previously unpublished private journal that expresses longings and passions Szold kept secret from the world. Masterfully edited by Bada Shargel, these documents show a side of Szold not seen by the people around her. Shargel’s commentary discusses how these writings reveal both Szold’s inner life and her role as a tough-minded leader of women.

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