Reviewed by Robert Seltzer (Hunter College)
Published on H-Judaic (November, 2010)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
A Bird’s-Eye View of All of Jewish History, Seen from 2010 CE
This is an excellent overview of Jewish history--a well-written, up-to-date survey for college students and the general reader. Considering the scope of the coverage, the book is remarkably concise. The explanations under the attractive illustrations aptly point to their relevance in the period being discussed.
How can one convey the flow of more than three millennia of the Jewish past? A comprehensive “short” history requires a “master narrative” into which pertinent, characteristic details can be inserted. Michael Brenner’s unifying theme is the repeated, periodic transformation of the Jewish milieu. The subtitle of the first chapter is “A Wandering People” and of the first section of the last chapter, “The Wandering Goes On.” Every chapter title is in the mold of “From ... to”--for example, “From Ur to Canaan,” ”From Jerusalem to Yavneh,”“From Medina to Baghdad,” “From Dessau to Berlin,” ”From Posen to New Orleans,” “From Tétouan to Teheran,” and “From Everywhere to Auschwitz.” In this structure are the key historical events and processes.
Although more than half the book covers the eighteenth century to the present, Brenner provides an overview of the biblical era, late antiquity, and the Middle Ages into which he crams in a considerable amount of judiciously chosen information. To be sure, his description of the origins of Israel is at times rather speculative: “Some Biblical tribes certainly go back to the kinds of extended family communities that took their names from geographic points in their immediate surroundings” (p. 11). “The core of the historical tradition handed down undoubtedly goes back to the time of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, but the books of the Hebrew Bible first acquired their definitive form in the Persian and Hellenistic eras” (p. 2). “The experience of exile influenced the Torah. If one keeps this in mind, it becomes understandable why the Biblical narrative begins with the banishment from Paradise, continues with multiple expulsions from the Promised Land, and ends with the return to the land of Israel following slavery in Egypt” (p. 27). But he also does qualify his generalizations: “One possible historical interpretation [of Josiah’s centralization of the cult] is that the transfigured past of a united kingdom would underscore Judah’s predominance as the successor state to Israel” (p. 15).
An instance of skillful balance is Brenner’s summary of Rabban Yohanan ben Zaccai’s encounter with Vespasian during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE: “Not suspecting that his request [to found ‘a house of learning’ at Yavneh] would guarantee the continued existence of Judaism, the emperor granted him this wish. Historical scholarship has long proceeded from the assumption that we are dealing here with a founding legend about the Yavneh academy that was concocted later” (p. 55).
Scattered among the account of geographical shifts and institutional adjustments are enlivening observations. Here are few: “It caused a sensation when Bodo, the court chaplain to Emperor Louis the Pious, converted to Judaism. Instead of completing a pilgrimage to Rome, he moved to the Iberian peninsula and married a Jewish woman” (p. 97). As badly treated as Jews were in certain medieval situations, they had some rights, more than the bulk of the Christian population, the peasants. After the notorious burnings of the Talmud in the Middle Ages, “only a single complete manuscript of it survives. It is kept in the Bavarian State Library in Munich,” by the way, the city where Brenner teaches (pp. 103-104). Until the practice of burning Marranos was abolished in the nineteenth century, “an estimated nine thousand auto da fés took place in Spain, Portugal, and their colonies” (p. 121). The first synagogue in the Western Hemisphere was in Jooden Savanne in Surinam. Brenner does an adroit job calling attention to the rise of important Jewish urban centers in the early modern period (Amsterdam, Leghorn, Prague, Salonica, and so forth), each new locale allowing Jews to enjoy a new degree of economic mobility and welcome. While making clear the importance of the Sephardic Jewish migration to the Ottoman Empire in the 1490s, he points to the decline of the Jewish situation in the Islamic world later and the subsequent problems of modernization these Jewish communities usually faced under the auspices of European colonial powers (chapter 17).
Brenner’s expertise on the history of German Jewry comes to the fore in the second half of the book. “More and more, religious motives took a back seat to economic interests. The realization that Jews could be productive members of the state took hold and led to the formation of a new economic elite among the Jews of Central Europe” (p. 159). Especially well done are accounts of the erratic Jewish emancipation in Central Europe and the resulting efforts to redefine German-speaking Jews as “German citizens of the Jewish religion.” To be sure, one can demur if Hermann Cohen, whose importance as a great Jewish philosopher Brenner acknowledges, promoted the symbiosis of Deutschtum and Judentums any more than many other contemporary German-Jewish thinkers. But even those familiar with modern Jewish cultural figures will find surprises in his enumeration of Central European Jewish writers and intellectuals of the interwar period, for example, Frederich Torberg (born Friedrich Ephraim Kantor) who authored “what must be the only water polo novel ever written” (The Team ) (p. 309).
Brenner’s account of the Holocaust is just right in summary and illustrative remarks (e.g., Heinrich Himmler in July 1942 insisting that Finland deport to Germany the 150-200 Jews who had fled there). The immensity of the Shoah is apparent in the last section of the book and an appendix (“Jewish History in Numbers” from 1898 to 2006), which convey the magnitude of the losses through cool enumeration as well as the subsequent migrations that have drastically transformed Jewish life since 1939. After World War II “of the 420,000 surviving Jews in Romania, 273,000 went to Israel”; “In Baghdad at the beginning of 1950 every fourth inhabitant was still Jewish”; and so forth (p. 356). The book moves on to a balanced account of the creation of the State of Israel and the internal and external tensions in “an embattled homeland” and concludes with descriptions of important postwar branches of the Diaspora in Europe, South Africa, Latin America, Canada, and of course the United States (p. 377).
One can quibble with some of his capsule characterizations, for example, that Felix Adler, the founder of the Society for Ethical Culture, was part of “a larger social justice movement directed against capitalist exploitation” or that Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, ascribed “a purely abstract role to God” (pp. 216, 373). These characterization are not wrong, but not exactly right. And the singer Bob Dylan is not from Duluth, Minnesota; born Robert Zimmerman and sharing an uncle with my wife, he grew up in Hibbing, where there was a Jewish community (p. 372).
In sum, this is a very good book. The last sentence is, appropriately, “We cannot know what the future holds for the Jews of the twenty-first century, but it is certain that their history will continue to fascinate humankind for generations to come” (p. 387).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Robert Seltzer. Review of Brenner, Michael, A Short History of the Jews.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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