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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2010
Number 73
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Books in Brief: New and Notable

The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History by Ian J. Bickerton
The University of Chicago Press

Though more than 60 years have passed since the signing of the proclamation of the State of Israel, the impact of that epochal event continues to shape the political policies and public opinion of not only the Middle East but much of the world. In this timely volume, military historian Ian J. Bickerton cuts through the complex and emotional arguments in order to explain this struggle in objective detail, describing its history from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire to the present day. In concise and clear prose, he argues that the present problem can be traced to the fact that each side is trapped by a conception of their past from which they seem unable to break free. He emphasizes that, ultimately, the use of force has not, and cannot, resolve the issues that have divided Israelis and Arabs. He also provides an explanation of how Israel and Palestinians have reached this point as well as a path showing a way forward towards peace.

Jews in Nazi Berlin: From Kristallnacht to Liberation, edited by Beate Meyer, Herman Simon, and Chana Schutz
The University of Chicago Press

Drawing on an unprecedented collection of archival materials, the editors offer a collective history of the city’s Jewish population, the largest in all of Germany. Painstakingly reconstructing the atmosphere of repression and danger that slowly overtook daily life in the years that followed Hitler’s rise, the book interweaves documentary images with intimate first-person accounts and essays by leading scholars on such topics as emigration, Zionism, deportation, betrayal, and more. The multifaceted picture of struggle, resistance, resilience, and loss that emerges is both a memorial to a lost community and a crucial contribution to our continuing attempts to understand the Holocaust.

Is It Good for the Jews? More Stories from the Old Country and the New by Adam Biro
The University of Chicago Press

This sequel to Two Jews on a Train brings the lost world of Eastern European Jewish communities to unforgettable life, brimming with personality and spilling over with stories. Nagging parents, quibbling friends, disputatious rabbis who dare to argue with the Almighty–these familiar figures and many more play parts in Biro’s absurd inventive tales, invested with his obvious love of Jewish idiosyncrasy and shot through with a wry fatalism. Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson by Elliot R. Wolfson. New York: William Morrow.

While most literature on Schneerson focuses on whether or not he identified with the role of Messiah, Wolfson concentrates on his apocalyptic sensibility and his promotion of a mystical consciousness that undermines all discrimination. For Schneerson, the ploy of secrecy is crucial to the dissemination of the messianic secret. To be enlightened messianically is to be delivered from all conceptual limitations, even the very notion of becoming emancipated from limitation. Wolfson articulates Schneerson’s rich theology and profound philosophy, concentrating on the nature of apophatic embodiment, semiotic materiality, hypernomian transvaluation, nondifferentiated alterity, and atemporal temporality.

The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia
New York: Columbia University Press

Prague 1592: Emperor Rudolph II sits on the throne; the Papal Inquisitor has just arrived to persecute witches and heretics poisoning the word of Christ; and the city’s Jews live behind the walls of the ghetto. When the body of a young Christian girl is found in a Jewish shop on the eve of Passover, a blood libel charge is brought against the shopkeeper, imperiling the relative tolerance enjoyed by the entire Jewish community. With just three days to produce the real culprit, our hero, a young shames named Benyamin Ben-Akiva – teamed with the legendary, true-life figure of Rabbi Loew – must use his wits, inner strength, and knowledge of Jewish law to save the Jews of Prague.

The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches by Samantha Baskind and Ranen Omer-Sherman
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press

This book is a lively, interdisciplinary collection of essays that addresses critically acclaimed worked in this subgenre of Jewish literary and artistic culture. Featuring insightful discussions of notable figures, the contributors focus on how graphic novels are increasingly being used in Holocaust memoir and fiction and to portray Jewish identity in North America, Europe, and Israel. This comprehensive volume is a compelling representation of a major postmodern ethnic and artistic achievement.

The Life of Gluckel of Hameln. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society. Widely viewed as one of the earliest major published works written by a woman, this memoir has become a classic. Born in the Hamburg ghetto in 1646, Gluckel presents a compelling account of 17th century Germany and its Jewish community. Gluckel’s aim in writing the memoir was to survive the long nights that tormented her after the death of her beloved husband, and to record a family history for her 12 children. The only English translation of Gluckel’s story from the original Yiddish has been out of print for many years until this reissue from JPS.

Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust by Sarah A. Ogilvie and Scott Miller
Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press

The ordeal of the refugee ship St. Louis has become a symbol of the world’s indifference to the plight of European Jewry on the eve of the Holocaust. In the spring of 1939, more than 900 Jewish refugees boarded the St. Louis in Hamburg, Germany, hoping to escape escalating oppression by the Nazi government. Except for a small group that had special visas and was able to disembark in Havana, the ship and its passengers were denied entry by Cuba and the United States. Returning on an uncertain voyage to Europe, the refugees eventually were accepted by four western European countries. Other than the 288 sent to England, most once again fell under the Nazi grip that closed upon continental Europe a year later

Although the episode of the St. Louis is well known, the actual fate of the passengers, once they disembarked, slipped into historical obscurity. Prompted by a former passenger’s curiosity, the authors set out to discover what happened to each of the 937 passengers. Their investigation, spanning 10 years and half the globe, took them to unexpected places and produced surprising results.

Capitalism and the Jews by Jerry Z Muller
Princeton University Press

Drawing on many sources from medieval Europe through contemporary America and Israel, the author examines the ways in which thinking about capitalism and thinking about the Jews have gone hand in hand in European thought, and why anti-capitalism and anti-Semitism have frequently been linked. The book explains why Jews have tended to be disproportionately successful in capitalist societies, but also why Jews have numbered among the fiercest anti-capitalists and Communists. The author shows how the ancient idea that money was unproductive led from the stigmatization of usury and the Jews to the stigmatization of finance and, ultimately, in Marxism, the stigmatization of capitalism itself. Finally, the book traces how the traditional status of the Jews as a diasporic merchant minority both encouraged their economic success and made them particularly vulnerable to the ethnic nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Inextricably Bonded: Israeli and Arab and Jewish Writers Re-Visioning Culture by Rachel Feldhay Brenner
Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press

In the tragic reality of continuing conflict between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, this book affirms the insoluble ties between the two communities. The author examines how the literatures of both groups defy the ideologies that have obscured conversation between the two people. Her examination of Israel’s literature demonstrates the impact of Zionist identification with the West on the formation of the Israeli cultural canon. Readings from Jewish writers such as Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman, as well as from Arab writers such as Atallah Mansour, Emile Habiby, and Anton Shammas provide new insights into Israeli-Arab relations.

Jesus in the Talmud by Peter Schafer
Princeton University Press

Scattered throughout the Talmud, the founding document of rabbinic Judaism, are quite a few references to Jesus – and they’re not flattering. In this richly detailed and accessible book, Schafer examines how the rabbis of late antiquity read, understood, and used the New Testament Jesus narrative to assert Judaism’s superiority over Christianity.

Though these stories are virulently anti-Christian – they mock Jesus’ birth from a virgin, fervently contest his claim to be the Messiah, and maintain that he was rightfully executed as a blasphemer and idolater – Schafer contends that they betray a remarkable familiarity with the Gospels. The result is a deliberate and sophisticated parody of the New Testament narratives. A departure from past scholarship, which has discounted Talmudic stories of Jesus as unreliable, the author posits a much more deliberate agenda behind these narratives.

The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children by James L. Kugel
Princeton University Press

Rife with incest, adultery, rape, and murder, the biblical story of Jacob and his children must have troubled ancient readers. By any standard, this was a family with problems. In this book, Kugel retraces the steps of ancient biblical interpreters as they struggled to reconcile the behavior of their ancestors with their own moral and religious values. Kugel reveals how they often fixed on some little detail in the Bible’s wording to ”deduce” something not openly stated in the narrative. They concluded that Simeon and Levi were justified in killing all the men in a town to avenge the rape of their sister, and that Judah, who slept with his daughter-in-law, was the unfortunate victim of alcoholism. Through careful analysis of these retellings, Kugel presents an artful, compelling account of the very beginnings of biblical midrash.

Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker by Sarah Stroumsa
Princeton University Press

The author argues that Maimonides is most accurately viewed as a Mediterranean thinker who consistently interpreted his own Jewish tradition in contemporary multicultural terms. Maimonides spent his entire life in the Mediterranean region, and the religious and philosophical traditions that fed his thought were those of the wider world in which he lived. Stroumsa demonstrates that he was deeply influenced not only by Islamic philosophy but by Islamic culture as a whole, evidence of which she finds in his philosophy as well as his correspondence and legal and scientific writings. She begins with a concise biography, then carefully examines key aspects of his thought, including his approach to religion and the complex world of theology and religious ideas he encountered among Jews, Christians, Muslims, and even heretics; his views about science; the immense and unacknowledged impact of the Almohads on his thought; and his vision of human perfection.

Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society? Reciprocity and Solidarity in Ancient Judaism by Seth Schwartz
Princeton University Press

The author argues that Jewish social relations in antiquity were animated by a core tension between biblical solidarity and exchange-based social values such as patronage, vassalage, formal friendship, and debt slavery.

Schwartz’s examination of the Wisdom of Ben Sira, the writings of Josephus, and the Palestinian Talmud reveal that Jews were more deeply implicated in Roman and Mediterranean bonds of reciprocity and honor than is commonly assumed. He demonstrates how Ben Sira juxtaposes exhortations to biblical piety with hard-headed and seemingly contradictory advice about coping with the dangers of social relations with non-Jews; how Josephus describes Jews as essentially counter-cultural; yet how Talmudic rabbis assume Jews have completely internalized Roman norms at the same time as the rabbis seek to arouse resistance to those norms, even if it is only symbolic.

This work is the first comprehensive exploration of Jewish social integration in the Roman world, one that poses challenging new questions about the very nature of Mediterranean culture.

Orthodox Jews in America by Jeffrey S. Gurock
Bloomington: Indiana University Press

The author has penned the first social history of Orthodox Jews in America from the first arrivals in the 17th century to the present. He examines how Orthodox men and women have coped with the personal, familial, and communal challenges of religious freedom, economic opportunity, and social integration. His riveting narrative depicts lifestyles of Orthodox Jews and uncovers the historical tensions that have pitted the pious against the majority of their co-religionists who have disregarded Orthodox teachings and practice. Exploring Orthodox reactions to alternative Jewish religious movements that have flourished in a pluralistic America, he illuminates controversies about the compatibility of modern culture with a truly pious life, thus providing a nuanced view of the most intriguing present-day intra-Orthodox struggle – the relationship of feminism to traditional faith.

The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved & Why It Endures by Nicholas Wade
New York: The Penguin Press

In this original and thought-provoking book, the author traces how religion grew to be so essential to early societies in their struggle for existence that an instinct for faith became hardwired into human nature. As a force that binds people together and motivates individuals to put the interests of society above their own, religion encouraged moral behavior toward those within the group and aggression, when necessary, toward those outside it. Religion thus provided the earliest human societies with their equivalents of law and government. He then explores how religion was reshaped by culture to the very different needs of settled societies and how from these more social structured religions the three monotheisms arose. This first objective and nonpolemical book of its kind examines both the weaknesses of modern religion and the strengths that account for the remarkable persistence of faith.

Families, Rabbis and Education: Traditional Jewish Society in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe by Shaul Stampfer
Portland, OR: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

The essays collected in this book look at the past through the prism of the lives of ordinary people, with results that are sometimes surprising and always stimulating. The topics they treat are varied, but common to all of them is the concern to explain what lay behind the visible realities of family and community for East European Jews of the period; how children grew up and how they studied; how people married; and how they later negotiated such challenges as divorce, bereavement, remarriage, and caring for elderly parents. These areas of community life are always evolving, but in the 19th century the pace of change was exceptionally rapid. Stampfer deals with these social realities objectively and analytically. The result is a picture that is both honest and comprehensive.

Kings of the Jews: The Origins of the Jewish Nation by Norman Gelb
Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society

The author traces the evolution of the Jewish nation, forerunner of the modern state of Israel, through vivid accounts of the lives and times of the men and women who ruled it – from Saul to Agrippa II – in a Middle East even more turbulent than it is today.

A total of 52 men and two women served as monarchs between the years 1020 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. Their stories are told in this well-researched account. After Solomon died in 931 B.C.E., his realm was divided into Judah and Israel. For the next 109 years, each kingdom had 19 kings and, in addition, Israel had one queen. They fought with each other and with neighboring states; the rulers often came to a bloody end. Israel, the Northern Kingdom, was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. and little is known about the fate of its inhabitants. The Jews of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, were exiled into Babylonia in 587 B.C.E., and upon their return became subjects of the Persians, then Greeks and Syrians, until the rebellion of the Maccabees. Maccabean rule was followed by the Hasmoneans, who gave way to Herod, king under the Romans, from 37 to 4 B.C.E. When the Romans conquered Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Jewish monarchy finally ended.

This useful narrative recalls the contributions of Israel’s monarchs and brings them back to life. Through their lives the reader learns how a resilient people survived division, conquest, and exile more than 2000 years ago to forge a vibrant identity that has lasted to the present day. Gelb makes Jewish history approachable to the modern reader.

Reading Jewish Women: Marginality and Modernization in Nineteenth Century Eastern European Society by Iris Parush
Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press

In this extraordinary volume, Parush makes a paradoxical claim: she argues that because Jewish women were marginalized and neglected by rabbinical authorities who regarded men as the bearers of religious learning, they were free to read secular literature in German, Yiddish, Polish, and Russian As a Result of their exposure to a wealth of literature, these reading women became significant conduits for Haskalah (Enlightenment) ideas and ideals within the nineteenth century Eastern European Jewish community.

Eva’s Story: A Survivor’s Tale by Eva Schloss with Evelyn Julia Kent
Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Many know the tragic story of Anne Frank, the teen whose life ended at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. But most people don’t know about Eva Schloss, Anne’s playmate and posthumous stepsister. Though Eva, like Anne, was imprisoned in Auschwitz at the age of 15, her story did not end there. Together with her mother, Eva endured daily degradation at the hands of the Nazis. She survived the prison camps, but it would be decades before Eva was able to tell her survivor’s tale.

Concluding with a revealing new interview with Eva, this moving memoir recounts – without bitterness or hatred – the horrors of war, the love between mother and daughter, and the strength and determination that helped a family overcome danger and traged

Brothers Estranged: Heresy, Christianity, and Jewish Identity in Late Antiquity by Adiel Schremer
New York: Oxford University Press

The emergence of formative Judaism traditionally has been examined as a result of a competition between Christianity and Judaism in the first centuries of the Common Era. In this book, Schremer attempts to shift the scholarly consensus, instead privileging the rabbinic attitude toward Rome over their concern with the nascent movement. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 CE and the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt combined to spur an intense identity crisis in Palestinian Jewish society – and, consequently, the formation of a new ”Jewish” identity.

Schremer gives particular attention to the rabbinic discourse of minut, equivalent to the Christian term ”heresy.” In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, the category of heresy took on new urgency as Palestinian rabbinic society sought to reaffirm and preserve its values and distinct Jewish identity. The rabbis re-established religious boundaries by labeling some Jews as minim, and thus placing them beyond the pale. The rabbinic discourse emphasized notions of social and communal solidarity and belonging; minim, accordingly, were Jews whose fault was seen in their separation from the rest of the Jewish community.

The place that Christianity occupied in rabbinic discourse was relatively small, and the early Christians, who only gradually were relegated to the category of minim, were not its main target. Relying on the recently scholarly acceptance of the slow and measured growth of Christianity in the empire up to and even after Constantine’s conversion, Schremer minimizes the attention that the rabbis paid to the Christian presence. He goes on, however, to pinpoint the parting of the ways between the rabbis and the Christians in the first third of the second century, when Christians were finally assigned to the category of heretics. Yet, throughout late antiquity, he contends, the Roman Empire was the real ”significant other” for Palestinian rabbis. The religious challenge with which they were most occupied was the Empire’s power and the threat it posed to the belief in God’s power and divinity.

The Life and Thought of Hans Jonas: Jewish Dimensions by Christian Wiese
Waltham, MA: Brandeis University

Hans Jonas (1903-1993) is one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. Born in a German Jewish community in the Rhineland, Jonas’ mentors included Husserl, Bultmann, and Heidegger. The committed Zionist fled Germany in 1933 for Jerusalem, fought in the British Army against Hitler, and then left Israel for North America in 1949. Much of Jonas’ philosophy responds to contemporary historical and political challenges: mass society, totalitarianism, the Holocaust, ”nuclearism,” environmental devastation and, later, the risks of genetic engineering.

Christian Wiese’s study examines how Jonas’ Jewish background influenced his intellectual development. Wiese shows how philosophical ethics and Jewish identity were two inseparable aspects of his thinking, with the fight against Nihilism as the most important link. Drawing on a wealth of unpublished material and exploring momentous encounters with major figures of 20th century life and letters, like Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt, Wiese demonstrates how Jonas combined religious and philosophical elements in his thought, and offers new insights into the work of this eminent thinker.

Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews by Peter Longerich
New York: Oxford University Press.

This masterful history uses and unrivalled range of sources to lay out in clear detail the steps taken by the Nazis that would lead ultimately to the Final Solution. For this English translation, the whole of the original text was revised to take account of the latest scholarship in the field of Holocaust studies. Focusing closely on the perpetrators and exploring the process of decision making, Longerich convincingly shows that anti-Semitism was not a mere byproduct of the Nazis’ political mobilization or an attempt to deflect the attention of the masses. Rather, from 1933 anti-Jewish policy was a central tenet of the Nazi movement’s attempts to implement, disseminate and secure National Socialist rule – and one which crucially shaped Nazi policy decisions. Contrary to what has been believed in the past, the German populace responded relatively enthusiastically to Nazi anti-Semitism.

Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex by Hayim Tawil and Bernard Schneider
Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America

Known by many simply as “the Crown,” the Aleppo Codex is the earliest known codex of the Hebrew Bible. Considered to be the most authoritative and accurate Masoretic biblical text, it is now treasured as one of the most important biblical manuscripts in all of Jewish history.

Completed by about 930, the Crown was created by exacting Tiberian scribes who took years to copy the entire Bible from parchment scrolls into book form, adding vowel and cantillation marks, and precise annotations as they worked.

Praised by Torah scholars for centuries, the Crown passed through many hands until the 15th century, when it found a safe home in the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, Syria. But when the synagogue was burned in the 1947 pogrom, the codex was thought to be destroyed, lost forever.

That is where its great mystery begins. Miraculously, a significant portion of the Crown of Aleppo survived the great fire and was smuggled from the synagogue ruins to an unknown location – presumably in Aleppo. Ten years later, the surviving pages of the codex were secretly brought to Israel and finally moved to their current location in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

This is the story of how, in medieval Israel, this masterpiece came to be, and how, hundreds of years later, it found its way back to its homeland.

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Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

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