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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2011
Number 74
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Books in Brief: New and Notable

Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius
New York: Oxford University Press

The author present the long and troubling history of anti-Semitism in England from the middle ages to the 21st century, identifying four distinct versions of English anti-Semitism, which he then investigates in detail.

The first is the anti-Semitism of medieval England a radical prejudice of defamation, expropriation, and murder, which culminated in 1290, the year of Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews from England, after which there were no Jews left to torment.

The second major strand is literary anti-Semitism: an anti-Semitic account of Jews continuously reappearing in English literature, from the anonymous medieval ballad “Sir Hugh, or the Jew’s Daughter” through Shakespeare to Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, and beyond.

Thirdly, Julius addresses modern anti-Semitism, a quotidian anti-Semitism of insult and partial exclusion, pervasive but contained, experienced by Jews from their “readmission” to England in the mid-17th century through to the late 20th century.

The final chapters then deal with contemporary anti-Semitism, a new configuration of anti-Zionisms, emerging in the late 1960s and the 1970s, which treats Zionism and the State of Israel as illegitimate Jewish enterprises. It is this final perspective which, in Julius’s opinion, now constitutes the greatest threat to Anglo-Jewish security and morale.

This book, the first history of its kind, is sure to provoke much comment and debate, and comes as a timely reminder that English culture has been in no way immune to anti-Semitism?and in certain ways is still not to this day.

Elijah and the Rabbis: Story and Theology by Kristin H. Lindbeck.
New York: Columbia University Press

Through an innovative synthesis of narrative critique, oral-formulaic study, folkloric research, and literary analysis, Lindbeck reads all the Elijah narratives in the Babylonian Talmud and details the rise of a distinct, quasi-angelic figure who takes pleasure in ordinary interaction.

During the Talmudic period of 50-500 C.E., Elijah developed into a recognizable character quite different from the Elijah of the Bible. The Elijah of the Talmud dispenses wisdom, advice and, like the Elijah of Jewish folklore, helps people directly, even with material gifts. Lindbeck highlights particular features of the Elijah stories, allowing them to be grouped into generic categories and considered alongside Rabbinic literary motifs and non-Jewish tradition of late antiquity. She compares Elijah in the Babylonian Talmud to a range of characters?angels, rabbis, wonder-workers, the angel of death, Christian saints, and even the Greek god Hermes. She concludes with a survey of Elijah’s diverse roles from medieval times to today, throwing into brilliant relief the complex relationship between ancient Elijah traditions and later folktales and liturgy that show Elijah bringing benefits and blessings, appearing at circumcisions and Passover, and visiting households after the Sabbath.

Old World, New Mirrors: On Jewish Mysticism and Twentieth-Century Thought by Moshe Idel
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

There emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries a new Jewish elite, notes Idel, made up no longer of prophets, priests, kings, or rabbis but of intellectuals and academicians working in secular universities or writing for an audience not defined by any one set of religious beliefs. In this book, Idel turns his gaze on figures as diverse as Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida, Franz Kafka and Franz Rosenzweig, Arnaldo Momigliano and Paul Celan, Abraham Heschel and George Steiner to reflect on their relationships to Judaism in a cosmopolitan, mostly European context.

One of the world’s most eminent scholars of Jewish mysticism, Idel focuses in particular on the mystical aspects of his subject’s writings. Avoiding all attempts to discern anything like a single “essence of Judaism” in their works, he nevertheless maintains a sustained effort to illumine especially the Kabbalistic and Hasidic strains of thought these figures would have derived from earlier Jewish sources. Looming large throughout is Gershom Scholem, the thinker who played such a crucial role in establishing the study of Kabbalah as a modern academic discipline and whose influence pervades Idel’s own work; indeed, the author observes, much of the book may be seen as a mirror held up to reflect on the broader reception of Scholem’s thought.

Moses of South Carolina: A Jewish Scalawag during Radical Reconstruction by Benjamin Ginsberg
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press

Franklin Moses, Jr. is one of the great forgotten figures of American history. Scion of a distinguished Jewish family in South Carolina, he was a firebrand supporter of secession and an officer in the Confederate army. Moses then reversed course. As Reconstruction governor of South Carolina, he shocked and outraged his white constituents by championing racial equality and socializing freely with former slaves. Friends denounced him, his family disowned him, and enemies ultimately drive him from his home state.

In this book, Ginsberg rescues the protean figure and his fascinating story from obscurity. Though Moses was far from a saint?he was known as the “robber governor” for his corrupt ways ? Ginsberg suggests that Moses nonetheless deserves better treatment in the historical record. Despite his moral lapses, Moses launched social programs, integrated state institutions, and made it possible for blacks to attend the state university.

As a Jew, Moses grew up on the fringe of southern plantation society. After the Civil War, he envisioned a culture different from the one in which he had been raised, one that included the newly freed slaves. From the margins of southern society, Moses built America’s first black-Jewish alliance, a model, argues Ginsberg, for the coalitions that would help reshape American politics in the decades to come.

Revisiting the story of the South’s “most perfect scalawag,” Ginsberg contributes to a broader understanding of the essential role southern Jews played during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Displaced Persons by Ghita Schwarz
New York: William Morrow

This novel tells the tale of four Polish Jews, following through in three distinct periods in their lives: from their first meeting in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp, to their early attempts at family histories, concluding with the year 2000. In haunting, unsentimental prose that mimics the characters’ native cadences of Yiddish and Polish, Schwarz explores the self-conscious strivings of a community that sees survival as a lifelong project and history as the responsibility of those who have lived it. Through this compelling story of ordinary, imperfect women who are neither mythically noble nor irrevocably broken, the author documents joy, sadness, love, loss, humor, anger and hope into the present and future.

Kiev, Jewish Metropolis: A History, 1859-1914 by Natan M. Meir
Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Populated by urbane Jewish merchants and professionals as well as new arrivals from the shtetl, imperial Kiev was acclaimed for its opportunities for education, culture, employment, and entrepreneurship but cursed for the often pitiless persecution of its Jews. This volume limns the history of Kiev Jewry from the official readmission of Jews to the city in 1859 to the outbreak of World War I. It explores the Jewish community’s politics, its leadership struggles, socioeconomic and demographic shifts, religious and cultural sensibilities, and relations with the city’s Christian population. Drawing on archival documents, the local press, memoirs, and belles letters, Meir shows Kiev’s Jews at work, at leisure, in the synagogue, and engaged in the activities of myriad Jewish organizations and philanthropies.

In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands by Martin Gilbert
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

The relationship between Jews and Muslims has been a flashpoint that affects stability in the Middle East and had consequences around the globe. In this absorbing and eloquent book, Martin Gilbert challenges the standard media portrayal and presents a fascinating account of hope, opportunity, fear and terror that have characterized these two people through the 1400 years of their intertwined history.

In Ishmael’s House sheds light on a time of prosperity and opportunity for Jews in Muslim lands stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan, with many instances of Muslim openness, support, and courage. Drawing on Jewish, Christian and Muslim sources, Gilbert uses archived material, poems, letters, memoirs and personal testimony to uncover the human voice of this centuries-old conflict. Ultimately, the author’s moving account of mutual tolerance between Muslims and Jews provides a perspective on current events and a template for the future.

A Short History of the Jews by Michael Brenner
Princeton University Press

The story of the Jewish people is told in a sweeping and powerful historical narrative. Brenner chronicles the Jewish experience from Biblical times to today, tracing what is at heart a drama of migration and chance, yet one that is also deeply rooted in tradition. He traces the latest scholarly perspectives in Jewish history, making this short history the most learned yet broadly accessible book available on the subject.

Brenner takes readers from the mythic wanderings of Moses to the atrocities of the Holocaust, from Babylonian exile to the founding of the State of Israel; from the Sephardic communities under medieval Islam to the shtetls of eastern Europe and the Hasidic enclaves of modern-day Brooklyn. This richly illustrated book is full of fascinating and often personal stories of exodus and return through the centuries and highlights the important contributions Jews have made to the arts, politics, religion, and science?a compelling blend of storytelling and scholarship that brings the history of the Jewish people marvelously to life.

The Jewish Odyssey of George Elliot by Gertrude Himmelfarb
New York: Encounter Books

George Eliot is perhaps the most beloved literary figure of the Victorian era, but what distinguishes her even further from her contemporaries is her final and most unusual novel, Daniel Deronda. The novel, a work that affirmed the idea of the Jewish state long before Zionist thinkers had even introduced the concept, bewildered Eliot’s admirers and critics alike when it was published in 1876. Even today, many dismiss Daniel Deronda as an anomaly and fail to acknowledge the work for what it is?a meticulously executed novel with uncanny prescience on a major issue of our time.

In her book, Himmelfarb, a leading Victorian scholar, unravels the confusion surrounding the work and Eliot herself. Indeed, the fact that George Eliot was a Victorian agnostic makes her novel a mystery for those who wish to fully grasp Eliot and her body of work. As Himmelfarb reveals, Eliot was in fact fiercely committed to the novel, and to “the Jewish question” it answers. Thus the work must be examined with the same care and rigor as Eliot’s masterpiece.

In her book, Himmelfarb asks:
a) Why did this Victorian novelist, born a Christian and an early convert to agnosticism, write a book so respectful of Judaism and so prophetic about Zionism?
b) Why at a time when there were no pogroms or persecutions to provoke her?
c) What was the general conception of the “Jewish Question,” and how did Eliot reinterpret that “question” for her time as well as ours.

Himmelfarb gives new life to a virtually forgotten work?one that is undoubtedly more relevant to the world we live in today than to the world in which it was born.

Judah L. Magnes: An American Nonconformist by Daniel P. Dotzin
Syracuse University Press

Judah L. Magnes (1877-1948) was an American Reform rabbi, Jewish community leaders, and active pacifist during World War I. In the 1920s he moved to British Mandatory Palestine where he helped found and served as first chancellor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, he emerged as the leading advocate for the binational plan for Palestine. In these varied roles, he actively participated in the major transformations in American Jewish life and the Zionist movement during the first half of the 20th century.

Kotzin tells the story of how Magnes, immersed in American Jewish life. Zionism, and Jewish life in Mandatory Palestine, rebelled against the dominant strains of all three. His tireless efforts ensured that Jewish public life was vibrant and diverse, and not controlled by any one faction within Jewry. Magnes brought American ideals to Palestine, and his unique conception of Zionism shaped the Jewish public life in Palestine, influencing both the development of the Hebrew University and Zionist policy toward Arabs.

A New Shoah: The Untold Story of Israel’s Victims of Terrorism by Giulio Meotti
New York: Encounter Books

Every day in Israel, memorials are held for people killed simply because they were Jews? condemned by the fury of Islamic fundamentalism. This is the first book devoted to telling the story of these Israeli terror victims. It centers on a previously unheard oral history of the Middle Eastern conflict from the viewpoint of the Jewish victims and their families.

Ten years ago, Palestinian terrorist groups launched their Second Intifada, resulting in an Israeli “Ground Zero” with 1700 civilian victims. Israel is a tiny country, and this number would be proportionally equivalent to about 70,000 terror victims in the United States. The hundreds of attacks in Israel, day after day, amount to a sort of “new Shoah,” as Roger Scruton explains in his foreword.

Meotti spoke to many of the Israeli families that have been destroyed by terror attacks in all the ordinary places of everyday life. Many of these survivors told their heartbreaking stories of loss for the first time. In these human fragments lie the raison d’etre for the State of Israel, the first country in the world to experience suicide bombings on a massive scale, the fruit of jihadi-nihilism.

Norman Podhoretz: A Biography by Thomas L. Jeffers
New York: Cambridge University Press

This is the first biography of the Jewish-American intellectual, longtime editor of the influential magazine Commentary. As both an editor and a writer, he spearheaded the countercultural revolution of the 1960s and?after he “broke ranks”?the neoconservative response. For years he defined what was at stake in the struggle against communism; recently he has nerved America for a new struggle against jihadist Islam; and always he has given substance to debates over the function of religion, ethics, and the arts in our society.

The turning point of his life occurred at the age of 40, near a farmhouse in upstate New York, in a mystic clarification. It compelled him to “unlearn” much that he had earlier been taught to value, and it also made him enemies.

Revealing the private as well as the public Podhoretz, Jeffers chronicles a heroically coherent life.

Hermeneutics of Holiness: Ancient and Christian Notions of Sexuality and Religious Community by Naomi Koltun-Fromm
New York: Oxford University Press

Koltun-Fromm examines the ancient nexus of holiness and sexuality and explores its roots in the biblical texts as well as its manifestations throughout ancient and late-ancient Judaism and early Syriac Christianity. In the process, she tells the story of how the biblical notions of “holy person” and “holy community” came to be defined by the sexual and marriage practices of various interpretive communities in late antiquity.

The author seeks to explain why sexuality, especially sexual restraint, became a primary demarcation of sacred community boundaries among Jews and Christians in fourth-century Persian-Mesopotomia. She charts three primary manifestations of holiness: holiness ascribed, holiness achieved, and holiness acquired through ritual purity. The Development of these three concepts are traced, from their origin in the biblical texts to the Second Temple literature (both Jewish and Christian) to the Syriac Christian and rabbinic literature of the fourth century. In so doing, the importance of biblical interpretation for late-ancient Jewish and Christian practices is established, in addition to the centrality of holiness as a category for self-definition, and the relationship of fourth-century asceticism to biblical texts and interpretive history.

Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest by Michael Krasny
Novato, CA: New World Library

The contention between the “new” atheists and the devout is causing a resurgence in agnostic studies. Krasny maintains a position that “stands open to veritification of either side of the God question.” Deftly balancing biography and literary scholarship, the book is both a personal examination of agnosticism and a balanced voice in the complex debate over faith’s role in society. Krasny grew up a strong believer in his Jewish faith, until adolescent questioning led him to declare he just wasn’t sure. Despite a lost connection with God, the young Krasny continued to seek a divine presence, even admitting to feelings of envy toward those possessing “the consolation of faith.” In this book, agnosticism is a tool to philosophically engage with various manifestations of faith including organized religion, spiritual-but-not-religious sentiments, and even paranormal theories. Krasny remains agnostic to the end, even while declaring his respect for the benefits religion can bring to believers.

A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy by Thomas Buergenthal
New York: Little, Brown and Company

In Katowice, Poland, in 1939, Buergenthal’s mother goes to see a fortune-teller. The fortune-teller immediately knows that she is married with one child, though she looks considerably younger than her 27 years and has removed her wedding ring. Her son, she is told, is a “lucky child” and will emerge unharmed from the future that awaits him.

Thomas Buergenthal, who has just finished a decade of service as the American judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, had no idea at the time how harrowing that future was to be, or how lucky he would become.

The young Buergenthal refuses to let the weight of responsibility for his own life deflate his childlike spirit. He sneaks a heavenly sip of milk from a kitchen in Auschwitz, “borrows” a bicycle from an SS guard, and is presented with a pony by the Polish army that liberates him.

Most astonishingly, he forgives his Nazi captors and devotes his life to human rights law, becoming an international law professor, human rights lawyer, and international judge. After a decade at The Hague, he has returned to the United States to resume teaching at the George Washington University School of Law.

Silver From the Land of Israel: A New Light on the Sabbath and Holidays From the Writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, edited by Rabbi Chanan Morrison Jerusalem: Urim Publications

Abraham Isaac Kook, the celebrated first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, is recognized as being among the most important Jewish thinkers. Just as his writings reflect the mystic’s search for underlying unity in all aspects of life and the world, his unique personality united a rare combination of talents and gifts. A prominent rabbinical authority and active public leader, Rav Kook was, at the same time, a deeply religious mystic. He was both Talmudic scholar and poet, original thinker and tsaddik.

Because of their poetic and mystical nature, Rav Kook’s writings are difficult even for readers who are fluent in Hebrew and rabbinic texts. Freundel uses a clear, succinct style to provide the reader with a window into his original and creative insights.

Why We Pray What We Pray: The Remarkable History of Jewish Prayer by Barry Freundel
Jerusalem: Urim Publications

Freundel details the various factors that influenced six important Jewish payers and shaped how and when Jews recite them. This book shows that each prayer has a complex history of which contemporary worshippers are mostly unaware. When we learn about the factors and forces that shaped these prayers and Jewish liturgy in general, our appreciation of what Jewish worship is all about becomes that much more profound. The author also sets forth important moments in Jewish history with depth and detail.

The Witness House: Nazis and Holocaust Survivors Sharing a Villa during the Nuremberg Trials by Christian Kohl
New York: Other Press

Early in 1946, six Jewish concentration camp survivors arrived at a little house in Nuremberg where they were to stay while serving as witnesses in the Nuremberg Trials. In a curious yet fascinating twist, they, along with other witnesses for the prosecution, were housed under the same roof as those to testify for the defense. In this co-called Witness House, perpetrators and victims confronted each other in a microcosm that reflected the events of the high court. Presiding over the affair was the beautiful Countess Ingeborg Kalnoky, a woman who took great pride in her ability to keep the household civil and the communal dinners pleasant. Though accounts of this extraordinary house exist in many World War II memoirs, this riveting new book is the first to explore in detail its history.

Operation Exodus: From the Nazi Death Camps to the Promised Land by Gordon Thomas
New York: Thomas Dunne Books

As the horrors of World War II swirled around the world, a single man from Palestine began to have the new vision of a home for his people as madness exploded all around him. David Ben-Gurion wanted to find a way to bring every Jew back to their home in Palestine. His efforts along with that of the underground Jewish movement, Haganah, heightened their passion to see the Aliyah Bet (immigration of Holocaust survivors) come to fruition. Could there finally be a Promised Land? In his new book, Thomas replays the event that led many survivors on a journey to start a new nation. Enriched with new survivors’ testimonies and previously unpublished documentation, this book is a deeply moving story of people who risked it all to find a home.

The Jew Is Not My Enemy: Unveiling the Myths that Fuel Muslim Anti-Semitism by Tarek Fatah
Ontario: McClelland & Stewart

A liberal Muslim and critically acclaimed author explores the historical, political, and theological basis for centuries of Muslim animosity towards Jews, debunking long-held myths and tracing a history of hate and its impact today. Fatah uses extensive research to trace how literature from as early as the seventh century has fueled the hatred of Jews by Muslims. Fatah debunks the anti-Jewish writings of the Hadith literature, takes apart the Arab supremacist doctrines that lend fuel to the fire, and interprets supposed anti-Jewish passages in the Koran. In doing so, he argues that hating Jews is against the essence of the Islamic spirit and suggest what needs to be done to eliminate the agonizing friction between the two communities.

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Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

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