VCU Menorah Review
Current issue • Archive • Search
VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2012
Number 76
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Books in Brief: New and Notable

Disenchantment: George Steiner and the Meaning of Western Civilization after Auschwitz by Catherine D. Chatterley
Syracuse University Press

George Steiner has enjoyed international acclaim as a distinguished cultural critic for many years. The son of central European Jews, he was born in France, fled from the Nazis to New York in 1940, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1944. Through his many books, voluminous literary criticism, and book review articles published in the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Guardian, Steiner has played a major role in introducing the works of prominent continental writers and thinkers to readers in North America and Great Britain.

Having escaped the Nazis as a child, Steiner vowed that his work as an intellectual would attempt to understand the tragedy of the Shoah. In Disenchantment, Chatterly focuses on Steiner’s neglected writings on the Holocaust and anti-Semitism and places this work at the center of her analysis of his criticism. She clearly demonstrates how Steiner’s family history and education, as well as the historical and cultural developments that surrounded him, are central to the evolution of his dominant intellectual concerns. It is during the 1950s and 1960s, in relation to unfolding discoveries about the Nazi murder of European Jewry, that Steiner begins to study the effects of the Holocaust on language and culture and then questions the very purpose and meaning of the humanities.

The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
New York: Schocken Books

Since its publication in 1995, this book has opened new pathways in the reading of the Bible. Zornberg’s innovative use of midrash, literature, philosophy, and psychoanalysis draws deeply upon the familiar biblical narratives to produce interpretations that are at once startlingly beautiful and completely authentic. Illuminating the tensions that grip human beings as they search for an encounter with God, Zornberg gives us a brilliant analysis of the stories of Adam and Eve: Noah, Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, and Joseph and his brothers.

The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
New York: Schocken Books

In her commentary on the book of Exodus—the stories of slavery and liberation, the burning bush, the revelation at Sinai, the golden calf, the shattering of the tablets, the building and consecration of the tabernacle—Zornberg weaves a magnificent tapestry of classical biblical, Talmudic, and midrashic interpretations: literary allusions; and insights from the worlds of philosophy and psychology into a narrative that gives us fascinating new perspectives on the biblical themes of exodus and redemption.

Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk’s Creator, S. An-sky by Gabriella Safran
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

The author argues that it was An-sky’s sense of in-betweenness, which haunted him his whole life, that enabled him to compose his most enduring works: his ethnographic documentation of the lives of Russian peasant and rural Jews, and the play The Dybbuk, the most famous work in Yiddish theatre, which draws on Jewish believes and on feelings of displacement as it evokes the passage of a restless soul that possesses a young woman.

This first biography of An-sky is based on writings and archival records in Yiddish, French, Russian, and Hebrew, many of which became available only after the dissolution of the USSR. The story Safran tells with the aid of thee materials is remarkable: born Shloyme-Zanvl Rappoport in a shtetl in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, An-sky grew up speaking Yiddish in the heavily Jewish city of Vitebsk (home, too of fellow border Marc Chagall), lived in St. Petersburg, Paris, and Bern, and worked as a tutor, in a salt mine, and ever as a writer.

In recounting the novelistic life of a man who lived at a time and in a place requiring multiple, shifting, and often conflicting identities, Safran also tells the story of Europe in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries—and the origin story of a Jewish identity that entwines with, but remains separate, from national identity.

“I Have Always Loved the Holy Tongue”: Isaac Casaubon, The Jews, And A Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance Scholarship by Tony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg
Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

Isaac Casaubon is best remembered today as the subject of Mark Pattison’s ur-Victorian biography, or by way of the eponymous pedant in Middlemarch. Now, the authors marshal heroic archival research to reveal a sui generis scholar in his time.

They sifted through piles of pre-1600 books, searching for those annotated in Casaubon’s crabbed hand. The materials they found, many of which re reproduced here, revealed Casaubon’s knowledge of Hebrew to be deeper than scholars had believed. These annotations also placed Casaubon at the center of the most exciting scholarship of his age, including the quest to unveil a number of forged or misdated documents (most notoriously those attributed to Hermes Trismegistus), and the beginning of the scholarly study of late antiquity and of early Christianity.

Painstakingly reconstructing notes that earlier scholars had thought impossible to decipher, the authors show how Casaubon read texts—his goals, his motivations, and his methods. As they recreate Casaubon’s scholarly process, the authors also reanimate an epoch when debates over topics like the chronology of Jesus’ crucifixion transfixed scholars across Europe, galvanizing rivalries, friendships, and feuds.

Places of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe by Elisheva Carleback
Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

In 2002, historian Carlebach asked a librarian at the New York Public Library for early modern Jewish calendars. The librarian retrieved from the stacks the hefty tomes Carlebach had anticipated, but also something more intriguing: tiny, colorful calendars, hand-sized, and hand-written. “The artifacts were so small that I nearly overlooked them; designed to be ephemeral, tossed away after a year, they had miraculously survived for several centuries. Since that initial wonderment, I have search for everything related to them”

The fruit of her enchantment with these artifacts, and of her years-long search for more of them, is now this beautiful and illuminated book. She draws on the calendars, many of which are reproduced here in full color, to reconstruct the daily life of Jews in early modern Europe. The calendar dictated holidays and the Sabbath, but often noted as well the feast and market days observed by gentiles, reflecting a minority culture’s constant awareness of the majority. She writes that Jews have always lived in multiple time scales, and the calendars reflect the sometimes uneasy balance between separation and integration that marked Jewish life in the Christian world. In her hands, these calendars, ephemeral objects never designed for posterity and so easily lost, become rich portals, capable of transporting the reader to another place and time.

Daniel Stein, Interpreter , by Ludmila Ulitskaya
New York: The Overlook Press

A skillfully crafted literary roman epistolaire, a philosophical tale, a profound historical survey and an entertaining piece of fiction, this novel covers side and geographical areas: Germany, Israel, United States, Russia — and dramatic historical epochs from the Second World War in Warsaw to modern Israel. It enters into deep historical detail: the tragedy of Holocaust, the rise and fall of Communism and, even more important, it gives a new reading to the role of Christianity.

The book is constructed as a patchwork of private histories recounted through the letters, personal diaries, taped conversations and a liberal supply of official notes, interrogation reports, documents and letters of formal complaints to the authorities. The element that links all of these sources is the story of Daniel Stein, a Polish Jew, who survives the Holocaust by disguising himself as a Gestapo interpreter and translator. This charade allows him not only to save himself, but to help save hundreds of human lives by sharing vital information with those who are in peril. The character of Daniel Stein is based on the life of Oswald Rufeisen, the real Brother Daniel, a Carmelite monk who lived at Stella Maris monastery on Mount Carmel in Haifa and who died in 1998.

Angels at the Table: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat by Yvette Alt Miller
New York: Continuum International Publishing Group

This is a clear, practice guide to Shabbat. Interweaving practical advice, information, anecdote, liturgical text and history, the book provides a perfect entrée for anyone who has ever wanted to tap into the Shabbat experience. In clear, straightforward language, it explains the myriad rituals, customs, prayers and rules of a traditional Jewish Shabbat and includes the common songs, prayers, and recipes. Whatever the level of knowledge or religious observance, the book will answer questions and become a trusted resource in observing Shabbat and in understanding how it has sustained the Jewish people through the ages.

Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love by William Kolbrener
New York: Continuum International Publishing Group

Kolbrener offers a voice advocating renewed Jewish commitment and openness for the 21st century. In his essays, he provides power, and often surprising, insights into how open mindedness allows for authentic Jewish engagement in an age otherwise defined by fundamentalism or unbelief. Through a personal synthesis of Western and Jewish learning, popular culture and philosophy, Kolbrener offers a compelling new vision where being open minded allows for a non-dogmatic and committed Judaism. Informed by considerable erudition, his essays are critical for those wanting to pursue a non-coercive, tolerant and creative Jewish life.

Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism by Jack Ross
Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books

Anti-Zionism in America has a long history. Elmer Berger was undoubtedly the best known Jewish anti-Zionist during most of his lifetime, particularly during World War II through the 1967 Six-Day War and its aftermath. A Reform rabbi, Berger served throughout that period as the executive director of the American Council for Judaism, an anti-Zionist organization founded by leading Reform rabbis.

Jack Ross places liberal Jewish anti-Zionism (as opposed to that of Orthodox or revolutionary socialist Jews0 in historical perspective. That brand of anti-Zionism was virtually embodied by Rabbi Berger and his predecessors in the Reform rabbinate. Berger advocated forcefully for his position, much to the chagrin of his Zionist detractors. The growing renaissance of liberal Jewish anti-Zionism, combined with the forgotten work of Rabbi Berger and the American Council for Judaism, makes a compelling case for revisiting his work in this full-length, definitive biography.

After Weegee: Essays on Contemporary American Photographers by Daniel Morris
Syracuse University Press

Examining a range of styles from the gritty vernacular sensibility of Weegee (Arthur Felig) to the glitzy theatricality of Annie Leibovitz, Morris takes a thoughtful look at ten American photographers, exploring the artists’ often ambivalent relationships to their Jewish backgrounds. Going against the grain of most criticism on the subject, Morris argues that it is difficult to label Jewish American photographers as unequivocal “outsiders” or “insiders” with respect to mainstream American culture. He show it is equally difficult to assign a characteristic style to such a varied group whose backgrounds range from self-taught photographers to those trained in art school. In eclectic ways, however, the contemporary photographers highlighted in this book carry on the social justice and documentary tradition associated with Sid Grossman, Aaron Siskind, and the primarily Jewish Photo League of the 1930s by chronicling the downside of the Reagan revolution of the 1980s.

Rather than record movements or trends in current Jewish American photography, Morris focuses in-depth on the work of Bruce Davidson, Jim Goldberg, Mel Rosenthal, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Allen Ginsberg, Annie Leibovitz, Tyagan Miller, Aaron Siskind, and Marc Asnin. These photographers share a tendency toward socially informed expression and an interest in self-expression via the operations of photography, inevitably shaped by histories of socially conscious or documentary imaging.

Becoming Jewish: The Challenges, Rewards, and Paths to Conversion by Steven Carr Reuben and Jennifer S. Hanin
Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

The authors’ main objective in writing this book was to look at ever facet of what it is like to convert to Judaism. Hanin herself converted from Catholicism to Judaism and Reuben was the rabbi at the synagogue she first visited. Another goal was to give some clarification on certain Jewish customs and rituals such as gestures, practices, expressions and the language itself. The book includes stories from other people who have converted to Judaism along with Reuben’s advice as well as a glossary of key Jewish terms to help with a transition to Judaism.

The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism: The Menorah Association and American Diversity by Daniel Greene
Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Daniel Greene traces the emergence of the idea of cultural pluralism to the lived experienced of a group of Jewish college students and public intellectuals, including the philosopher Horace M. Kallen. These young Jews faced particular challenges as they sought to integrate themselves into the American academy and literary world of the early 20th century. At Harvard University, they founded an influential student organization known as the Menorah Association in 1906 and later the Menorah Journal, which became a leading voice of Jewish public opinion in the 1920s. In response to the idea that the American melting pot would erase all cultural differences, the Menorah Association advocated a pluralist America that would accommodate a thriving Jewish culture while bringing Jewishness into mainstream American life.

Einstein before Israel by Ze’ev Rosenkranz
Princeton University Press

Rosencranz sheds new light on Einstein’s encounters with prominent Zionist leaders and reveals exactly what Einstein did and didn’t like about Zionist beliefs, objectives, and methods. He looks at the personal, cultural, and political factors that led Einstein to support certain goals of Jewish nationalism; his role in the birth of the Hebrew University; his impressions of the emerging Jewish settlements in Palestine; and his reaction to mounting violence in the Arab-Jewish conflict. The author explores a host of fascinating questions, such as whether Zionists sought to silence Einstein’s criticism of their movement, whether Einstein was the real manipulator, and whether this Zionist icon was indeed a committed believer in Zionism or an iconoclast beholden to no one.

Millions of Jews to Rescue by Samuel Merlin, edited and annotated by Rafael Medoff
Washington, D.C.: The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

The Roosevelt administration tried to deport them. The FBI spied on them. The British wanted to arrest them. But none of that could stop the Bergson Group from forging ahead with its campaign for rescue of Jews from the Holocaust in 1943-1944. Their rallies, lobbying in Washington, and hundreds of newspaper advertisements shook the American public and forced the Allies to face the Nazi genocide. In these pages, the late Samuel Merlin, one of the group’s leaders, tells the remarkable story of a handful of activists — Jews and Christians — who helped change history.

A Prophetic Peace: Judaism, Religion, and Politics by Alick Isaacs
Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Challenging deeply held convictions about Judaism, Zionism, war, and peace, Isaac’s combat experience in the second Lebanon war provoked him to search for a way of reconciling the belligerence of religion with its messages of peace. In his insightful readings of the texts of biblical prophecy and rabbinic law, Isaacs draws on the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Martin Buber, among others, to propose an ambitious vision of religiously inspired peace. Rejecting the notion of Jewish theology as partial to war and vengeance, this eloquent and moving work points to the ways in which Judaism can be a path to peace. This book describes an educational project called Talking Peace whose aim is to bring individuals of different views together to share varying understandings of peace.

Sharon: The Life of a Leader by Gilad Sharon
New York: Harper

Exhaustively researched, Sharon draws on meticulously kept records. The result is a rare, intimate and compelling look at the man and his evolution into one of the world’s most powerful and polarizing figures. At the same time, the book offers an unparalleled view of global politics in action and reveals the prime minister’s private discussions with major heads of state. It is a sweeping, illuminating portrait of a legendary statesman.

The Chosen People: A Study of Jewish Intelligence and Achievement by Richard Lynn
Augusta, Ga.: Washington Summit Publishers

With this book, Richard Lynn undertakes a systematic inquiry into the general intelligence of Jews worldwide. Calling upon history as well as the latest advances in genetic analysis and evolutionary theory, Lynn demonstrates that in the past 250 years, high IQ has been the foundation of Jewish influence, success, and power. This study is integrated with concise narratives of the Jewish experience in various countries and regions, as well as a discussion of the cultural and genetic divisions within the Jewish ethnos.

What the Bible Really Says: The Essential Guide to Biblical Literacy by T.J. Wray
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Opening with a 60-second Bible quiz to test a reader’s knowledge, the author provides essential background information to arm readers with the tools necessary to read and interpret passages on their own. With these tools in hand, Wray helps readers explore what the Bible says about key issues today, including suffering heaven and hell, gender and sexuality, and the environment. The book is an indispensable guide for individuals and groups interested in gaining a fuller understanding of the Bible and the lessons it imparts.

Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

New York: Alfred A. Knopf

In a gripping narrative, Montefiore reveals the ever-changing city of Jerusalem in its many incarnations, bringing every epoch and character blazingly to life. Jerusalem’s biography is told through the wars, love affairs and revelations of the men and women — kings, empresses, prophets, poets, saints, conquerors and whores — who created, destroyed, chronicled and believed in Jerusalem. Drawing on new archives, current scholarship, his own family papers and a lifetime’s study, the author illuminates the essence of sanctity and mysticism, identity and empire in a unique chronicle of the city that many believe will be the setting for the Apocalypse. This is how Jerusalem became Jerusalem, the only city that exists twice—in heaven and on earth.

|  Virginia Commonwealth University  |  College of Humanities and Sciences  |  School of World Studies  |
Center for Judiac Studies

Comments and manuscripts are welcome.
Address all correspondence to:
Center for Judaic Studies
Box 842021
312 North Shafer Street
Richmond, Virginia 23284-2021

Phone: (804) 827-0909  |  Email:

Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

Created by VCU University Relations