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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2012
Number 77
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Books in Brief: New and Notable

Mornings at the Stanton Street Schul by Jonathan Boyarin
Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press

In these pages, Boyarin invites us to share the intimate life of the Stanton Street Schul, one of the last remaining Jewish congregations on New York’s historic Lower East Side. This narrow building is full of clamorous voices the generations of the dead who somehow contrive to make their presence known, and the newer generation, keeping the building and its memories alive and making themselves Jews in the process. Through the eyes of Boyarin, at once a member of the congregation and a bemused anthropologist, the book follows this congregation of “year round Jews” through the course of a summer when its future must once again be decided. Coming inside with the author, we see the congregation’s life as a combination of quiet heroism, ironic humor, disputes for the sake of heaven and perhaps otherwise, and above all the ongoing search for ways to connect with Jewish ancestors while remaining true to oneself in the present.

Narrating the Law: A Poetic of Talmudic Legal Stories by Barry Scott Wimphheimer
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Works of law, including the Talmud, are animated by a desire to create clear usable precedent. This animating impulse toward clarity is generally absent in narratives, the form sof which are better able to capture the subtleties of lived life. Wimpfheimer proposes to make these different forms compatible by constructing as narrative-based law that considers law as one of several “languages,” along with politics, ethics, psychology, and others, that together compose culture. A narrative-based law is capable to recognizing the limitations of theoretical statutes and the degree to which other cultural languages interact with legal discourse, complicating any attempts to actualize a hypothetical set of rules. This way of considering law strongly resists the divide in traditional Jewish learning between legal literature (Halachah) and non-legal literature (Aggadah) by suggesting the possibility of discourse broad enough to capture both. This book activates this mode of reading by looked at the Talmud’s legal stories, a set of texts that sits uncomfortably on the divide between Halachah and Aggadah. After noticing that such stories invite an expansive definition of law that includes other voices, the author also mines the stories for the rich descriptions of rabbinic culture that they encapsulate.

The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816 by Pawel Maciejko
Philadelphia: University Pennsylvania Press

To most Christians, Jacob Frank and his followers seemed to be members of a Jewish sect; to Jewish reformers, they formed a group making a valiant if misguided attempt to being an end to the power of the rabbis; and to more traditional Jews, they were heretics to be suppressed by the rabbinate. What is undeniable is that by the late 18th century, the Frankists numbered in the tens of thousands and had a significant political and ideological influence on non-Jewish communities throughout eastern and central Europe.

Based on extensive archival research in Poland, the Czech Republic, Israel, Germany, the United States, and the Vatican, The Mixed Multitude is the first comprehensive study of Frank and Frankism in more than a century and offers an important new perspective on Jewish-Christian relations in the Age of Enlightenment.

The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe by Shmuel Feiner
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Throughout the 18th century, an ever-sharper distinction emerged between Jews of the old order and those who were self-consciously of a new world. As aspirations for liberation clashed with adherence to tradition, as national ethnic, cultural, and other alternatives emerged and a long, circuitous search for identity began, it was no longer evident that the definition of Jewishness would be based on the beliefs and practices surrounded the study of the Torah.
In this book, Feiner reconstructs this evolution by listening to the voices of those who participated in the process and by deciphering its cultural codes and meanings. On the other hand, a great majority of observant Jews still accepted the authority of the Talmud and the leadership of the rabbis; on the other, there was a gradually more conspicuous minority of “Epicureans” and “freethinkers.” As the ground shifted, each individual was marked according to his or her place on the path between faith and heresy, between devoutness and permissiveness or indifference.

Feiner unfolds the story of critics of religion, mostly Ashkenazic Jews, who did not take active part in the secular intellectual revival known as the Haskalah. In open or concealed rebellion, his subjects lived primarily in the cities of western and central Europe Altona-Hamburg, Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Breslau, and Prague. They participated as “fashionable” Jews adopting the habits and clothing of the surrounding Gentile society. Several also adopted the deist worldview of Enlightenment Europe, rejecting faith in revelation, the authority of Scripture, and the obligations to observe the commandments.

Peering into the synagogue, observing individuals in the coffeehouse or strolling the boulevards and peeking into the bedroom, Feiner recovers forgotten critics of religion from both the margins and the center of Jewish discourse. His is a pioneering work on the origins of one of the most significant transformations of modern Jewish history.

Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi, 1666-1816 by Ada Rapoport-Albert
The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. Oxford: U.K.

Sabbatai Zevi addressed to women a highly original liberationist message. The author traces the diverse manifestations of this vision in every phase of Sabbatianism and its offshoots. These include the early promotion of women to center-stage as messianic prophetesses; their independent affiliation with the movement in their own right; their initiation in the esoteric teachings of the kabbalah; and their full incorporation, on a par with men, into the ritual and devotional life of the messianic community. Their investment with authority was such as to elevate the messiah’s wife (a figure mostly absent from traditional messianic speculation) to the rank of full messianic consort, sharing in her husband’s redemptive mission as well as his divine dimension. By the late 18th century, a syncretistic cult had developed that recognized in Eva the unmarried daughter of Jacob Frank, one of Sabbatai Zevi’s apostate successors an incarnate female aspect of the kabbalistic godhead, worshipped by her father’s devotees as “Holy Virgin” and female messiah. This was the culmination of the Sabbatian endeavor to transcend the traditional gender paradigm that had excluded women from the public arena of Jewish spiritual life.

The Jewish Annotated New Testament edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler
Oxford University Press

This is a groundbreaking text for scholarship, interfaith dialogue, and secular or religious readers. Clear, accessible scholarship brings out the Jewish context of the New Testament. It present Judaism before, during, and after the time of Jesus and his immediate followers. It explores the early community of Jesus-followers and their eventual separation from Judaism. There is unflinching treatment of anti-Judaism in the New Testament and in later history. For Jewish readers, this publication is a trustworthy introduction to this essential cultural text. For Christians, it offers a new view of the Jewish contexts in which the New Testament and the community of Jesus followers arose. And for all readers, it provides essential background and new perspectives on these pivotal writings.

Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto: The Untold Story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising by Moshe Arens
Jerusalem and New York: Gefen Publishing House

In his new book, Arens brings to light the truth about Jewish heroism and self-sacrifice in the Warsaw ghetto. His thorough research does justice to groups and individuals whose critical role and extraordinary bravery have up until now been largely left out of the historical record. Facing unimaginable odds and internecine differences, these men and women fought and fell for the honor of the Jewish people, and they deserve to be recognized. Arens’ groundbreaking work is another remarkable chapter in the life of a leader who has dedicated himself to strengthening the Jewish people.

Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany by Robert P. Ericksen
New York: Cambridge University Press

In one of the darker aspects of Nazi Germany, churches and universities generally respected institutionsgrew to accept and support Nazi ideology. Ericksen explains how an advanced, highly educated, Christian nation could commit the crimes of the Holocaust. This book describes how Germany’s intellectual and spiritual leaders enthusiastically partnered with Hitler’s regime, thus becoming active participants in the persecution of Jews and, ultimately, in the Holocaust. Ericksen also examines Germany’s deeply flawed yet successful postwar policy of denazification in these institutions. The author argues that enthusiasm for Hitler within churches and universities effectively gave Germans permission to participate in the Nazi regime.

Chelmno and the Holocaust: The History of Hitler’s First Death Camp by Patrick Montague
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press
As the first extermination camp established by the Nazi regime and the prototype of the single-purpose death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec, the Chelmno death camp stands as a crucial but largely unexplored element of the Holocaust. This book is the first comprehensive work in any language to expose all aspects of the camp’s history, organization, and operations and to remedy the dearth of information in the Holocaust literature about Chelmnoestablished in a small pastoral village in rural Poland to launch a campaign of mass murder. Chelmno was the first camp to be created with the explicit aim of killing, thus launching the process of industrialized human extermination which the Nazis came to perfect.

We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust by Ellen Cassedy
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press

The author’s longing to recover the Yiddish she’d lost with her mother’s death eventually led her to Lithuania, once the “Jerusalem of the North.” As she prepared for her journey, her uncle, 60 years after had had left Lithuania in a boxcar, made a shocking disclosure about his wartime experience, and an elderly man from her ancestral town made an unsettling request. Gradually, what had begun as a personal journey broadened into a larger exploration of how the people of this country, Jews and non-Jews alike, are confronting their past in order to move forward into the future. How does a nationhow do successor generations, moral beingsovercome a bloody past? How do we judge the bystanders, collaborators, perpetrators, rescuers, and ourselves? These are the questions Cassedy confronts, one woman’s exploration of Lithuania’s Jewish history combined with a personal exploration of her own family’s place in it. She finds that it’s not just the facts of history that matter, but what we choose to do with them.

The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman
Algonquin Books: Chapel Hill, NC

This true-life detective story unveils the journey of a sacred text the 10th century annotated Hebrew Bible known as the “Aleppo Codex” from its hiding place in a Syrian synagogue to the new founded State of Israel. Based on the author’s independent research, documents kept secret for 50 years, and personal interviews with key players, the book proposes a new theory of what happened when the codex was torn from a grotto in Aleppo, Syria in the late 1940s and eventually surfaced in Jerusalem mysteriously incomplete. The closest thing Jews have to the word of God, the codex provides vital keys to reading biblical texts. By recounting its history, Friedman explores the once vibrant Jewish communities in Islamic lands and follows the thread into the present, uncovering difficult truths about the manuscript’s clandestine travels and how its most important pages went missing. He raises critical questions about who owns historical treasures and about the role of myth and legend in the creation of a nation. In an age when physical books matter less and less, here is a thrilling story about a book that meant everything.

City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of the Old Odessa by Jarrod Tanny
Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Old Odessa, on the Black Sea, gained notoriety as a legendary city of Jewish gangsters and swindlers, a frontier boomtown mythologized for the adventurers, criminals and merrymakers who flocked there to seek easy wealth and lead lives of debauchery and excess. Odessa is also famed for the brand of Jewish humor brought there in the 19th century from the shtetls of Eastern Europe and that flourished throughout Soviet times. From a broad perspective, Tanny examines the hybrid Judeo-Russian culture that emerged in Odessa in the 19th century and persisted through the Soviet era and beyond. The book shows how the art of eminent Soviet-era figures grew out of the Odessa Russian-Jewish culture into which they were born and which shaped their lives. Another element of Odessa is its depiction as a site of wit and irony, where thieves and lowlifes evoke laughter through their dissolute behavior. Odessa’s Jewish criminals, as portrayed in literature and film, display a brand of humor that was brought to the city from the shtetls of Easter Europe. Along with the Jews themselves, Jewish humor found a new home in Odessa, where it quickly became the dominant mode for articulating the Odessa myth.

The Spinoza Problem: A Novel by Irwin D. Yalom
New York: Basic Books

When 16-year-old Alfred Rosenberg is called into his headmaster’s office for anti-Semitic remarks he made during a school speech, he is forced, as punishment, to memorize passages about Spinoza from the autobiography of the German poet Goethe. Rosenberg is stunned to discover that Goethe, his idol, was a great admirer of the Jewish 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Long after graduation, Rosenberg remains haunted by this “Spinoza problem”: how could the German genius Goethe have been inspired by a member of a race Rosenberg considers so inferior to his own, a race he was determined to destroy? Spinoza himself was no stranger to punishment during his lifetime. Because of his unorthodox religious views, he was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish community in 1656, at the age of 24, and banished from the only world he had ever known. Though his life was short and he lived without means in great isolation, he nonetheless produced works that changed the course of history.

Over the years, Rosenberg rose through the ranks to become an outspoken Nazi ideologue, a faithful servant of Hitler, and the main author of racial policy for the Third Reich. Still, his Spinoza obsession lingered. By imagining the unexpected intersection of Spinoza’s life with Rosenberg’s, Yalom explores the mindsets of two men separated by 300 years. Using his skills as a psychiatrist, he explores the inner lives of Spinoza, the saintly secular philosopher, and of Rosenberg, the godless mass murderer.

Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past by Yehuda Kurtzer
Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press

Modern Jews tend to relate to the past through “history,” which relies on empirical demonstration and rational thought, rather than through “memory,” which relies on the non-rational architectures of mythology. By now “history” has surpassed “memory” as a means of relating to the past a development that falls short in building identity and creates a disconnect between Jews and their collective history. Kurtzer seeks to mend this breach. Drawing on key classical texts, he shows that “history” and “memory” are not exclusive and that the perceived dissonance between them can be healed by a selective reclamation of the past and a translation of that past into purposefulness.

Eichmann’s Jews: The Jewish Administration of Holocaust Vienna, 1938-1945 by Doron Rabinovici
Boston, MA: Polity Press

This book is a major new study of the role of the Jews, and more specifically the “judenrat” or Jewish Council, in Holocaust Vienna. It was in Vienna that Eichmann developed and tested his model for a Nazi Jewish policy from 1938 onwards, and the leaders of the Viennese Jwish community were the prototypes for all subsequent Jewish councils. By studying the situation in Vienna, it is possible to gain a unique insight into the way that the Nazi regime incorporated the Jewish community into its machinery of destruction. Rabnovici’s rich and insightful account enables us to understand in a new way the terrible reality of the victims’ plight: faced with the stark choice of death or cooperation, many chose to cooperate with the authorities in the hope that their actions might turn out to be the lesser evil.

The Holocaust, Religion, and the Politics of Collective Memory: Beyond Sociology by Ronald J. Berger
Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers

As historical scholarship on the Holocaust has proliferated, perhaps no other tragedy or even has been as thoroughly documented. Sociologists have paid less attention to the Holocaust than historians and have been slower to fully integrate the genocide into their corpus of disciplinary knowledge and realize that this monumental tragedy affords opportunities to examine issues that are central to some main themes of sociological inquiry. Berger’s book fuses history and sociology; it illuminates the Holocaust as a social construction. Berger’s aim is to counter sociologists who argue that the genocide should be maintained as an area of study unto itself, as a topic that should be segregated from conventional sociology courses and general concerns of sociological inquiry. Berger argues that the issues raised by the Holocaust are ventral to social science as well as historical studies.

Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the “Jewish Vote” and Bipartisan Support for Israel by Sonja Schoepf Wenting and Rafael Medoff
Seattle, WA: CreateSpace Publishers

Although Herbert Hoover is not remembered as having had much interaction with Jews or interest in issue of Jewish concern, he in fact played a significant role in aiding Jewish communities devastated by World War One and pogroms; supported the cause of a Jewish state despite pressure from his own State Department; actively promoted the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust; and played a key part in the emergence of the "Jewish vote" in American politics and bipartisan support for Israel. The authors uncover a hidden history of how it was in fact Republicans, led by Herbert Hoover, who first made a concerted effort to organize the American Jewish vote. The late Benzion Netanyahu, the current Israeli Prime Minister's father, was instrumental in reaching out to U.S. politicians to support the Jewish people living in Israel and their eventual statehood. This is an important book for anyone interested in the role of Jews in the U.S. political system.

Jews Welcome Coffee: Tradition and Innovation in Early Modern Germany by Robert Liberles
Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press

Tracing the introduction of coffee into Europe, Robert Liberles challenges long-held assumptions about early modern Jewish history and shows how the Jews harnessed an innovation that enriched their personal, religious, social, and economic lives. Focusing on Jewish society in Germany in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and using coffee as a key to understanding social change, Liberles analyzes German rabbinic rulings on coffee, Jewish consumption patterns, the commercial importance of coffee for various social strata, differences based on gender, and the efforts of German authorities to restrict Jewish trade in coffee, as well as the integration of Jews into society.

The Fervent Embrace: Liberal Protestants, Evangelicals, and Israel by Caitlin Carenen
New York University Press

When Israel declared its independence in 1948, Harry Truman issued a memo recognizing the Israeli government within eleven minutes. Today, the U.S. and Israel continue on as partners in an at times controversial alliance an alliance, many argue, that is powerfully influenced by the Christian Right. In The Fervent Embrace, Caitlin Carenen chronicles the American Christian relationship with Israel, tracing first mainline Protestant and then evangelical support for Zionism. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, American liberal Protestants argued that America had a moral humanitarian duty to support Israel. Christian anti-Semitism had helped bring about the Holocaust, they declared, and so Christians must help make amends. Moreover, a stable and democratic Israel would no doubt make the Middle East a safer place for future American interests. Carenen argues that it was this mainline Protestant position that laid the foundation for the current evangelical Protestant support for Israel, which is based primarily on theological grounds. Drawing on previously unexplored archival material from the Central Zionist Archives in Israel, this volume tells the full story of the American Christian-Israel relationship, bringing the various "players" American liberal Protestants, American Evangelicals, American Jews, and Israelis together into one historical narrative.

The Rise of the Individual in 1950s Israel: A Challenge to Collectivism by Orit Rozin
Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press

In this sharply argued volume, Orit Rozin reveals the flaws in the conventional account of Israeli society in the 1950s, which portrayed the Israeli public as committed to a collectivist ideology. In fact, major sectors of Israeli society espoused individualism and rejected the state-imposed collectivist ideology. Rozin draws on archival, legal, and media sources to analyze the attitudes of black-market profiteers, politicians and judges, middle-class homemakers, and immigrants living in transit camps and rural settlements.

Part of a refreshing trend in recent Israeli historiography to study the voices, emotions, and ideas of ordinary people, Rozin's book provides an important corrective to much extant scholarly literature on Israel's early years.

Were the Popes against the Jews? Tracking the Myths, Confronting the Ideologues by Justus George Lawler
Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

How many people know that a modern pope publicly referred to Jews as “dogs;” that two other modern popes called the Jewish religion “Satan's synagogue”; that at the beginning of the 20th century another pope refused to save the life of a Jew accused of ritual murder, even though the pope knew the man was innocent? Lastly, how many people know that only a decade before the rise of Hitler, another pope supported priests who called for the extermination of all the Jews in the world? The answer has to be "great numbers of people" since those accusations appeared in David I. Kertzer's The Popes Against the Jews (2001), a book which had been lauded in major journals and newspapers in the U.S. and the U.K., and which by 2006 had been translated into nine foreign languages, while Kertzer himself according to his website, had become "America's foremost expert on the modern history of the Vatican's relations with the Jews." It is thus undeniable that very many people in very many countries have heard of the appalling misdeeds and misstatements mentioned above -- even though, in fact, not one of them was ever perpetrated by any pope. But this book is not only about the disclosure of these shocking slanders, however fascinating and important such an expose is. In the broader perspective, it is about the power of ideology to subvert historical judgments, whether the latter concern the origins of anti-Semitism and the papacy, the distortion of documents to indict Pius XII, or the fabrication of Pius XI as "codependent collaborator" with Mussolini (the announced subject of Kertzer's next book). Justus George Lawler's confrontation with ideologues will gratify all who are seeking not triumph over opponents, but peace and justice for all.

Holy Dissent: Jewish and Christian Mystics in Eastern Europe, edited by Glenn Dynner
Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press

The religious communities of early modern Eastern Europe particularly those with a mystical bent are typically studied in isolation. Yet the heavy Slavic imprint on Jewish popular mysticism and pervasive Judaizing tendencies among Christian dissenters call into question the presumed binary quality of Jewish-Christian interactions. In this book, editor Glenn Dynner presents twelve essays that chart contacts, parallels, and mutual influences between Jewish and Christian mystics. With cutting-edge research on folk healers, messianists, Hasidim, and Christian sectarians, this volume presents instances of rich cultural interchange and bold border transgression.

Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion by Steven Gimbel
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Is relativity Jewish? The Nazis denigrated Albert Einstein’s revolutionary theory by calling it "Jewish science," a charge typical of the ideological excesses of Hitler and his followers. Philosopher of science Steven Gimbel explores the many meanings of this provocative phrase and considers whether there is any sense in which Einstein’s theory of relativity is Jewish. Arguing that we must take seriously the possibility that the Nazis were in some measure correct, Gimbel examines Einstein and his work to explore how beliefs, background, and environment may or may not have influenced the work of the scientist. You cannot understand Einstein’s science, Gimbel declares, without knowing the history, religion, and philosophy that influenced it. No one, especially Einstein himself, denies Einstein's Jewish heritage, but many are uncomfortable saying that he was being a Jew while he was at his desk working. To understand what "Jewish" means for Einstein’s work, Gimbel first explores the many definitions of "Jewish" and asks whether there are elements of Talmudic thinking apparent in Einstein’s theory of relativity. He applies this line of inquiry to other scientists, including Isaac Newton, Ren Descartes, Sigmund Freud, and mile Durkheim, to consider whether their specific religious beliefs or backgrounds manifested in their scientific endeavors. Gimbel intertwines science, history, philosophy, theology, and politics in fresh and fascinating ways to solve the multifaceted riddle of what religion meansand what it means to science. There are some senses, Gimbel claims, in which Jews can find a special connection to E = mc2, and this claim leads to the engaging, spirited debate at the heart of this book.

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Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

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