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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2009
Number 71
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Books in Brief: New and Notable

Culture Front: Representing Jews in Eastern Europe, edited by Benjamin Nathans and Gabriella Safran. Philadelphia: Penn Press.

For most of the last four centuries, the broad expanse of territory between the Baltic and the Black Seas, known since the Enlightenment as “Eastern Europe,” has been home to the world’s largest Jewish population. The Jews of Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Galicia, Romania and Ukraine were prodigious generators of modern Jewish culture. Their volatile blend of religious traditionalism and precocious quests for collective self-emancipation lies at the heart of Culture Front.

This volume brings together contributions by both historians and literary scholars to take readers on a journey across the cultural history of East European Jewry from the mid-17th century to the present. The articles collected here explore how Jews and their Slavic neighbors produced and consumed imaginative representations of Jewish life in chronicles, plays, novels, poetry, memoirs, museums and more.

The book puts culture at the forefront of analysis, treating verbal artistry itself as a kind of frontier through which Jews and Slavs imagined, experienced and negotiated with themselves and each other. The four sections investigate the distinctive themes of that frontier: violence and civility; popular culture; politics and aesthetics; and memory. The result is a fresh exploration of ideas and movements that helped change the landscape of modern Jewish history.

Antisemitic Myths: A Historical and Contemporary Anthology, edited by Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

The revival of anti-Semitism in Europe and the demonization of Jews in parts of the Muslim world give special importance to the exposure of the myths and lies that for centuries led people to regard Jews as the dangerous “other” and that led to violence and persecution. This provocative anthology presents 90 documents that focus on the nature, evolution, and meaning of the principal myths that have made anti-Semitism such a lethal force in history: Jews as decides, ritual murderers, agents of Satan, international conspirators, and conniving, unscrupulous Shylocks. Also included are documents illustrating the recent revival of classical myths about Jews among black nationalists, Holocaust deniers, and Islamic fundamentalists.

Flory: A Miraculous Story of Survival by Flory A. Van Beek. San Francisco: HarperOne

A Dutch-Jewish Holocaust survivor now living in California, Van Beek recalls her harrowing experiences at the mercy of the Nazis. In 1939, fearing a German invasion of Holland, the 18-year-old Van Beek left her Rotterdam family for Argentina with her German-Jewish boyfriend, Felix. But German mines sank their ship; seriously injured, they recuperated in England, but were refused permanent residency there and arrived back in Holland right before the Germans. In the panic of the invasion, Van Beek’s aunt and her family attempted suicide, with one cousin succeeding. Anti-Jewish pogroms and deportations escalated, and in 1942 Van Beek, now living with her mother's family in the Dutch town of Amersfoort, received a summons to report to a German work camp. A chance meeting with an altruistic Resistance member resulted in hiding places for the couple and some family members. But Van Beek’s mother was deported to Westerbork and a poignant letter that she threw from the train headed to Auschwitz, where she was murdered, managed to reach Van Beek. Although the author’s rudimentary writing skills hinder her memoir, this has intrinsic value as a Holocaust survivor testimony.

Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews by Kevin J. Madigan and Job D. Levenson. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

This book, written for religious and nonreligious people alike in clear and accessible language, Although this expectation, known as the resurrection of the dead, is widely understood to have been a part of Christianity from its beginnings nearly two thousand years ago, many people are surprised to learn that the Jews believed in resurrection long before the emergence of Christianity. In this sensitively written and historically accurate book, religious scholars Kevin J. Madigan and Jon D. Levenson aim to clarify confusion and dispel misconceptions about Judaism, Jesus, and Christian origins.

Madigan and Levenson tell the fascinating but little-known story of the origins of the belief in resurrection, investigating why some Christians and some Jews opposed the idea in ancient times while others believed it was essential to their faith. The authors also discuss how the two religious traditions relate their respective practices in the here and now to the new life they believe will follow resurrection. Making the rich insights of contemporary scholars of antiquity available to a wide readership, Madigan and Levenson offer a new understanding of Jewish-Christian relations and of the profound connections that tie the faiths together.

For the Love of God and People by Elliot N. Dorff. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

Every generation of Jews in every denomination of Judaism finds itself facing complex legal issues. The status of same-sex unions and stem-cell research are just two of a myriad of thorny questions Jewish legal experts grapple with today. How do the rabbis who draft responses to these questions reach their conclusions? What informs their decisions? Dorff addresses these and other questions in this intelligent, accessible guide to the philosophy that shapes Jewish law.

The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews by Saul Friedlander. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

The enactment of German extermination policies and measures depended on the cooperation of local authorities, the assistance of police forces, and the passivity of the populations, primarily of their political and spiritual elites. This implementation depended as well on the victims’ readiness to submit to orders, often with the hope of attenuating them or of surviving long enough to escape the German vise. This multifaceted study at all levels and in different places enhances the perception of the magnitude, complexity, and interrelatedness of the many components of this history. Based on a vast array of documents and an overwhelming choir of voices mainly from diaries, letters, and memoirs Saul Friedlnder avoids domesticating the memory of these unprecedented and horrific events. The convergence of these various aspects gives a unique quality to this work in which the history of the Holocaust has found its definitive representation.

Fire in the Ashes: God, Evil, and the Holocaust, edited and introduced by David Patterson and John K. Roth. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

This book explores how inquiry about the Holocaust challenges understanding, especially its religious and ethical dimensions. Debates about God’s relationship to evil are ancient, but the Holocaust complicated them in ways never before imagined. Its massive destruction left Jews and Christians searching among the ashes to determine what, if anything could repair the damage done to tradition and to theology.

Since the end of the Holocaust, Jews and Christians have increasingly sought to know how or even whether theological analysis and reflection can aid in comprehending its aftermath. Specifically, Jews and Christians, individually and collectively find themselves more and more in the position of needing either to rethink theodicy or to abolish the concept altogether.

Contributors to Fire in the Ashes confront these and other difficult questions about God and evil after the Holocaust. This book represents an effort to advance meaningful conversation between Jews and Christians and to encourage others to participate in similar inquiries.

The Last Jews in Baghdad: Remembering A Lost Homeland by Nissim Rejwan. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Baghdad was home to a flourishing Jewish community. More than a third of the city’s people were Jews, and Jewish customs and holidays helped set the pattern of Baghdad’s cultural and commercial life. Jews, Muslims and Christians all native-born Iraqis intermingled, speaking virtually the same colloquial Arabic and sharing a common sense of national identity. And then, almost overnight it seemed, the state of Israel was born, and lines were drawn between Jews and Arabs. Over the next couple of years, nearly the entire Jewish population of Baghdad fled their homeland, never to return.

In this beautifully written memoir, Nissim Rejwan recalls the lost Jewish community of Baghdad, in which he was a child and young man from the 1920s through 1951. He describes his deep ambivalence as he bid a last farewell to a homeland that had become hostile to its native Jews.

Antisemitic Myths: A Historical and Contemporary Anthology, edited by Marvin Perry and Frederich M. Schweitzer. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

The current revival of anti-Semitism in Europe and the demonization of Jews in parts of the Muslim world give special importance to the exposure of the myths and lies that for centuries led people to regard Jews as the dangerous “other” and that led to violence and persecution. This provocative anthology presents 90 documents that focus on the nature, evolution, and meaning of the principal myths that have made anti-Semitism such a lethal force in history: Jews as deicides, ritual murderers, agents of Satan, international conspirators, and conniving, unscrupulous rogues. Also included are documents illustrating the recent revival of classical myths about Jews among black nationalists, Holocaust deniers, and Islamic fundamentalists.

Greece: A Jewish History by K. E. Fleming. Princeton University Press

This is the first comprehensive English-language history of Greek Jews, and the only history that includes material on their Diaspora in Israel and the U.S. The book tells the story of a people who for the most part no longer exist and whose identity is a paradox in that it wasn’t fully formed until after most Greek Jews and emigrated or been deported and killed by the Nazis.

For centuries, Jews lived in areas that are now part of Greece. But Greek Jews as a nationalized group existed in substantial number only for a few short decades from the Balkan Wars (1912-13) until the Holocaust, in which more than 80 percent were killed. Fleming describes their diverse histories and the processes that worked to make them emerge as a Greek collective. He also follows Jews as they left Greece as deportees to Auschwitz or migrs to Palestine/Israel and New York’s Lower East Side. In such foreign settings their Greekness was emphasized as it never was in Greece, Where Orthodox Christianity traditionally defines national identity and anti-Semitism remains common.

God’s Mountain: The Temple Mount in Time, Place, and Memory by Yaron Z. Eliav. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

This provocative study of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount unravels popular scholarly paradigms about the origins of this contested sacred site and its significance in Jewish and Christian traditions. Eliav reconstructs the early story of the Temple Mount, exploring the way the site was developed as a physical entity, religious concept, and cultural image. He traces the Temple Mount’s origins and investigates its history, explicating the factors that shaped it both physically and conceptually.

Eliav refutes the popular tradition that situates the Temple Mount as a unique sacred space from the earliest days of the history of Israel and the Jewish people, asserting that it emerged as a sacred space in Jewish and early Christian consciousness towards the close of the Second Temple era in the first century CE. Eliav pinpoints three defining moments in the Temple Mount’s physical history: King Herod’s dramatic enlargement of the mount at the end of the first century BCE, the temple’s destruction by the Roman emperor Titus in 70 CE, and Hadrian’s actions in Jerusalem 60 years later. This new chronology provides the framework for a fresh consideration of the literary and archaeological evidence, as well as new understandings of the religious and social dynamics that shaped the image of the Temple Mount as a sacred space for Jews and Christians.

Let Me Continue to Speak the Truth: Bertha Pappenheim as Author and Activist by Elizabeth Loentz. Cincinnati: HUC Press.

In 1953 Freud biographer Ernest Jones revealed that the famous hysteric Anna O. was really Bertha Pappenheim the prolific author, Austro-German Jewish feminist, social activist and pioneering social worker. This study directs attention away from the young woman who arguably invented the talking cure and back to Pappenheim and her post-Anna O. achievements, especially her writings, which reveal one of the most versatile, productive, influential, and controversial Jewish thinkers and leaders of her time.

More than half a century after her death, Pappenheim continues to inspire: “Strength, strength/Let me, in breath and heartbeat/Be filled by the rhythm/That carries justice and truth/from you, to you.”

Never Despair: Sixty Years in the Service of the Jewish People and the Cause of Human Rights by Gerhart M. Riegner. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Publisher

On August 6, 1942, Riegner, a 30-year-old counsel in the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress, sent a message to Rabbi Stephen Wise in New York, warning of a plan discussed in Hitler’s headquarters to deport to the east and “exterminate at one blow” all the Jews in European countries occupied or controlled by Germany 3.5 to 4 million people. This first recorded notice to the West of Hitler’s “Final Solution” came to be known as the Riegner Telegram.

This is an essential book for students of the Holocaust and of the Jewish role in world affairs from World War II to the end of the century. There were many important and fascinating episodes in Riegner’s life of service, told now in Never Despair, his memoir. He recounts his youth in a cultivated, middle-class Jewish family in Germany, and as a young lawyer in Leipzig who fled to Switzerland after Hitler's rise to power in 1933. In his memoir he recounts his efforts behind the scenes and offers a firsthand estimate of many of the leading international figures of the past century.

Judaism Musical and Unmusical by Michael P. Steinberg. The University of Chicago Press.

Engaging the work of such figures as Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Leonard Bernstein, Michael Steinberg shows how modern Jews have advanced cosmopolitanism and multiplicity by helping to loosen whether by choice or necessity the ties that bind any culture to accounts of its origins. In the process, Steinberg composes a mosaic of texts and events, often distant from one another in time and place, that speak to his theme of musicality. As both a literal value and a metaphorical one, musicality opens the possibility of a fusion of aesthetics and analysis a coupling analogous to European modernity’s twin concerns of art and politics.

Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America by Edward K. Kaplan. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Born in Warsaw, reared in a Hasidic community, and reaching maturity in secular Jewish Vilna and cosmopolitan Berlin, Heschel (1907-72) escaped Nazism and immigrated to the U.S. in 1940. This lively and readable book tells the comprehensive story of his life and work in America, describing his politics and personality, and how he came to influence not only Jewish debate but also wider religious and cultural controversies in the postwar decades.

A worthy sequel to his widely praised biography of Heschel’s early years, Edward Kaplan’s new volume draws on previously unseen archives, FBI files, and interviews with people who knew Heschel, and analyses of his extensive writings. Kaplan explores Heschel’s shy and private side, his spiritual radicalism, and his vehement defense of the Hebrew prophets’ ideal of absolute integrity and truth in ethical and political life. Of special interest are Heschel’s interfaith activities, including a secret meeting with Pope Paul VI during Vatican II, his commitment to civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr., his views on the state of Israel, and his opposition to the Vietnam War. A tireless challenger of spiritual and moral complacency, Heschel stands as a dramatically important witness.

Modigliani: A Life by Jeffrey Meyers. Harcourt, Inc.

This vivid biography illuminates Modigliani’s Jewish-Italian background and temperament; his intellectual influences; his intense friendships with the writers and printers who came from all over Europe to create the most stimulating artistic milieu of the 20th century; his relations with the most important women in his life; his addiction to absinthe, ether and hashish; his self-destructive impulse; the lifelong tuberculosis that finally killed him; the meaning of his poetry; the significance of his innovative sculpture, portraits and nudes; and his posthumous legend.

Law and Identity in Mandate Palestine by Assaf Likhovski. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

One of the major questions facing the world today is the role of law in shaping identity and in balancing tradition with modernity. In an arid corner of the Mediterranean region in the first decades of the 20th century, Mandate Palestine was confronting these very issues. Assaf Likhovski examines the legal history of Palestine, showing how law and identity interacted in a complex colonial society in which British rulers and Jewish and Arab subjects lived together. Law in Mandate Palestine was not merely an instrument of power or a method of solving individual disputes, says Likhovski. It was also a way of answering the question, “Who are we?” British officials, Jewish lawyers, and Arab scholars all turned to the law in their search for their identities, and all used it to create and disseminate a hybrid culture in which Western and non-Western norms existed simultaneously. Uncovering a rich arsenal of legal distinctions, notions, and doctrines used by lawyers to mediate between different identities, Likhovski provides a comprehensive account of the relationship between law and identity. His analysis suggests a new approach to both the legal history of Mandate Palestine and colonial societies in general.

An Epitaph for German Judaism: From Halle to Jerusalem by Emil Fackenheim. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Emil Fackenheim’s life work was to call upon the world at large and on philosophers, Christians, Jews, and Germans in particular to confront the Holocaust as an unprecedented assault on the Jewish people, Judaism, and all humanity. In this memoir, to which he was making final revisions at the time of his death, Fackenheim looks back on his life, at the profound and painful circumstances that shaped him as a philosopher and a committed Jewish thinker.

Interned for three months in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp after Kristallnacht, Fackenheim was released and escaped to Scotland and then to Canada, where he lived in a refugee internment camp before eventually becoming a congregational rabbi and then, for 35 years, a professor of philosophy. He recalls here what it meant to be a German Jew in North America, the desperate need to respond to the crisis in Europe and to cope with its overwhelming implications for Jewish identity and community. His second great turning point came in 1967, as he saw Jews threatened with another Holocaust, this time in Israel. This crisis led him on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and ultimately back to Germany, where he continued to grapple with the question, How can the Jewish faith and the Christian faith exist after the Holocaust?

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Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

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