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Jews: The Essence and Character of a People.

Jews: The Essence and Character of a People, by Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998 (c); 1999 (p). 294 pp. $25.00.

Jews: The Essence and Character of a People demonstrates its authors' great erudition but is not intended for a scholarly audience. In Jews Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer offer their contribution to the modern publishing tradition of distilling the essence of the Jewish experience into a single volume. I have found some of these attempts, especially Robert Seltzer's magisterial, 900-page Jewish People, Jewish Thought (1982), far more successful than others. Another, Thomas Cahill's The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (1998), spent many weeks on best-seller lists, and its author toured Jewish book fairs. These affirm the wide appeal of such books. Hertzberg and Hirt-Manheimer's contribution falls closer to Cahill than to Seltzer, and presumably its authors hope for a similarly large audience.

The authors are superbly qualified to present their assessment of the Jewish experience. Senior author Arthur Hertzberg (whose name appears in a larger font on the title page) has had a long and distinguished career blending service to the Jewish community with scholarship and university teaching. A pulpit rabbi and former vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, he has also seen two of his books, The French Enlightenment and the Jews and an edited collection of readings on The Zionist Idea, become classics. When Aron Hirt-Manheimer, editor of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' quarterly Reform Judaism, suggested their collaboration, the men agreed that Hertzberg's "viewpoint and scholarship would drive the arguments put forth in this book" (p. xvii).

They also agreed upon their thesis: that they can define the Jewish character which, even though it evolved over millennia, "has remained essentially the same since the time, some four thousand years ago, of the founding patriarch, Abraham" (p. 2). Given this argument, one which attributes the essence of the Jews to God's having chosen this people and to Jews' encounters with those who sought to oppress and destroy them, it is not surprising to read that a number of American and European publishers refused to publish this book. The authors contend these publishers feared "the wrath of the Jewish establishment" (p. 2). I find it equally plausible that discerning editors rejected the authors' attempt to sweep across the most salient and determinative features of Jewish history, theology, and culture in less than 300 pages. Surely some pre-publication readers shared my concern that, in traversing the path from Abraham to the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of modern Israel, Jews presents an idiosyncratic inte rpretation of the Jewish experience, one resting on the authors' biases, not on the plethora of Jewish Studies scholarship.

Attempting to distinguish Jews from the field of similar books, Hertzberg and Hirt-Manheimer assert that the authors of other works make the mistake of writing "about Jews from a modern perspective looking backward" (p. 4). Yet I would contend that Hertzberg and Hirt-Manheimer make the same mistake. The modern Jewish experience, especially the Holocaust and Zionism, drives their reading of the Jewish past and their interpretation of the Jewish character.

For example, the Holocaust figures in most chapters. The authors discuss its implications for Jewish self-understanding of the concept of the chosen people. They use a joke about German Jews reading a Nazi newspaper to reflect upon the character trait of Jewish divisiveness. They show Hitler and Goebbels parroting canards circulated in antiquity against the Jews. They introduce their discussion of medieval Spanish Jewry with the fall of France in 1940. Each of these examples appears in a different chapter. They suggest that Jews too reads the past through a modernist lens.

While Jews cannot appeal to the scholarly reader and should not interest those well versed in Jewish history and culture, several features recommend this book above others of this genre.

First, Jews is stylistically imaginative. When Hertzberg recounts his personal experiences, the authors speak in the singular voice of the memoirist. We thus hear Hertzberg tell an archbishop in the Vatican that the only Polish words he remembers are the words for "dirty Jew." We see him arguing with the giants Mordecai M. Kaplan and David Ben-Gurion. When the authors step back to analyze the implications of Hertzberg's vignettes, to contend, for example, that Ben-Gurion shared in their understanding of the centrality of the concept of chosenness for modern Jewry, they speak in the collective. I wish the authors had avoided juxtaposing Abraham with yoga exercises and characterizing the first Jewish war against the Romans as "the story of a supreme example of the wild streak in the character of the Jews" (p. 70). Nevertheless, I found the dual voices stylistically appealing.

Secondly, the authors' breadth of knowledge of the historical Jewish experience shines through. Jews draws widely upon their deep reading. Its sources range from the Bible and classical rabbinic literature to the modern Jewish voices of Rav Kook and the American Jewish Committee. The authors choose from this cornucopia evidence supporting their assumptions about the essence and character of the Jews. Even if, as a scholar, I contest their bias, I found their storehouse of knowledge impressive.

Surely some, seeking a panoramic view of the Jewish experience, will admire Jews' writing and its authors' erudition. I would, however, hope that this audience will pause in its reading to reflect upon the authors' persuasively presented, but deeply flawed, premises.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Nadell, Pamela S.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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