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The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism.

Eliyahu Stern. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. 336 pp

Twentieth-century historiography was marked by a tendency to present modernity as a kind ofimmense cultural earthquake, originating somewhere in western or central Europe, and then gradually propagating eastward and southward. This massive upheaval was said to have shaken the very foundations of every culture it frequented, subsequently eliminating the world which once was, to make way for a new, secular age. The past few decades however, have witnessed a growing dissatisfactionwith this paradigm ofhistoricalcrisisand discontinuity, and a new, more nuanced view of modernity and modernization has emerged. Scholars today tend to envision a much more gradual, often timid modernity, which seeped in through complex networks of traditional life, at once changing the various locales it infiltrated, and being changed by them. Indeed, we tend to speak now not of one, but of many modernities, whose overarching characteristics are the subject of much debate.

Eliyahu Stern's recent book on the Vilna Gaon offers an important contribution to this debate. Stern's Gaonjoins an ever growing list of eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century Jewish authors, such as Pinchas Horowitz, Yaakov Emden, and Menachem Mendel Lefin, who challenge the rigid distinction between tradition and modernity. But Stern does more than just point to Elijah's ambivalent position in the tradition-versus-modernity scheme. Rather, he calls bra thorough reappraisal of the image of the Gaon as no less than harbinger of modernity in his own right. The Gaon, he argues, was the founder of an unapologetic Jewish modernity, Which was of paramount importance for East European Jews, and which remains relevant for many today.

Stern begins his account by following the intertwi ning images of the Gaon and his city of Vi na. This is one of the most enjoyable parts of the book. Vilna emerges-as a vibrant, exciting and, at times, downright strange center ofJewish culture, where young converts to Christianity are dressed in drag and coerced back into the Jewish faith, and the chief Rabbi engages in a host of quasi-criminal activities. Another engaging discussion is found in the book's, third chapter, in which Stern argues for the need for a new model of modernization for East European Jewry, which takes it's unique sociopolitical circumstances into account. Here we find the crux of Stern's book, and though the author's zeal to prove Vilna's distance from Berlin often leads him to tread on less-than-stable ground, the argumentsare bold, unapologetic and thought provoking. Stern has a way of turning the scholarly tables, which may at times lead to somewhat exaggri. tied observations, bi It also affords some important insights. This is the case ill chapter 4. where it is iirgt Led that it was not I Iasidism that offered a radically new worldview, but rather its greatest opponents, spearheaded by the Gaon. Parenthetical explanations of Jewishterms are a welcome addition, which will help make this book more accessible to scholars outside the field of Jewish studies, who may find great interest in it.

Iris Idelson-Shein Goethe University

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Author:Idelson-Shein, Iris
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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