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The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels.

Thomas Cahill. New York: Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, 1998. 291pp. $23.50 (cloth).

Thomas Cahill has assigned himself an enormous task: a seven-volume series called The Hinges of History. His best-selling How the Irish Saved Civilization was Volume I; The Girls of the Jews is Volume II. The former religious publishing director at Doubleday, Cahill has done his homework - studying at Union Theological Seminary and Jewish Theological Seminary - but he wisely does not offer the book as scholarship. Although he tries to humanize his style, his humor - "God is no Hallmark greeting card" - sometimes cloys; his narrative skills, however, stand him in good stead.

What exactly are these gifts that Cahill says the Jews gave everyone, by which he means Western Civilization? The list is a long one: Monotheism, of course, along with a sense of the past; the Ten Words or Commandments; the idea of the sabbath as a day of rest - which he refers to as the "weekend"; the revered 23rd Psalm and the gorgeous Song of Songs; the abolitionist movement, the prison-reform movement, the antiwar movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement; capitalism and communism and democracy. The Jews also gave us "a whole new vocabulary . . . most of our best words . . . new, adventure, surprise; individual, person, vocation; time, history future; freedom, progress spirit; faith, hope, justice." They are even responsible for the Big Bang. Unfortunately, since Cahill does not elucidate further, the reader is not sure how he reached these conclusions.

In Genesis the Jews' gift is a sense of history, a history that has a future wholly independent of the present, which helps explain the careful attention the Bible pays to genealogy. Cahill re-presents biblical characters as real people. Avram (Abraham) is a "sharp-eyed, sharp-eared . . . calculating desert chieftain who knows how to deal"; his wife Sarai (Sarah) "grumbles against a 'god who has obstructed me from bearing'"; and his son, Yitzhak (Isaac) is "a colorless figure," considering his "childhood trauma"; but his wife, Rivka (Rebecca), is "opinionated and a conniver worthy of her father-in-law." When we visit Sodom, we learn that its sin "was not homosexuality but inhospitality."

In Exodus we encounter the Israelites, a "motley band of escaped slaves, . . . a whole generation of Egyptian-bred complainers" who "grumble repeatedly" and "yammer . . . their never-ending complaints. . . ." They "waste no time in breaking as many Commandments as possible" almost as soon as Moshe (Moses) delivers them from YHWH. Then there is Jethro, "the world's first business consultant." When Moshe is busy with God - "obviously not a member of any known twelve-step program" - up on the Mount, his "newly appointed middle managers" maintain order below.

Later on, we meet David, a "born politician, always playing to the crowd," his son, Solomon, who "contributes considerably to the population boom in Jerusalem," the prophet Amos, a "shocked shepherd . . . witness to conspicuous consumption," the Moabite, Ruth, ". . . on the lookout for some man,. . ." scheming with her mother-in-law Naomi.

After awhile, Cahill's drolleries evoke few chortles, and his preoccupation with biblical sexcapades arouses suspicion. He is at his best when he simply retells the Bible stories. The Gifts of the Jews does not pretend to instruct specialists; its lively narration accounts for its popular appeal. If Cahill can attract readers who normally would shun any work relating to the Bible and religion, then I say bravo.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Schiff, Shelley
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1998
Previous Article:The Bible As It Was.
Next Article:Law, Legend, and Incest in the Bible: Leviticus 18-20.

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