Three from “Jewish Book World”

I have begun publishing short reviews in Jewish Book World, the quarterly publication of the Jewish Book Council. Here are the first three.

From Summer, 2010 issue:

GERMANS INTO JEWS: REMAKING THE JEWISH SOCIAL BODY IN THE WEIMAR REPUBLIC

Sharon Gillerman

Stanford University Press, 2009. 238pp. $50.00

ISBN: 978-0-8047-5711-9

 Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

 During Germany’s parliamentary (Weimar) republic, 1919-1933, Jewish citizens sought to redefine and re-energize themselves. Diminished population growth and the perception of diminished population quality fostered therapeutic theories and programs. Urbanism, modernism, and individualism threatened family identity and family values, seen as the heart of Jewish vigor and continuity. The influx of Eastern European Jews brought positive models with regard to having large families, but problematic ones with regard to orderliness, economic productivity, and hygiene.

Such concerns among Germany’s Jews echoed those of the encompassing German population after its defeat in WWI and consequent economic and moral decline, accompanied by a decline in birth rate. Professor Gillerman sees the Jewish rejuvenation effort as at once a subset of an emerging German national agenda and as a movement committed to maintaining Jewish particularity. To be a biologically, socially, and economically productive Jew was to be a good German. However, the Jewish agenda had its own nationalistic (and Zionist) component as well. A healthy, proliferating Jewish citizenry was required to insure the transmission of Jewish values, culture, and identity.

Professor Gillerman strives to define a set of issues and actions intellectually insulated from the post-Weimar (Hitler era) situation. By not succumbing to the received wisdom of understanding modern Jewish-German history as being defined exclusively by anti-Semitism, Gillerman offers fresh and valuable perspectives.

While a must for academic libraries and specialist scholars, opacities of academic style and lack of narrative underpinning handicap the study’s interest and accessibility for the general reader.

Bibliography, index, notes. PKJ

 From Fall, 2010 issue:

RUNNING COMMENTARY: THE CONTENTIOUS MAGAZINE THAT TRANSFORMED THE JEWISH LEFT INTO THE NEOCONSERVATIVE RIGHT

Benjamin Balint

PublicAffairs, 2010. 304pp. $26.95

ISBN: 978-1-58648-749-2

 Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

 In meticulous detail, Balint traces the steps by which this influential and paradoxically anti-intellectual monthly reconfigured itself from a post-WWII voice of liberalism to a post-Sixties voice of conservatism. Though Balint pays significant attention to the contributions of each the three key editors of Commentary – Elliot Cohen, Norman Podhoretz, and Neal Kozodoy – he makes it clear that the transition was in good measure a reflection of the personal journey and persuasive power of Podhoretz.  

 Balint provides a useful preamble on the Jewish experience in America, particularly its intellectual history. He defines Commentary as the voice, first of all, of “The Family” – a cluster of first-generation Jews with cultural roots in the motives and immigrant experiences of their parents. Almost exclusively products of New York’s City College, these young men (and the women with whom they toiled and built households) articulated an understanding of Jewish self-interest as coincident with American values and prosperity.

 When The Family was most cognizant of its outsider status, liberalism offered itself as the hospitable political vision. Eventually the outsiders came to see themselves as insiders, and as such adopted what was coined the “neoconservative” orientation. Balint explores the rich complexity of this transition, including its connection with changing attitudes toward Israel, offering colorful portraits of the key members of The Family and their intricate, shifting relationships.  

 Bibliography, notes. PKJ

FROMMS: HOW JULIUS FROMM’S CONDOM EMPIRE FELL TO THE NAZIS

Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer; translated by Shelley Frisch

Other Press, 2009. 240pp. $23.95

ISBN: 978-1-59051-296-8

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

This is the remarkable story of a prosperous Jewish-German immigrant family whose leader founded and shrewdly developed a successful industrial business in pre-WW2 Germany only to see it stolen away during the Nazi regime. Julius Fromm’s contribution was to take advantage of the rubber vulcanization process in new ways, producing a prophylactic product far superior to any made before. “Fromms Act” condoms were extremely popular, and Fromm’s production facilities were trend-setting. 

The authors reveal, through the meticulously kept records of the Third Reich, the economic side of anti-Semitism, tracing the step by step “Aryanization” of Fromm’s wealth, property rights, and business. The story of the strained legalisms by which an entrepreneur’s vision and industry were confiscated is less horrifying than extermination camp narratives, but it is consistent with such stories.  

Aly and Sontheimer do a fine job in presenting the social changes behind Fromm’s success: increased awareness about sexual health, liberalized sexual mores, and the desire for family planning. They also note that Fromm’s self-image as a thoroughly German citizen-innovator did little to save him from Hitler’s grand plan. From exile in England, he watched the theft of his life’s work. Many of his relatives died in the camps.

This extremely readable book presents its findings economically and with a fine narrative flair.

 Bibliography, genealogy, index, notes, photographs. PKJ

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