Princeton University Press. 352 pages. Hardcover $45.00.
Challenging, invigorating, and inspiring, Professor John M. Efron’s study opens up a swath of Jewish cultural history that is familiar to few scholars and fewer general readers. He is concerned, though he wouldn’t use such a formulation, with a special manifestation of Jewish self-hate as defined by its proposed remedy.
The setting is primarily Germany of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the time of the European Jewish Enlightenment, a movement known as the Haskalah. Those most concerned are the Ashkenazi cultural and intellectual elite, the Maskilim. They fear association with the Poles and other Eastern European Jewish communities, considered coarse on several levels: physically, linguistically, intellectually, spiritually, and creatively.
Reveling in a relatively liberal timewarp that seemed to promise acceptance into the high German mainstream, the Maskilim were at pains to capitalize on that possibility by reconstructing the image, and perhaps the reality, of Jews as individuals and as a civilization. They planned for a more dignified future by looking back to the glory days of Jewish achievement and status on the Iberian peninsula: the so-called Golden Age when Jews spoke well, looked attractive, had refined habits, and generally invited acceptance and admiration.
Efron neatly categorizes and exemplifies the concerns of these thinkers. Jews from Eastern Europe (or too many such Jews) seemed to be handicapped by ugliness in physiognomy and behavior. The Maskilim perceived an ugliness as well in the spoken languages of Yiddish and Ashkenazi Hebrew, so inferior to the crisp Sephardic soundings and rhythms. . . .
To read the full review as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: German Jewry and the Allure of the Sephardic | Jewish Book Council