Tag Archives: Jewish history

“Promised Land: A Novel of Israel,” by Martin Fletcher

Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press. 416 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

Martin Fletcher’s Promised Land is a literary triumph of near-contemporary historical fiction that is magnetic, surprising, and should be read and enjoyed for decades to come. The scope of the book runs from 1950, shortly after Israel’s establishment as a modern nation, to 1967, a time of its most severe testing.  

Fletcher deals in wars: the wars amongst the Jewish citizenly, the wars with Israel’s neighbors, and the wars within an extended family that contains Egyptian Jews exiled (fortunately) to the Jewish state.

And there is the aftermath of war, too, expressed through the sons of Holocaust victims, the elder of whom reached freedom in the United States before settling in Israel, and the younger son — emotionally wounded — who was incarcerated, tortured, and barely escaped with his life.

For all of its impression of compactness, Promised Land is a novel of generations, reminiscent of the Old Testament’s presentation of Jewish families to whom, as the story goes, the Creator conditionally gave the original promised land. What would seem more biblical than warring brothers?

When they were still children, Peter Berg was put on a train that took him west, the initial stage of a journey that led to safety with an American family. He grew up with their children. Arie, then called Aren, was somewhat later put on a train that took him, his parents, and his sisters to the concentration camps. Aren alone survived, but at great cost to his psyche.

Martin Fletcher – Credit Chelsea Dee

Miraculously, the brothers are reunited in 1947. Peter, who had been in the U.S. Army, is already a founding agent of the young CIA. Learning of his brother’s survival, he searches for him in Palestine. Aren Berg is now named Arie ben Nesher, and Peter Berg decides to become Peter Nesher, transferring his allegiance to the cause of Jewish nationhood.

Peter becomes a leader in matters of Israeli security, and Arie becomes a prominent entrepreneur who enjoys showing off his wealth. Along the way, another family enters their lives, a family of Jewish-Egyptian refugees whose glory is their beautiful, intelligent daughter Tamara.

The time markers move along: 1950, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1956, and so on into the 1960s, with the author carefully developing his characters and his portrait of the burgeoning Israeli nation, along with reminders of the constant menace of its nearby Arab-Islamic neighbors. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  Promised Land.

Martin Fletcher appears on the January 9 program of the Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival. See GNJBF

 

 

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(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump, by Jonathan Weisman

St. Martin’s Press. 256 pages. Hardcover  $25.99.

Review by Philip K. Jason

The heat of Weisman’s outrage, tempered by the precision of his arguments, elevates this book to a must-read examination of the contemporary renaissance of anti-Semitism.

It is a call for action, part warning and part how-to manual, addressing individual American Jews, Jewish communities, and, especially, Jewish institutions. The ugly head of

anti-Semitism has returned to “the land of the free,” most notably in the messages and methods of the alt-right movement. According to Weisman, it is time to cut it off.Partly rooted in Timothy Snyder’s writings, Weisman’s study provides a compact history of the rise of the alt-right, its canny exploitation of social media, its odd success at resurrecting ancient European clichés about Jews, and the affinity that seems to exist between the group’s rise and that of Donald Trump.

Jonathan Weisman credit Gabrielle Demczuk

Weisman’s first chapter begins: “The Jew flourishes when borders come down, when boundaries blur, when walls are destroyed, not erected.” Weisman considers the Age of Trump to be an Age of Walls, at least in its aspirations. He identifies the success of the man he calls “the first Jewish citizen of the world,” Maimonides, as an outgrowth of the

tolerance of the twelfth-century Islamic Empire, a time and place of fewer boundaries. Weisman goes on to address other exceptional “international” Jews in the context of their times, including Moses Mendelssohn. . . .

To see the rest of this Jewish Book Council review, click here:  Semitism

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“The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became an American Religion,” by Steven R. Weisman

Simon & Schuster. 368 pages. Hardcover $30.00.

Recounting the ways the ancient faith redefined itself in the 18th- and 19th-century United States.

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

There’s the story of the rabbi who went to a Jewish community center mixer to welcome newcomers. When someone asked him what kind of rabbi he was, he answered: “Jewish. I’m a Jewish rabbi.”

Was he making a joke? Didn’t he know that the questioner wanted to know if he was Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Hasidic, or some other variation of the religious spectrum? Of course, he knew. It was a serious answer, but with a bit of a wink.

The story that Steven R. Weisman tells in The Chosen Wars is, among other things, the story of the search for a unified Judaism responsive to time and place and seeking to be confident about a Jewish future. It’s the story of growing opportunities for Jews to enter cultural mainstreams and the costs and consequences of admission. It is a story told with power and precision.

Steven R. Weisman

After sketching the earliest arrivals of Jews in New Amsterdam (1654) and examining Jewish life in the Colonial period, Weisman explores the peaks and valleys of migration — most often peaks — that occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries. He details the early prominence of Charleston, South Carolina, as a place where immigrant Jews could build a vibrant community.

He examines the interplay between becoming an American with almost unimaginable rights and holding on to the traditional responsibilities of Jewish life as it had existed in past centuries. Along the way, Weisman explores the vying strands of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish culture.

Part of the process of fitting in had to do with imitating what Americans expected in houses of worship. To that end, many synagogues echoed the grandeur of churches, particularly Presbyterian churches.

But how did Jews make the transition from various corners of Europe, where they were so often victims of persecution, to an unaccustomed security and even prominence in the land of the free? Weisman presents the saga in its many parts, drawing on a series of fascinating characters and stressful crises. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: The Chosen Wars

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A war orphan’s journey from trauma to transcendence, with all the stops along the way

Review by Philip K. Jason

A Life Rebuilt: The Remarkable Transformation of a War Orphan, by Sylvia Ruth Gutmann. Epigraph Books. 318 pages. Hardcover $26.95, trade paperback $18.95.

This is one of the most heart-wrenching and ultimately uplifting Holocaust narratives. While the Holocaust is mostly in the background of this personal memoir, it is the driving force of the author’s life – and of her parents’ death and the death of many other relatives. It is the story of living in a vacuum that created self-doubt, depression, and poor choices. Sylvia’s story is a highly complex story that is simply told in an open, friendly manner. It is a story of self-discovery and self-making. It is a story about victory after failures, humiliations, and destructive patterns of behavior. It is honest to its core. 

Three-year-old Sylvia’s parents managed to arrange for the young girl and her two older sisters to reach safety before the parents met their deaths at Auschwitz.  She reached the United States at the age of seven, along with her sisters Rita, then fourteen, and Susi, a year or so younger. The series of traumas that brought Sylvia to New York obliterated her memory and left her with emptiness, foreboding, and a sense of unworthiness. She is taken in by her Uncle Sam, who shows strong affection, and his wife Gerdy, who treats her terribly, amplifying the child’s sense of unworthiness. This couple has two sons, the older of which, Michel, becomes a life-long friend, but there are periods of hostility between these cousins.

Sylvia has no memories, and she has a struggle to access the English language necessary for her education. Her sense of her younger self comes from conversations with Rita, who serves a maternal role. Rita builds a sense of Sylvia’s past that is largely accurate, but many decades later, as an old woman, Sylvia discovers inaccuracies and fills in blanks that were outside of Rita’s knowledge.

During her school years, Sylvia gains solace from her sense of non-belonging by over-indulging in sweets, and her weight problem brings humiliation. Addictive behavior of various kinds shows up throughout much of her life, as do periods of self-control and achievement. Her choices in men seem to bode well at first, but too often end up being disasters, plunging her into despair. However, she finds employments that allow her a modest income. The yearning to free herself from poor choices and low self-esteem brings her to successful periods of professional therapy. And Rita is always available, if not in person, then over the phone, to console her.

Over time, Sylvia gains self-knowledge and strength. Her one positive marriage, with Milton, a very wealthy and caring man, helps her gain balance, but after his death, with no continuing support from his heirs, she is back in a panic situation for herself and her son David, whom she must often support even in his adulthood.

One of her more eccentric relationships is with a young man named Jannek, a Czech student studying in Germany. At sixty-two, Sylvia is about forty years older than her suitor, but she travels to Germany to live with him. It is in the country that still holds the secrets of her early childhood that Sylvia begins telling her story to various groups, people of all ages and backgrounds, and their positive responses create a mission that soon dominates her life. The feedback she gets even ameliorates her hostility to the German people.

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann

While in Germany, she finds the place of her birth and meets individuals who knew her parents – and even knew the toddler Sylvia. Amazingly, she also meets the woman who so many years ago, at the age of nineteen, was entrusted by Sylvia’s mother with the fate of her three daughters.

While the historical and personal events, the few satisfying and frequent debilitating relationships, the kaleidoscopic moods, and hard-won insights of A Life Rebuilt are enough to draw readers to the book and its amazingly resilient author, it is Sylvia’s voice that is extraordinarily compelling. It is a voice like no other: sometimes frantic, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes fragile, sometimes strong, but always authentic and deeply revelatory. Over the decades, it shifts from being a voice of innocence to a voice of experience. It is a most remarkable and valuable voice. Hear it and you will be moved, enlightened, and changed.

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann immigrated with her two older sisters to the United States in 1946, four years after the murder of her parents in Auschwitz. Sylvia is a former spokesperson on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York City. Every year she shares her story at numerous Holocaust remembrance and Wounded Warrior ceremonies organized by the U.S. Military. She has also spoken extensively throughout Europe and was granted honorary German citizenship in 2002 for her peace activism. Sylvia currently lives in Massachusetts. In addition to having spent several years in Berlin, Germany, she has also lived in New York City, San Diego, Miami, Washington, DC, and Rhinebeck, New York. Over the years her friends learned to use a pencil when adding her home to their address book!!

See https://sylviaruthgutmann.com/

This review appears in the August 2018 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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The surprisingly influential Jewish community at the southernmost corner of the United States

The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823-1969), by Arlo Haskell. Sand Paper Press. 208 pages. Deluxe Trade Paperback $24.00.

In seven well-shaped chapters, Haskell packs an enjoyable and frequently astonishing history of Key West’s Jewish community. Hearing of the topic, some people will assume that this is a slender thread to spin into a book. However, they would be wrong. Haskell’s research has turned up a considerable amount of information that brings to life 144 years of Jewish involvement in this most idiosyncratic town.

Young Men’s Hebrew Association

The chapters bite off chronological slices of history, each focusing on the economic and cultural aspects of Jewish life. Thus, the journey begins with a discussion of sailors and merchants in an era of military events,stressing the importance of Key West as a port town, a multilingual place that had an international flair. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Jewish community was tiny, hardly a real community. Early Jewish settlers included Mordecai White and Samuel Cline, who were tailors and clothes merchants. The naval presence brought them customers.

During a twenty-year span that followed the initial attraction of Jews to Key West, opportunities in a growth industry took hold and swelled the population, including the Cuban and the Jewish population. Samuel Seidenberg “was the first manufacturer to capitalize on the fact that a cigar as good as the Cuban ones could be made in Key West at significantly lower cost.” He constructed a huge factory. His Jewish rivals included M. Myerson, Max Marx, the Pohalski brothers, and Julius Ellinger. Haskell’s narrative of the Key West tobacco boom shows how it promoted the town’s economy, attracting investment with its hundreds of employees. The Pohalski brothers built a company corner of town with homes for their workers. Their section of Key West gave rise to dry good and grocery stores, as well as a drug store and a saloon. These leaders were primarily secular Jews.

Arlo Haskell photo Nick Doll

As he traces the growth of the Jewish presence in Key West, Haskell keeps us in touch with larger issues of the time, including the Civil War and the Ten Years’ War fought to liberate Cuba from the Spanish Empire. He points out parallels in the age-old Jewish and nineteen century Cuban struggles for autonomy and independence. Haskell points out the need for Key West’s Jews to form alliances with exiled Cubans who, under the leadership of José Martí, had made Key West their command center.

The latter decades of the nineteenth century mark the beginning of a true Jewish community. New Jewish settlers in Key West often continued their European enterprises as peddlers and shopkeepers. Though Key West was ravaged by a fire in 1886, the rebuilding of the town brought new opportunities. Abram Wolkowsky and other Eastern European Jews shared religious customs, the experience of exile, and the Yiddish language. Slowly, Jewish institutions begin to take hold. Congregation B’nai Zion, still functioning, gives 1887 as its date of origin.

The Jewish Alliance’s Key West chapter emerged in 1891. Its primary concern was to establish a Jewish cemetery, and it did so. As the century wound down, “Jews had become an important and highly visible component of Key West business life.” One of the community leaders, Louis Fine, was not only a successful business man, but also served as lay leader for religious matters until Key West had its first rabbi.

Fine’s grocery store had a lower level used “to store weapons for the [Cuban] rebel army.” Haskell devotes a chapter to exploring the phenomenon of “Jewish Revolutionaries” in the 1890s.

The first two decades of the twentieth century witness a strong, thriving Key West Jewish community. The Jewish congregation held services and other activities on the second floor of the Fine family’s hardware store. When Fine was not available, itinerant Rabbi Herman Horowitz handled the community’s religious needs. All kinds of Jewish businesses were set up along and near Duval Street.

Marks, Rosenthal & Wall Family

Jewish shoe merchants

On top of the Honest Profit House, a clothing store run by the Wolkowsky family, sat the office of the U. S Immigration Inspector, and through that office many hundreds of Jews took their first steps toward citizenship.

Key West rode the wave of nationwide improvements in communication and other technologies. The growing Jewish population was serviced by efforts of the Jewish Alliance to find jobs for Jewish immigrants. This initiative included relocating immigrants from overcrowded New York to various other places around the country, Key West included. By 1905, the Jewish community reported having 158 members. Its members joined efforts to reunite Jewish families that had been separated. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 4, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 5 Naples and  Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Key West’s Jews 1  and Florida Weekly – Key West’s Jews 2

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“The Stakes of History,” by David N. Myers

The Stakes of History: On the Use and Abuse of Jewish History for Life, by David N. Myers. Yale University Press. 192 pages. Hardcover $27.99

While this densely-packed volume is aimed primarily at scholars of history and historiography, Professor Myers has kept the non-expert reader in mind by offering just the right amount of thematic repetition and exemplification. Is the author striving to demolish the ostensible conflict between history and memory? Well, the answer depends upon the prejudices and background of the reader. History that moves in the direction of pure fact, he suggests, misses opportunities to generate larger meanings and applications. History in the service of memory is likely to offer suspect compromises, to be overly and pointedly selective, perhaps to be, ultimately, not much more than propaganda.

David N. Myers, photo by Scarlett Freund

The author’s introduction, “History, Memory, and What Lies in Between,” defines the intellectual playing field. Three numbered chapters identity and explore three significant functions of history with scintillating articulation. These are “History as Liberation, “History as Consolation,” and “History as Witness.” Myers microscopically explores just how each function operates, its memorializing potentialities, and – by implication at least, its limitations.

The stream of references within the discussion, the positioning of vivid or at least conveniently enlightening oppositions among scholars of history, sharpens and textures the issues. . . .

To see the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here: The Stakes of History

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“Secrets and Shadows” by Roberta Silman

Campden Hill Books, 295 pages. Hardcover $24.00. Trade paperback $12.00

The plot of this intriguing new novel oscillates between a Jewish boy’s life in wartime Berlin and that same person’s life as a temporary returnee in 1989, soon after the Berlin Wall comes down. Author Roberta Silman carefully measures the changed and unchanged conditions in Berlin in these two eras, both for the city at large and for Jewish-German relations. 

Successful lawyer Paul Bertrand, born Paul Berger, was the child and is the man returning to face his past. Paul was divorced by his wife, Eve, five years earlier after twenty-three years of marriage, in part because of his unfaithfulness—yet he has somehow persuaded her to accompany him back to Berlin. The Bertrands have three young adult children: two sons and a daughter. The manner in which Paul and Eve, separately and together, have parented these children is an interesting thread through the novel. The couple’s relationship to their own parents and other relatives also informs the narrative in significant ways.

Silman

 

A prosperous family, the Bergers were secreted during the war in their own home. Silman vividly paints the sharply contrasting characters who protected them. Her astute portrait of the families’ interactions reveals a toxic mixture of indebtedness and resentment. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council review, click here:  Secrets and Shadows.

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Once upon a time – the Hebrew language yesterday and today

The Story of Hebrew, by Lewis Glinert. Princeton University Press. 296 pages.  Hardcover $27.95.

Lewis Glinert, Professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, has made a complicated and challenging story line as accessible as possible without oversimplifying the facts and the issues. His goal is well-served by choosing the word “story” rather than “history” for his title. This decision creates a mild and friendly kind of personification – “Hebrew” becomes a character in a lively narrative. This character is multidimensional, like any protagonist worth reading about. He (let’s say “he” for convenience) has his ups and downs.

Though he’s been around a long time, and hasn’t always aged well, he has had spectacular periods of rejuvenation. There are times, however, when his friends can hardly recognize him.

Prof. Glinert, after a concise introduction, traces his character’s life in eight meaty chapters, usually offering subsections in each to help focus issues and underscore turning points. These subsections provide necessary breaks for that even the most ardent followers will welcome. 

Early on, the author reminds us of the unique situation of Hebrew: for much of Jewish history, “Hebrew was not a mother tongue to be spoken naturally. Rather, Jews kept it alive by raising their young men to study and ponder Hebrew texts.” How could it survive without being part of an everyday exchange among members of a civilization?

Among the many partial answers to that question is the recognition that the Jewish Bible had literary flexibility and richness. It contained law, stories, poetry, and wisdom: tools for life and for living together. While its status as a divine gift urged attention and dependence, the text was rewarding for simply providing stimulation and pleasure. And it wasn’t all in Hebrew!

Prof. Gilbert traces the ways in which Hebrew worked, or sometimes didn’t work, to maintain and sustain a population scattered and scorned. He regularly provides insights into key characteristics of the language, both its unique and shared features. These examples enliven the story, but they are subordinate to the grand discovery and appreciation of Hebrew’s journey through time.

Each reader will make a personal decision about which parts of the story are most intriguing. On of these is certain to be “Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome,” notable for its vivid presentation of a long developing clash of civilizations that birthed unending consequences. Within this chapter is a sketch of Ezra, perhaps the most indispensable figure in the story of the Jewish people. It was he who “led a new wave of Jewish returnees from Babylonia” and helped to re-establish a vibrant Jewish life in Hebrew’s home territory. This “charismatic scholar-priest . . . orchestrated a religious revival and strove to bring the Torah to the masses.”

This same chapter stresses the centrality of the Mishnah in organizing Jewish life and the planting of seeds that would, over time, grow into the standard Hebrew prayer book.

Glinert

The dazzling middle chapters of The Story of Hebrew balance an exploration of “The Sephardic Classical Age” against “Medieval Ashkenaz and Italy.” The first epoch, beginning around 900 and continuing for 600 years (until the Spanish Inquisition), was a period of the highest cultural achievement. This process included “a renewal of a biblical Hebrew aesthetic and a reigning in the rabbinic mode.” The region of Andalusia fostered a “golden age of Hebrew poetry and linguistics.” Great minds were at work contesting the question of Hebrew language purity. What was required for the conveyance knowledge, whether new or old? For Jonah ibn Janah, the mastery of grammatical understanding was indispensable.

What version or refinement of Hebrew will best serve the Jewish imagination?

The chapter on “Hebrew in the Christian Imagination” opens a world that most Jewish individuals, even the most culturally and linguistically sophisticated, rarely if even enter. Prof. Glinert traces the fate of Hebrew in the early stages of the Christian theological revolution and in later periods as well. He examines Christian churchmen’s need to engage Hebrew as the best way to find authority for Christian dogma. Such a mastery could also be a powerful conversion tool. The Renaissance and Enlightenment periods in Christian Europe featured a dynamic interest in Hebrew among Christians, an interest that had waned by the early nineteenth century.

By the later nineteenth century, the Zionist enterprise was in full swing, and Prof. Glinert gives the movement’s effect on Hebrew detailed, engaging attention. Similar is given to the Hasidic enterprise

The author’s treatment of the more recent periods, most importantly the connection between the founding of the modern state of Israel and the state’s commitment to Hebrew as a (essentially “the”) national language, is likely to be the chapter that will attract reading, re-reading, and discussion in contemporary Jewish circles. This discussion is full of excite and wonder about the melding of a people, a language, and a homeland.

Prof. Glinert provides generous chapter notes, suggestions for further reading, and a highly useful index.

This book is a masterpiece that is likely to hold sway over the important and fascinating issues it discusses for many years to come.  Jewish readers who enter this challenging space will find their understanding of Jewish identity mightily expanded.

The essay appears in the January 2018 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).

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A new and challenging understanding of a most imaginative, penetrating, and influential Jewish mind

Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud, by Barry W. Holtz. Yale University Press. 248 pages. Hardcover $25.00.

This recent addition to Yale’s “Jewish Lives” series addresses what can be discovered and reasonably imagined about the life of a man for whom there is no physical record. Rabbi Akiva, known as the founder of Rabbinic Judaism, is mentioned everywhere, but the mentions were written long after his death. Indeed, in Rabbi Akiva’s lifetime (considered to be 50-135 CE), the kind of recordkeeping and documentary evidence that is at the heart of biographical and historical writing did not exist. 

What’s a scholar to do?

In this case, he can write the biography of his subject’s mind, achievements, and reputation as transmitted to those many generations after Akiva’s time. They, the rabbis to follow, inherited and rehearsed the tales of his extraordinary insights into the Torah and how these insights live in the Talmud (and elsewhere), thus continuing to inform our sense – even today – of what Judaism is. Rabbi Akiva is the major founder and exemplar of Rabbinic Judaism – the Judaism that emerged after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the failed revolt against the Romans (132-135 CE). The Jerusalem Talmud calls him a “father of the world.”

In many ways, Rabbi Akiva must remain a mysterious figure. Nothing is known about his parents. We don’t know the place of his birth and where he resided. Stories about his execution have legendary power, but there are no references to this event in Talmudic sources. There is a frequently visited alleged burial place on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, but scholars don’t give it much credence. As Dr. Holtz puts it, what we must accept is in searching for Akiva “we remain caught between fact and legend, history and the shared memory of an old culture.

In order to put Rabbi Akiva in context, Dr. Holtz devotes a chapter to what is known about the world in which he lived. He draws upon the fairly proximate picture painted by the Jewish historian Josephus “who managed to negotiate the boundaries of the Jewish and Roman worlds in a savvy and successful way.” The author gives us enough history to make us understand that Jews, then as in more recent times, “were a nation, ruled by a foreign power.” They constituted roughly 50% of a Roman region called Palestine that had about one million people. Prof. Holtz explores the Great Revolt, it’s causes and consequences, and the important rabbis with whom Akiva interact. He explains how the group of scholar-leaders called rabbis emerged. He connects Akiva to the rabbis who were first his teachers, men who eventually saw him as their master.

Barry W. Holtz

The story goes that Akiva reached middle age with no significant Jewish identity or learning.  He was, in all the ways that we might deem important, a self-made man. One tradition suggests that Akiva the unmarried shepherd ‘began his studies for the love of a good woman.” Another tradition finds him already a married man with a son when he – on his own volition – took on the career of learning.

Does it matter? Perhaps not. What does matter is that his abrupt transition captured the imagination people who can never ask enough questions. Dr. Holtz guides us to understanding what it meant for others to probe, perhaps half-create, their hero teacher-scholar Akiva. If their answers to questions about this enigmatic figure are contradictory, so much the better. Comparing various sources, and the sources of the sources, Dr. Holtz develops a notion that important stories about Akiva led to discovering  Akiva’s own insights about the  shaping  — strengthening or softening – of his heart.

Much about Akiva concerns his career – in both life and afterlife – as an exemplary figure. For example, his modesty is often praised. We are urged to remember that his origins were in poverty. That he was a true nobody until he became committed to his religious studies.

Rabbi Akiva’s engagements with religious and ritual issues are often at the center of these biographical snapshots. One such tale involves Akiva coming upon a corpse and puzzling over its final disposition. The complexities of Jewish law make the decision difficult, and the still-young rabbi realizes how much he must learn in order to make sound decisions about what is the “right thing” to do.

Another tale tells of Akiva’s presence as part of a rabbinic triumvirate determined to overturn another celebrated rabbi’s earlier decision. The interplay among the rabbis clearly illustrates Akiva’s stellar status among them. He is regularly given the final – and decisive – word on a contested issue. This importance is underscored by the rabbinic interchange recorded in the Haggadah in which Akiva has the prevailing argument. Here and elsewhere, Dr. Holtz reinforces the Akiva principle of interpretation that “requires paying careful attention to every detail in the text.”

Other Akiva stories find him portrayed as “a spiritual master, a person capable of attaining an insight into God and God’s hidden realms that other worthy figures were unable to attain.”

Over and over, Dr. Holtz suggests and demonstrates fruitful ways of reading and drawing understanding from the Akiva stories. His book may be best valued as a remarkable primer in today’s methodology.

At the end of a reader’s journey through Holtz’s remarkable and inspirational “life of Akiva,” one is likely to agree with the author’s feeling that Akiva, a most eminent sage at the center of early rabbinic Judaism, prepared the Jewish world for its future.

This review appears in the July-August, 2017 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and the July issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee)

 

 

 

 

 

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Recent biography of Herzl brings us closer to the man and his times

Herzl’s Vision: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State, by Shlomo Avineri. Trans. Haim Watzman. BlueBridge. 304 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.

This gets the “must” award; that is, it’s a “must for every Jewish library.” Private or public. Personal or university. First published in Israel in 2008, it was translated into English for publication in Great Britain in 2013. BlueBridge brought out a hardcover edition three years ago. Now the paperback is here.  

There are many other Herzl biographies, many of them quite fine, but this one has a special value because it comes closer than any of the others to reflecting Herzl’s own perspective. This is because it leans much more heavily on Herzl’s diaries as well as the works he published during his lifetime. We have here Herzl the polemicist, Herzl the novelist, and Herzl the playwright – all looming large in combination many other aspects of an unusually complex Jewish man.

Like much successful biography – and fiction – this study begins with a gripping point of attack. It is the fall of 1898. Herzl and other Zionist leaders have come to interact with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who is touring the Holy Land. The chapter backgrounds the preparations for this trip, the expectations Herzl had, and the unfolding of the group’s ten days – mostly in Jerusalem. Herzl had to fight through a fever, but he was already speculating on how to restore dignity to the ancient, decaying city. Herzl had his audience with the German emperor, but his efforts at diplomacy that would lead to a Jewish State did not bear fruit. Yet seeds to that end were planted in the public arena.

What led up to Herzl making this trip? How had he prepared for it and arranged it? We must step back in time to understand how this journalist and playwright became a voice and a force for an independent Jewish nation. Then we can move forward, pick up his trail in the aftermath of his visit to Jerusalem, and follow him step by step until his untimely death in 1904.

Professor Avineri imbeds Herzl fully in his time and place. The author recreates the upheavals of later 19th century Europe, the ebbs and flows of Jewish hopes of ascendance followed by despair – which is to say the widening and narrowing of Jewish opportunities to live lives untrammeled by anti-Semitism.  He narrows the lens to focus on Herzl’s growing interest in the Jewish question and his growing understanding and rigorous search for the answer while his life and career moved through Budapest, Vienna, and Paris.

Avineri

We see the importance of Herzl’s journalistic eye and curiosity in the fashioning of means to an end. How he realized the necessity of the Jewish question becoming an international question at the highest levels of political power. He sought opportunities to lecture, to organize the unsteady threads of Zionist activity and commitment, to seek the attention and the ears of government functionaries who might in time get him an audience with a major office holder who might just get Herzl an audience with someone at the top of the ladder.

With Avineri, we wind through Herzl’s newspaper pieces, his trial balloon proposal titled The Jewish State, the building of the energy and connections that lead to the First Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland, after which the succeeding annual congresses became benchmarks of progress – or of something less than progress.

The author’s strategic use of materials from his subject’s diaries allows readers to feel something like Herzl’s emotional, ideational, and locomotive pulse. He was a traveling man. It’s not clear how or how well he rested. He mostly faced defeat. How did he keep picking himself up? How did he become a man of the world (or at least the world he had to win over), respected as the leader of a nation not yet born?

Professor Avineri examines Herzl’s several plays, drawing out how the operate to explore conditions and relationships relevant to his overarching concerns. He examines the compromised success of Altneuland, Herzl’s quasi-utopian novel that develops a middle road between collective and individual autonomy.

Avineri stands behind Herzl as the almost-prophet tries out the alternative homeland flavors – from El-Arish through Uganda (in the view of many Herzl’s greatest miscalculation). We feel the exhaustion and pain in Herzl’s need to heal the fractures that often crippled the Zionist movement.

Everywhere, the author blends Herzl the thinker with Herzl the doer – the activist: the man in motion. He does this with a sure hand and an attractive style that keeps readers engaged with the study’s scholarly underpinning.

At his death, Herzl could have been considered a failure. In the following decades, he would be revered, more and more, as the great prophet and leader who, like Moses himself, was not able to enter the Promised Land.

 

SHLOMO AVINERI, Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a graduate of the Hebrew University and the London School of Economics, and served as Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the first government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He held visiting appointments at Yale, Cornel, University of California, Cardozo School of Law, Australian National University, Oxford and Northwestern University; and has been a Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, both in Washington, D.C., the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow, and Collegium Budapest.

He is Recurring Visiting Professor at the Central European University in Budapest.

In 1996 he received the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian decoration.

Among his books: The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State, Israel and the Palestinians, Karl Marx on Colonialism and Modernization, The Making of Modern Zionism, Moses Hess: Prophet of Communism and Zionism, and Communitarianism and Individualism.

This review appears in the June 2017  issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of  Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).

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