Jack Wertheimer on The New American Judaism

Jack Wertheimer The New American Judaism book coverAmerican Judaism has been buffeted by massive social upheavals in recent decades. In The New American Judaism, Jack Wertheimer, a leading authority on the subject, sets out to discover how Jews of various orientations practice their religion in this radically altered landscape. What emerges is a quintessentially American story of rash disruption and creative reinvention, religious illiteracy and dynamic experimentation. Here, Wertheimer provides insight on why and how he wrote the book, and what readers of all faiths can learn from it.

What led you to write this book?

Twenty-five years ago, I published a book offering my take on contemporary Jewish religious life. When I revisited that book in recent years, I realized an entirely different approach, not merely an update, would be needed to do justice to today’s scene. I also was curious to learn more about the proliferation of new settings for Jewish religious expression and the remaking of existing places for congregating.

You interviewed 220 people for this book. How did you decide whom to interview and what questions to ask?

I mainly interviewed rabbis situated in different corners of Jewish life, and then turned to other observers to help me understand new developments. My overall questions were straightforward: What are you seeing among the Jews in your orbit when it comes to religion? And what are you doing to draw Jews into religious life? From there, the questions led us down fascinating byways. I learned about the re-appropriation of long-discarded Jewish religious traditions, and creative efforts to engage attendees at religious services; about the self-invented forms of Jewish practice taken for granted by some Jews and also the return to traditions by others. I heard about startling religious practices one would not have seen in synagogues even twenty years ago, and also learned of Jewish religious gatherings in unlikely places.

So what is new about the new American Judaism?

I could be flip and answer: “that’s why you have to read the book.” But to begin addressing the question, I’d say the environment in which American Jews find themselves is new. In some ways, it is remarkably open to all religious possibilities—or none; in other ways, American elite culture is highly dismissive of religion in ways that was not the case but a few decades ago. This has further eroded what Peter Berger called “the plausibility structure” for religion. Jews in our time are less likely than in the past to regard their religion as a package of behaviors and, as the old saw put it, “a way of life.” Now religious settings have to contend with Jews who wish to connect only episodically and only on their own terms. This has led both to religious participation as a “sometime thing” for many Jews, and simultaneously has spurred a great deal of experimentation to create enticing religious environments in the hope of drawing more participants. Congregations of all types are reimagining the use of space, the choreography of prayer service, the impact of music and visual cues, the ways they extend hospitality and mutual support to fellow congregants, and the messages they deliver about how Jewish religious practice enriches one’s life.

Is all of this unique to Judaism?

Not at all. One cannot really understand Jewish religious developments in a vacuum. Even the seemingly most insular of Jews who deliberately live in their own enclaves cannot escape the impact of the powerful culture all around us. (One of the rabbis I interviewed put this colloquially when he said: “culture eats mission for breakfast”—i.e. it overwhelms religious ideology.)

Many internal Jewish developments described in this book are quintessentially American (though some have parallels in other countries). New ways of thinking about religious experiences can be found in American churches, mosques and synagogues. Religious leaders across the spectrum recognize that they face common challenges, such as the well-documented retreat from institutional engagement, the quest for spirituality among some, the disenchantment with religious leadership, the DIY mindset when applied to religion and the desire for a more engaging worship experience. Experimentation is a hallmark of American religious life, as it is in many Jewish religious institutions.

Can you talk about one challenge you faced in your research?

There are a great many ways Jews practice their religion. One challenge facing anyone attempting to survey the scene is how to capture American Judaism in all its complexity and variety. To be clear, the term Judaism is used in many different ways. Some see it as synonymous with all of Jewish life. Others as the expression of a distinct theology and package of do’s and don’ts. The book endeavors to examine how “average” Jews incorporate Jewish religious practices into their lives, what they believe, what in their religion is important to them, and what is available to those who seek out Jewish religious settings.

A lot of people are pessimistic about the future of American Judaism. Do you agree with them?

A lot of people are pessimistic about the future health and vitality of Jewish life in this country. Some also worry about the long-term future of this or that denomination of American Judaism. There are good reasons to worry about both. But given the explosion of creativity in the Jewish religious sphere, I don’t worry about the future of Judaism. It’s the adherents, the Jews in the pews or those who rarely show up, that require our attention. I devote attention in the book to writing about some approaches to this challenge that I regard as short-sighted, if not wrong-headed. I also suggest some guidelines that might make for a stronger Jewish religious life.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

First, that like so much in life, American Judaism is complicated, anything but static, and replete with pluses and minuses. Second, by stepping back to behold the entire scene, there are some remarkably fascinating things to observe. And related to that, perhaps readers will join me in appreciating a bit more the enormous investment of energy, creativity and good-will that so many rabbis and other religious leader are pouring into efforts to revitalize Jewish religious life. We don’t have to find every effort personally congenial to appreciate the explosion of energy at precisely a time when religion is not held in the highest esteem.

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His many books include The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping the American Jewish LandscapeFamily Matters: Jewish Education in an Age of Choice, and A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer on The Talmud: A Biography

TalmudThe Babylonian Talmud, a postbiblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary, is an unlikely bestseller. Written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, it is often ambiguous to the point of incomprehension, and its subject matter reflects a narrow scholasticism that should hardly have broad appeal. Yet the Talmud has remained in print for centuries and is more popular today than ever. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer tells the remarkable story of this ancient Jewish book and explains why it has endured for almost two millennia. An incomparable introduction to a work of literature that has lived a full and varied life, this accessible book shows why the Talmud is at once a received source of traditional teachings, a touchstone of cultural authority, and a powerful symbol of Jewishness for both supporters and critics.

 

What is the Talmud?

The Talmud has been the central authoritative text for Judaism for the last millennium. An originally oral collectively authored work that was completed by the eighth century CE, the Talmud ranges across topics both sacred and mundane with a nonlinear style that replicates the feel of an intellectual conversation. People have routinely looked to the Talmud for guidance in their ritual, spiritual and legal lives even as many of the Talmud’s most studied passages are about torts like the effects of a goring ox on a neighbor’s property. This combination of sometimes profound content alongside seemingly banal material is one of the things that makes the Talmud so unique.

Is this an introduction to the Talmud? Will it teach me how to read the Talmud?

It is an introduction to the Talmud, but not one specifically designed to train someone to read this unique work. There are some pretty good print and digital resources that help new learners figure out how to make sense of a talmudic passage. This book provides an overview of how the Talmud was composed and subsequently received. More than explaining a passage or two of Talmud, The Talmud: A Biography examines the historical contexts in which the Talmud was initially produced and subsequently canonized. It attempts to highlight the unique literary and religious features that have made the Talmud so compelling to so many for so long.

The Talmud is a religious classic written by dead white men. Is it still relevant?

Despite the Talmud’s antique background, it is a surprisingly fresh text that seems to have a limitless potential for reinterpretation. One of the claims of the biography is that different factions of Judaism (Zionism, Reform Judaism, Hasidism) throughout history established themselves with a self-conscious opposition to the Talmud and its vision of Judaism, but eventually came back to reclaim the Talmud and its authority through reinterpretation. The Talmud is of a different time and place. Contemporary readers occasionally bristle at sections that are challenging by today’s ethical standards. If one can create distance as a reader from some of the text’s more challenging opinions or assumptions, one can find sections that seem to speak directly to our age. Because the Talmud is written in a conversational style with multiple opinions it invites readers to join the conversation and talk back to it. The Talmud: A Biography ends with a discussion of some artists who are talking back to the Talmud. One of the discussed artworks is featured on the book’s jacket cover.

Biographies are stories of people’s lives. You’ve written a biography of a book. What were the challenges of applying this genre to a book and what are the advantages?

We’re so used to the genre of biography that we don’t think much about the fact that it’s challenging to turn a life into a textual narrative. This book compounded the problem because I had to turn a text into a life to reduce that life to a textual narrative. The advantage of writing a biography of the Talmud rather than an introduction is that the living Talmud more naturally lends itself to a dynamic treatment that recognizes that the work changed over time. The Talmud’s cultural position and impact were not the same in the eleventh century as in the eighteenth; the Jewish diaspora is so vast that there were major cultural differences inherent to the different places in which Jews lived. 

The Talmud has a reputation for being difficult to comprehend. Is the reputation deserved? What makes the work so difficult?

People sometimes think that what makes the Talmud difficult is its language—the Talmud is written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic. The language is a barrier for English readers, but there are several translations available which bridge that gap. The real challenge of the Talmud lies in its logic. Much of the Talmud’s text is about fine- grained debates around the interpretation of the Bible and Mishnah (an early rabbinic legal code). The Talmud assumes a lot about its reader (that the reader knows the bible, knows the full gamut of Jewish ritual and can process logic very rapidly). There are also many places where an attentive reader will pick up on flaws in the textual logic and even contradictions within a local passage. What makes the Talmud so difficult (but in a satisfying way) is figuring out a way to make sense of these flaws and contradictions.

When did you first read the Talmud?

I had an intense traditional Jewish education. At 8 I started competing in intra-school and inter-school competitions for memorizing Mishnayot (individual passages of Mishnah, the early rabbinic law code); for five years I averaged a hundred memorized Mishnayot a year. By the time I started studying the Talmud (in summer camp after fourth grade), I was so eager to get started because I had been exposed to story after story about the Talmud’s greatness and the satisfaction it provided to its learners. I’ll admit that I didn’t understand the satisfaction piece until a decade later, when I had the intellectual maturity to read the Talmud and understand all its complexities.

Does the book offer something for those who read Talmud regularly?

Many Talmud scholars and students rarely get the opportunity to reflect on the work’s origins, its unique qualities as a work of literature or the way the Talmud was transmitted through handwritten manuscripts and various print editions to our current digital age. The book is as interested in the life the Talmud lived off the page—as a symbol of Jews and Judaism that has been perpetually implicated in fights between religions or between competing religious factions. The Talmud: A Biography interprets two talmudic passages and sustains these examples from chapter to chapter. While designed to be understood by beginners, these interpretations will engage even the most experienced Talmud scholars.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer is associate professor of religious studies and law at Northwestern University and the author of Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories.

A History of Judaism: Nineteen Jewish Groups You’ve Never Heard Of

This month, PUP is publishing the U.S. edition of Martin Goodman’s new History of Judaism. Goodman sifts through thousands of years of historical evidence, archaeological records, and theological debates to present a history of Judaism as a multifaceted and ever-changing belief system.

It comes as no surprise that throughout millennia and across continents, Judaism’s adherents have interpreted the religion’s teachings in myriad ways, living out their faith and articulating their religious identity accordingly. But have you heard of these 19 groups?

 

1. The Therapeutae, a contemplative sect of the late Second Temple Period, were said to live in isolation six days a week and to eat and drink only after sunset.

2. The Ebionites were an ascetic group who lived east of the River Jordan in the second to fourth centuries CE and believed in elements of both Judaism and Christianity.

3. The Nazoraeans lived in Syria in the 400s CE and used an Aramaic gospel. While following much of the Torah, they also practiced elements of orthodox Christianity.

4. The ruling dynasty of the Khazars, a Turkish kingdom in the Lower Volga region, adopted Judaism in the eighth century, probably for geopolitical reasons. It is not known to what extent the general Khazar population did as well.

5. The Romaniot Jews in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic, but took their liturgical rites from the Byzantine Empire. They used Judaeo-Greek (Greek written in the Hebrew alphabet) for religious purposes through the Middle Ages.

6. Nazirites took a temporary or permanent vow (described in the Septuagint as “the great vow”) to avoid wine and grapes, let their hair grow long, and avoid contact with corpse impurity.

7. Beginning around the eighth century, the Karaites denied the authority of the Talmud and rejected rabbinic interpretation of biblical law. For example, they fixed their calendar by celestial observation rather than mathematical calculation, did not observe Hanukkah, and discarded rules about menstrual impurity.

8. The Yudghanites were Karaites who believed that Abu ‘Isa, an eighth-century figure, was the Messiah. They did not drink alcohol, eat meat, or observe the Sabbath.

9. The Szombatos in 17th-century Transylvania were a breakaway Christian group who insisted that all Christians should observe the Old Testament laws literally.

10. The Jedid al-Islam, or “New Muslims,” were Persian Jews who were forced to convert to Islam in 1656, but secretly maintained Jewish practices.

11. Sabbatians were various groups of Jews who believed that 17th-century kabbalist Sabbetai Zevi was the messiah. Zevi lived in Turkey, but Sabbatians as far away as Germany heeded his call and sold all their possessions to prepare to join him in Jerusalem.

12. The Dönmeh were Sabbatians from Salonica who converted to Islam but secretly practiced Judaism. One sect of the Dönmeh believed that messianic Torah required all sexual prohibitions to be reversed and treated as positive commands.

13. The Frankists believed that 18th-century leader Jacob Frank was the reincarnation of Sabbetai Zevi. Some Frankists also believed that Frank’s daughter was a Romanov princess. The Frankists were baptized as Christians in Poland.

14. The Subbotniki, a breakaway Christian group in late 18th-century Russia, advocated adherence to certain Jewish laws and rituals and were exiled to Siberia.

15. The Bratslav Hasidim still make regular pilgrimages to the grave of their 18th-century leader, Rebbe Nahman, in Ukraine, chanting the syllables of his name, “Na Nah Nahma Nahman.”

16. The Status Quo Ante were communities of traditionalist Jews in mid-19th-century Hungary who chose to align themselves neither with orthodox groups nor with reformists.

17. The Bund, a Jewish socialist party founded in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, was devoted to a secular, Yiddish-speaking eastern European Jewish nationalism.

18. The Kach was an Israeli political party, formed in 1971, that advocated the mass expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories.

19. The Neturei Karta, or Guardians of the City, are Orthodox Jews who refuse on religious grounds to recognize the existence of the secular State of Israel.

 

David Biale on Hasidism

Hasidism is the first comprehensive history of the pietistic movement that shaped modern Judaism. The book’s unique blend of intellectual, religious, and social history offers perspectives on the movement’s leaders as well as its followers, and demonstrates that, far from being a throwback to the Middle Ages, Hasidism is a product of modernity that forged its identity as a radical alternative to the secular world. Recently David Biale took the time to answer questions about his new book, co-authored with David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński.

What is Hasidism and why is it important?

DB: Hasidism is a movement of Jewish religious orthodoxy that originated in the southeastern corner of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the middle of the eighteenth century. From very modest beginnings, it grew by the nineteenth century into perhaps the most dynamic and influential religious movement among Eastern European Jews. Hasidism developed some striking theological ideas, including the value of joy in the worship of God and ecstatic union with the divine. But it also created a social innovation: communities of Hasidim (pious followers) of a tsaddik or rebbe, a wonder-working, charismatic leader whose court became the center of a network beyond the traditional Jewish communities.

While secularization, the Bolshevik Revolution and, finally, the Holocaust decimated the Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe, after World War II, the movement enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance in North America, the State of Israel and (to a lesser degree) elsewhere in the world. We estimate that today there are roughly 700,000 Hasidim throughout the world. They continue to be divided, as they have for most of their history, into groups affiliated with their characteristic leaders. Many of these groups have outposts in different parts of the world such that the movement, which was originally limited to a certain area of Eastern Europe, has now become truly global.  Hasidism is, without question, one of the most important movements in modern Jewish history and in Jewish life today.

What is new about Hasidism: A New History?

DB: The title of our book conceals something surprising. There really isn’t an old history of Hasidism, so our book is really the first history of this highly influential religious movement. We try to tell a sweeping story that encompasses Hasidism’s full history from its origins to the present day. Most of the earlier literature on Hasidism focused on the movement’s eighteenth-century origins, with less attention paid to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This literature often argued that Hasidism’s golden age was in the eighteenth century and that the movement declined afterwards. We argue, on the contrary, that the movement only really became a mass movement in the nineteenth century and that it was in that century that one can find its golden age.  A second golden age was after World War II when Hasidic communities rebuilt themselves in the wake of the Holocaust. What is new, then, about our book, besides many specific arguments, is its comprehensive nature.

Can you describe some of these new arguments?

One very important claim in the book is that the putative “founder” of Hasidism, Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, in fact never set out to found a movement. He was a part of the communal establishment in his town and he gathered around him a circle of pietists.  It was only two generations later, after the death of one of his main disciple, Dov Ber of Mezritsh, that a movement began to form by disciples of Dov Ber. The process by which Hasidism started as a small conventicle and later became a mass movement has certain resemblances to early Christianity. It seems unlikely that Jesus intended to found a new religion, but later Christians turned him into their movement’s founder. So, too, with Israel Ba’al Shem Tov.

Another set of arguments focuses on how Hasidism functioned on the local level in the nineteenth century. Although many of the Hasidic courts in this period were opulent and resembled royal or noble courts, most Hasidim visited the courts only once or twice a year. At other times, they operated in their home towns.  Recent research by one member of our team demonstrates how Hasidism struggled for power in these towns. The local Hasidim were often relatively well-off merchants, such that the movement was anything but a marginal phenomenon.

You argue that Hasidism is modern movement, but isn’t its ideology expressly anti-modern?

We understand modernity as something more complicated than just movements of secularization. The resistance to secularization is itself modern and Hasidism has to be understood in that context. It is a traditionalist movement, meaning that it constructs a certain image of tradition to use in its war against modern secularism. In fact, Hasidism is highly innovative, no less than modern movements of reform: its social structure and its charismatic leadership have never been seen before in Jewish history. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hasidism embraced modern politics in order to advance its agenda. In all these ways, Hasidism is a part of Jewish modernity.

Your book is unusual in that it has eight co-authors.  Why is that and what was the process with which you produced the project?

Because Hasidism consists of dozens (perhaps even hundreds) of “courts” located in many different places (and even continents), its history is too complex to be written by one person. It requires the expertise of a team. We decided very early on that instead of producing an edited volume, we wanted to write a seamless narrative.  We resolved to write collaboratively. In order to do so, we arranged to spend four summer residencies at the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig, Germany. The institute provided wonderful accommodations for us to work together free from the distractions of our home environments. We were fortunate to receive grants from the Thyssen Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities to support these residencies.

In Leipzig, we devoted the first summer to producing a highly detailed table of contents. The next two summers were involved with the actual writing (of course, we all worked on the project individually during the academic year). The final summer involved collective editing of the manuscript. So, even though each member of the team wrote their own chapters, other team members provided intensive feedback throughout the writing and editing process. In this way, the book reflects the input of the whole team, a kind of peer review even before the manuscript went out to readers. We hope that in addition to the content of our book, this kind of collaborative authorship can offer a model to other scholars in the humanities.

Do you think that the Hasidim themselves will read your book and what do you think their reactions will be?

Several years ago, the Israel Museum staged a fascinating exhibition on Hasidism. What was most striking was how many Hasidim came to see the exhibition. They were evidently intrigued by how they are portrayed by the outside word. We anticipate a similar response to our book. They will no doubt take issue with some of our arguments, which go against the grain of their own conception of their history. But they will certainly buy the book.

BialeDavid Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis.

Yair Mintzker: The Many Deaths of Jew Süss

Joseph Süss Oppenheimer—”Jew Süss”—is one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. In 1733, Oppenheimer became the “court Jew” of Carl Alexander, the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and condemned him to death for unspecified “misdeeds.” On February 4, 1738, Oppenheimer was hanged in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart. He is most often remembered today through several works of fiction, chief among them a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made in 1940 at the behest of Joseph Goebbels. The Many Deaths of Jew Süss by Yair Mintzker is a compelling new account of Oppenheimer’s notorious trial.

You have chosen a very intriguing title for your book—The Many Deaths of Jew Süss. Who was this “Jew Süss” and why did he die more than once?

YM: Jew Süss is the nickname of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. Originally from the Jewish community in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1732 Oppenheimer became the personal banker (“court Jew”) of Carl Alexander, duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly in 1737, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and eventually hanged him in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart. He is most often remembered today through a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made about him at the behest of Joseph Goebbels.

Why is Oppenheimer such an iconic figure in the history of anti-Semitism?

YM: Though Oppenheimer was executed almost three centuries ago, his trial never quite ended. Even as the trial was unfolding, it was already clear that what was being placed in the scales of justice was not any of Oppenheimer’s alleged crimes. The verdict pronounced in his case conspicuously failed to provide any specific details about the reasons for the death sentence. The significance of the trial, and the reasons for Oppenheimer’s public notoriety ever since the eighteenth century, stem from the fact that Oppenheimer’s rise-and-fall story has been viewed by many as an allegory for the history of German Jewry in general. Here was a man who tried to fit in, and seemed to for a time, but was eventually rejected; a Jew who enjoyed much success but then fell from power and met a violent death. Thus, at every point in time when the status, culture, past and future of Germany’s Jews have hung in the balance, the story of this man has moved to center stage, where it was investigated, novelized, dramatized, and even set to music. It is no exaggeration to say that Jew Süss is to the German collective imagination what Shakespeare’s Shylock is to the English-speaking world.

Your book is about Oppenheimer’s original trial, not about how this famous court Jew was depicted later. Why do you claim that he died more than once?

YM: We need to take a step back and say something about the sources left by Oppenheimer’s trial. Today, in over one hundred cardboard boxes in the state archives in Stuttgart, one can read close to thirty thousand handwritten pages of documents from the time period of the trial. Among these pages are the materials collected by the inquisition committee assigned to the case; protocols of the interrogations of Oppenheimer himself, his alleged accomplices, and many witnesses; descriptions of conversations Oppenheimer had with visitors in his prison cell; and a great number of poems, pamphlets, and essays about Oppenheimer’s final months, days, hours, and even minutes. But here’s the rub: while the abundance of sources about Oppenheimer’s trial is remarkable, the sources themselves never tell the same story twice. They are full of doubts, uncertainties, and outright contradictions about who Oppenheimer was and what he did or did not do. Instead of reducing these diverse perspectives to just one plot line, I decided to explore in my book four different accounts of the trial, each from a different perspective. The result is a critical work of scholarship that uncovers mountains of new documents, but one that refuses to reduce the story of Jew Süss to only one narrative.

What are the four stories you tell in the book, then?

YM: I look at Oppenheimer’s life and death as told by four contemporaries: the leading inquisitor in Oppenheimer’s trial, the most important eyewitness to Oppenheimer’s final days, a fellow court Jew who was permitted to visit Oppenheimer on the eve of his execution, and one of Oppenheimer’s earliest biographers.

What do we learn from these stories?

YM: What emerges from these accounts, above and beyond everything else, is an unforgettable picture of Jew Süss in his final days. It is a lurid tale of greed, sex, violence, and disgrace, but one that we can fully comprehend only if we follow the life stories of the four narrators and understand what they were trying to achieve by writing about Oppenheimer in the first place.

Is the purpose of this book to show, by composing these conflicting accounts of Jew Süss, that the truth is always in the eye of the beholder, that everything is relative and that there is therefore no one, single truth?

YM: No. The realization that the world looks different from different perspectives cannot possibly be the bottom line of a good work of history. This is so not because it’s wrong, but because it’s obvious. What I was setting out to do in writing this book was different. I used the multi-perspectival nature of lived experience as my starting point, not as my destination; it was a belief that informed what I did rather than a conclusion toward which I was driving.

And the result?

YM: A moving, disturbing, and often outright profound account of Oppenheimer’s trial that is also an innovative work of history and an illuminating parable about Jewish life in the fraught transition to modernity.

MintzkerYair Mintzker is associate professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of The Defortification of the German City, 1689–1866 The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew.

Evgeny Finkel on his new book, Ordinary Jews

Focusing on the choices and actions of Jews during the Holocaust, Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival During the Holocaust examines the different patterns of behavior of civilians targeted by mass violence. Relying on rich archival material and hundreds of survivors’ testimonies, Evgeny Finkel presents a new framework for understanding the survival strategies in which Jews engaged: cooperation and collaboration, coping and compliance, evasion, and resistance. Rather than looking at the Holocaust as a whole, Ordinary Jews focuses on three Jewish communities—those of Minsk, Kraków, and Białystok—to try to understand why Jews in these communities had very different responses when faced with similar Nazi policies. Recently, Finkel took the time to answer some questions about his new book.

The Holocaust is one of the most researched episodes of human history. What new angle does your book contribute?

EF: It is true that the Holocaust had been extensively researched, but we still know very little about why European Jews chose different responses to the genocide—why some rebelled against the Nazis while others collaborated with them; why some escaped while others did nothing. This book is different from the existing research in that it focuses exclusively on the Holocaust’s Jewish victims and on what made individual Jews choose different survival strategies in response to the Nazi genocide. Instead of looking at the Holocaust as a whole or focusing on one place, as historians usually do, I compare three Jewish communities—those of Minsk, Kraków, and Białystok—and try to understand why, when faced with similar Nazi policies, the Jews in these communities reacted in dramatically different ways.

So what could the Jews do during the Holocaust and why did they behave in different ways?

EF: I identify four main strategies used by the Jews: cooperation and collaboration with the Germans; coping with the danger and attempting to survive while staying put; evasion via escape and hiding among the non-Jews; and armed resistance to the Nazis. What I discovered is that the choice of a particular survival strategy was shaped more by the Jews’ pre-WWII lives and the regimes under which they lived—decades before the Holocaust—than by what the Nazis did. People who were politically active before the Holocaust were more likely to choose cooperation with or resistance to the Nazis. Jews who were more integrated into the non-Jewish society were much more likely to escape and hide, and the stronger the pre-WWII local Jewish community was, the higher was the number of people who chose coping.

But eventually, no matter what the Jews did they almost all died?

EF: True, in those parts of Eastern Europe that were occupied by the Nazis most Jews did not survive the Holocaust, but this general observation obscures important local dynamics: for instance, those who chose evasion were more likely to survive than those who stayed put. Even more so, buying fake documents and going to Germany proper (and often to Berlin!) as a Polish or Russian laborer was likely the most successful survival strategy. The tragedy was that the evasion strategy was not available to everyone because it heavily depended on the Jews’ pre-WWII lives and interactions with non-Jewish people. Even very basic contacts such as having non-Jewish janitors in one’s workplace or apartment building could sometimes be the difference between death and survival. Speaking Polish or Russian without a Yiddish accent was much more important than having “non-Jewish looks” or being rich. For minorities, integration into the majority’s culture takes decades. In places where pre-WWII government encouraged such policies, Jews were more likely to have the tools to successfully escape and hide than in places where segregation between the Jews and the Christians was almost complete. In Kraków, the Austro-Hungarian Empire allowed and encouraged the Jews’ integration before Hitler was even born. The Empire itself collapsed twenty years before the WWII, but the legacy of its policies allowed quite a few Jews to successfully hide and eventually survive. In Białystok, neither the Russian Empire nor the interwar Polish state encouraged Jews to integrate into the broader society. When the Nazis came, for the local Jews, evasion was simply not an option because very few spoke Polish or had non-Jewish acquaintances to ask for help.

What about resistance?

EF: Actually, Jewish armed resistance was not as rare as people think. We tend to equate Jewish resistance with open uprisings like that of the Warsaw ghetto. But there were several ways to fight the Nazis and not all of them involved rebellions. The three communities I study all had Jewish armed resistance groups, but only the Białystok ghetto rebelled. In Kraków, the Jewish resistance bombed a coffee shop packed with German servicemen and engaged in anti-Nazi sabotage. In Minsk, the Jewish underground helped to establish and supply communist guerilla units in the forests around the city and smuggled numerous Jews out of the ghetto. Yet, because the Białystok ghetto uprising was a highly visible, symbolic act of resistance, it tends to be widely remembered, while the Kraków and Minsk Jewish undergrounds are largely overlooked and forgotten, in spite of the fact that they likely killed more Nazis than the Białystok uprising did.

Is it true that only a minority of the Jews resisted? Why wasn’t there unified resistance as the Nazi agenda became clear?

EF: Overall, only a minority of Jews chose resistance, but the expectation that all, or even the majority of Jews should or could have resisted is naive. Resistance, especially organized resistance, is not a matter of spontaneous decision taken on the spot. It required time, money, and resources that most Jews, especially those with families to provide for, simply did not have. It also required cooperation with likeminded and equally committed comrades, which is why this strategy attracted mostly Jews who were politically active before the Holocaust. Most importantly, skills to outfox the Nazi security services were essential. Without these skills, a resistance group was doomed to fail. As with other strategies, pre-Holocaust realities influenced who could become skillful resisters to the Nazis. In pre-WWII Poland, communism was repressed by the government and Jewish communists had to go underground. In the Soviet Union, the communists were the ruling party and therefore no young Jewish communist had underground resistance skills. On the other hand, the Zionists were persecuted in the USSR, but not in Poland. As a result, organized Jewish resistance to the Nazis was most widespread in Eastern Poland – an area that was briefly occupied by the Soviets in 1939-1941 prior to the Nazi takeover, and in which both the Zionists and the Jewish communists had the skills to fight back.

Can your argument explain the behavior of victims of mass violence beyond the Holocaust?

EF: Obviously, there are differences between the Holocaust and other instances of mass murder and genocide, but I think the overall list of possible behaviors is the same everywhere, be it during the Holocaust or in areas currently under the control of ISIS. That the behavior of victims of mass violence is heavily influenced by their pre-war lives is, I believe, also true beyond the specific case of the Holocaust. And if we know which potential victims of mass violence are more likely to try to escape, and who is more likely to fight back, then the hope is we would be better equipped to assist these people as the violence unfolds.

FinkelEvgeny Finkel is assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust.

Lewis Glinert tells the story of Hebrew

Hebrew has existed for over 3,000 years, but if Moses were to walk along a Tel Aviv street, would he understand the conversation? According to Lewis Glinert, author of The Story of Hebrew, the answer is yes.

The first language of millions of Israelis today, the story of Hebrew’s origins and evolution is  extraordinary. Over the millennia, it attracted Kabbalists and humanists who sought philosophical truth, and Colonial Americans on a quest to shape their own Israelite political identity. The Story of Hebrew explores the hold that Hebrew has had on Jews and non-Jews alike, who have invested it with a symbolic power far beyond that of any other language in history. Preserved by the Jews across two millennia, Hebrew endured long after it ceased to be a mother tongue, resulting in one of the most intense textual cultures ever known. Recently, Glinert answered some questions about his book, Hebrew’s rebirth, and the elemental force driving this unique language.

GlinertIn an age where language is increasingly treated as a mere commodity—a ticket to a job or a mark of prestige—Hebrew is often described as a linguistic miracle. Can that really be so?

LG: Hebrew is certainly unique among languages in being reborn as a mother tongue after 2,000 years—reborn just a century ago, and spoken today by millions. I’ll leave the definition of miracles to philosophers. Even if we could be sure of the constellation of social, political and spiritual forces that made it happen—and we really aren’t—it was clearly an extraordinary event in human history. Could it be repeated? Perhaps. But it’s a tall order to recharge languages in decline even if they’re still spoken, let alone when all you have is written texts.

So how did the rebirth of Hebrew start? Was there a moment of conception?

LG: Yes, it was quite a romantic affair—at least as I heard it from a 91 year old lady, Dola Ben-Yehuda, when I interviewed her 25 years ago for a BBC documentary. She was the last living daughter of the man they called ‘the father of Modern Hebrew,’ Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He was a fiery young Jewish nationalist, but deeply pessimistic for the future of Jewish cultural identity. So one day he resolved that the Jews must speak their own ancient tongue in their ancient homeland—and in 1881 he made a tryst with his bride that they and any offspring they might have would sail to Israel and speak only Hebrew. And they did! Her father, she told me, wouldn’t even send them to parties in case they picked up Yiddish or Arabic. So there’s your moment of conception…

So one family revived Modern Hebrew?

LG: Far from it. They had to get tens of thousands of people on board—and make it economically viable. Playgroups, schools, workplaces, newspapers, public institutions. They also had to coin an entire modern vocabulary. Pre-State Israel attracted waves of Zionists who loathed Yiddish and other Diaspora languages and loved Hebrew. Some of them, in fact, had already acquired Modern Hebrew in Europe, from newspapers and novels. And then in 1917 came the British, who at first supported Jewish statehood and actually financed the entire school system in Hebrew (standard colonial policy!).

“Let There be Hebrew” is the intriguing name of your first chapter. Does Genesis portray Hebrew as the mother of all tongues?

LG: Not in so many words! But the opening chapters of Genesis explain several names of persons by what they mean in Hebrew. Thus Adam calls his wife Hava (Eve) because ‘she was the mother of all life’ (hay). So, yes, Genesis seems to imply that Hebrew was the first language. But there’s much more to it than that: Genesis has God say ‘Let there be light.’ Did language transcend Creation? How? Religious philosophers and mystics have variously viewed Hebrew as inherently sacred or as a regular human language, or somehow as both. As for the rest of the world’s languages, everyone knows the story of the Tower of Babel and the Lord’s linguistic retribution, but wait—here again, the Bible is unclear: Perhaps there were different languages from the start, and the World Hebrew lost at Babel had just been an acquired lingua franca, a kind of World English ahead of its time.

If Moses were to walk along a Tel Aviv street, would he understand the conversation?

LG: If you gave him a dictionary and a few minutes to adjust to the accent, then yes, Moses would be taking it all in. It’s the same basic vocabulary and word structure as 3,000 years ago, with a streamlined European-style syntax. Kudos to the men and women a century ago who grafted the new Hebrew onto its ancient roots. An Israeli adult can readily open the Bible and start reading.

What about Jesus and his disciples?

LG: Yes, they’d also understand today’s Hebrew! In truth, most of them were more comfortable in Aramaic, which had largely supplanted Hebrew (Aramaic was the main lingua franca in the Near East). But they must all have been versed in reading the Torah and the other Hebrew Scriptures.

You devote considerable space to “Hebrew in the Christian Imagination.” What has Hebrew meant for Christians?

LG: At times a great deal, at times nothing. For centuries, Christians learned the Bible in Latin or Greek or whatever, but suddenly a cry would arise: “Our translations are false. Let us revisit the Hebrew!” And so you have the 4th century hermit Jerome mastering Hebrew and producing what became the standard Latin translation. And again with the humanists—Erasmus, Tyndale, and the authors of the King James version. Hebrew also provided the combustion in religious break-outs: Reformation, Puritanism, Mormonism, and endless but fruitless attempts to use it to convert the Jews. And here and there, a quest for deeper dimensions (Christian Kabbalah) and a new society (Colonial America), which gave us all those American Hebrew place names and perhaps even contributed to our distinctive laws and values.

If a language can maintain its integrity and identity across 3,000 years, is there some elemental force driving it?

LG: A marvelous question. I tried to shake it off (Western academia is uncomfortable with the metaphysical!), but it kept coming back to haunt me. Up to our own times, for a Jewish person to use Hebrew, even just the Alef-Bet, was a statement, and often a struggle. It was about perpetuating a heritage or studying sacred texts, or just connecting with other Jews. The rebirth of Modern Hebrew was perhaps the most intense twist in this elemental vortex. But now, paradoxically, for many Israelis using Hebrew is often an act without meaning. It’s just in the air, taken for granted. For many other Jews, though, the elemental force is still with them—in their language use, their language community, and in the language itself.

What false beliefs have people held about Hebrew?

LG: To name just a few:
“Hebrew letters and sounds have magical powers”.
Esoteric, yes—in the right hands. Magical, no. But once widely believed by simple folk and by Renaissance scholars.

“Native Americans are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and spoke a garbled Hebrew.”
Wildly wrong, but some intelligent folk, especially millennialists, thought so—take Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress in 1782.

“Hebrew was dead for 2,000 years until it was reborn.”
OK, it has been reborn in a sense, but it never ‘died.’ It was no longer a mother tongue but it went on being written and read (often aloud), sometimes creatively, and far more widely and intensively than Medieval Latin ever was.

“During those 2000 years, it was just a language of religion.”
Nonsense. It was the written language for European Jewish science, medicine, trade, all serious writing—until the 19th century.

Of all the great works that Hebrew has produced, which would you say are the ‘must reads?’

LG: Where does one begin! Genesis, Isaiah 1 and 11, Ecclesiastes, Psalms 120-134, David’s lament for Saul (2 Samuel 1), Ruth, the Song of Songs, Job. So much of the Bible was once part of the English canon (sigh). Dip into the Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire (Hasidic wisdom), the short stories of Nobel laureate S.Y.Agnon, and a ‘must hear:’ the enchanting songs of Naomi Shemer.

What moved you to write this book? And where do you fit into the story of Hebrew?

LG: Like so many Jewish children down the centuries, I was raised in postwar London on the classic religious texts of ancient Hebrew—Torah, Rashi, Mishnah, Talmud—but when my parents brought me to Israel as a ten-year old, I was enthralled to see people speaking it. I remember thinking: gosh, they have a word for ‘already’ that I never saw, and my father wants me to buy a ‘bus ticket’ in Hebrew! I vowed I would never take it for granted. And behold, my Ph.D. dissertation and my first book were about the syntax of this amazing new Hebrew—then almost uncharted territory. But as I learned from my mentors in Oxford and Jerusalem, Roy Harris and Chaim Rabin, there’s another, richer and even more complex dimension of language: How we use it and what it means for us. And in writing The Story of Hebrew, I hope I can be a tiny part of this story.

Lewis Glinert is Professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, where he is also affiliated with the Program in Linguistics. He is the author of The Grammar of Modern Hebrew, The Joys of Hebrew, and The Story of Hebrew.

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Of particular interest is Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter by Jonathan Marc Gribetz. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict persists, aspiring peacemakers continue to search for the precise territorial dividing line that will satisfy both Israeli and Palestinian nationalist demands. The prevailing view assumes that this struggle is nothing more than a dispute over real estate. Defining Neighbors boldly challenges this view, shedding new light on how Zionists and Arabs understood each other in the earliest years of Zionist settlement in Palestine and suggesting that the current singular focus on boundaries misses key elements of the conflict.

Also be sure to note Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict by Maud S. Mandel. This book traces the global, national, and local origins of the conflict between Muslims and Jews in France, challenging the belief that rising anti-Semitism in France is rooted solely in the unfolding crisis in Israel and Palestine. Mandel shows how the conflict in fact emerged from processes internal to French society itself even as it was shaped by affairs elsewhere, particularly in North Africa during the era of decolonization.

And don’t miss out on A History of Jewish-Muslim Relations:From the Origins to the Present Day. This is the first encyclopedic guide to the history of relations between Jews and Muslims around the world from the birth of Islam to today. Richly illustrated and beautifully produced, the book features more than 150 authoritative and accessible articles by an international team of leading experts in history, politics, literature, anthropology, and philosophy. Organized thematically and chronologically, this indispensable reference provides critical facts and balanced context for greater historical understanding and a more informed dialogue between Jews and Muslims.

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