How to read the Jewish past.
Poet and critic Kirsch (Director, Jewish Studies Master’s Program/Columbia Univ.; Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas, 2014, etc.) takes a reflective look at what his Jewish religion has been and can be via some of its greatest books. His ambitious survey spans more than 2,500 years and offers a “panoramic portrait of Jewish thought and experience.” The books focus on four central topics: God, the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the Jewish people. Kirsch begins pretty much at the beginning with the book of Deuteronomy. Devoted to law and history, it’s concerned with the major subject of the Israelites’ relationship to the Land of Israel. He next turns to the book of Esther, which is best read as “historical fiction.” Kirsch is fascinated with its “paradox of Jewish power in a condition of Diaspora.” Jump ahead some 500 hundred years to the Jewish general captured by the Romans, Flavius Josephus, and his The Jewish War, a firsthand account of “perhaps the greatest calamity in Jewish history.” After an account of the Zohar, a 2,400-page compendium that “enchants the universe like no other Jewish book,” comes Glückel of Hameln’s transformative Tsenerene from the 1590s, “one of the most popular Yiddish books of all time.” It did the most to “connect Jewish women to Judaism’s traditional sources,” while her Memoirs is the first autobiography by a Jewish woman. From the 1890s, Kirsch singles out the visionary Viennese writer Theodor Herzl as one of the “most important figures in Jewish history.” The Jewish State, a nonfiction pamphlet, “laid out a detailed plan for the relocation of Europe’s Jews to Palestine,” while his novel Old New Land helped to create Zionism. Kirsch ends his list in 1914 with the Tevye stories of Sholem Aleichem. Although a mere 120 pages long, “no work of Yiddish literature has been more influential or more widely loved.”
A fascinating, impeccably written, personal tour of the great books of Judaism.