A fluent recounting of eight centuries in the life of a people “blessed with a special burden.”
Those centuries, writes Canadian historian Levine, were largely marked by bad news, by episodes of exile and terror, beginning with the stripping away of civil rights and eventual expulsion of the Sephardic Jews following the Christian reconquest of Moorish Spain and ending with the Soviet campaign of repression against Jewish citizens, which continued even through the period of glasnost and perestroika. Levine charts the tangled fortunes of the Sephardim and Ashkenazi as they attempted to make homes among suspicious, often murderous neighbors, even though those neighbors sometimes found use for them: as he writes, relative to the expulsion of the Sephardim in 1492, “Few European kingdoms welcomed the Jewish refugees from Spain with open arms. They had enough Jews of their own. Why would they want more? And yet it was an accepted, if not entirely proven, fact of life in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that Jews were good for the economy.” Balancing this “fact of life” with current prejudices, some of those states allowed Jews to settle, but only in segregated areas—the first of which, Levine notes, was the geto, or foundry, of Venice—and often forcing them to wear yellow badges or caps, a device that would be revived under the Third Reich. Levine relates these and other episodes through lively portraits of historical figures large and small: would-be messiahs such as Shabbetai Zevi, the 17th-century wanderer “who journeyed from city to city denouncing Jewish laws he did not approve of”; victims of persecution such as Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer falsely accused of passing military secrets on to the Germans in 1894, an event that set off a tide of anti-Semitism that, Levine writes, broke the long pattern of Jewish assimilation in western European societies; and heroes of the antifascist resistance such as Abba Kovner, who urged the embattled Jews of Poland to rise up against the Nazis.
A worthwhile survey for students of Jewish history.