JEWS by Arthur Hertzberg


The Essence and Character of a People
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A bit of a hodgepodge: part an anthropological attempt to distill the Jews’ essential characteristics, part history lite, and part mini-profiles of premodern and modern Jews, as well as Hertzberg’s autobiographical anecdotes. Hertzberg (Humanities/New York Univ.), a rabbi and very gifted, prolific scholar and essayist (The Zionist Idea, not reviewed; The Jews in America, 1989; etc.) and Hirt-Manheimer, editor of the journal Reform Judaism, state at the outset, “This is . . . a scandalous book. It runs counter to polite and politically correct portraits of the Jews. It dares to define the lasting Jewish character.— Unfortunately, despite its focus on Jews— belief in their —chosenness— and other debatable traits, this work is too unfocused to scandalize; rather, the authors flit from topic to topic, rarely exploring any one in depth. Thus, a chapter on the Holocaust discusses the fate of such assimilated and converted Jews as the historian Marc Bloch and Sister Edith Stein, Christian reactions to the genocide, and post-Holocaust theology—all in fewer than ten pages. The authors also engage in some untenable generalizations, such as their claim that —in the medieval world, in every Jewish community throughout the world, people met their peers daily to study together.” This was not true by any mans for Jewish men, and it ignores entirely Jewish women, whom this book radically scants throughout (a section on “The Ascendancy of Women” in the post-Holocaust period, perhaps the most important trend in Jewish life of the past quarter-century, comprises only three pages). Hertzberg makes his most substantive contribution in the mini-profiles of premodern Jewish religious, intellectual and political leaders, and particularly of ambivalent Jewish modernists (e.g., the central European quartet of Heine, Marx, Freud, and Kafka). But for a first-rate thinker and writer like Hertzberg, this book has a disappointingly diffuse, sometimes even slapdash quality to it. ($40,000 ad/promo; author tour)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-06-063834-6
Page count: 304pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1998


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