A bright, hard glimpse at the final thriving days of European Jewry and the first edges of its unraveling.
Straightforward, scholarly and tidily organized, this historical snapshot by Wasserstein (Modern European Jewish History/Univ. of Chicago; Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in Our Time, 2007, etc.) encompasses myriad aspects of Jewish society, culture, language, health, demographics, and religious and political sects. Nearly 10 million Jews were inhabiting Europe, contained in what the author delineates as four zones enjoying more or less benevolent status among communities of non-Jews but already feeling the lashing of secular currents as well as anti-Semitism—across both Europe and the Soviet Union. On the one hand, Jews tended to live longer and have lower rates of alcoholism and infant mortality; on the other, they were migrating, “marrying out” and quarreling among themselves, while birth rates were declining. Anti-Semitism, stoked by paranoia, nationalism and conspiracy theories such as in France, became “part of the perfume of the age.” Jews, writes Wasserstein, essentially became victims of their own success. In concise chapters, the author examines one facet of Jewish identity after another for a staggering big picture: politics, Zionism, life from shtetl to shtot (city), cultural centers like Minsk and Salonica, the press, the theater, the status of women, converts, vernacular languages like Yiddish and Judeo-Espanol, and much more.
A wide-ranging, marvelously complete overview of a diverse, teeming civilization poised for ruin.