THE JEWISH PRESENCE: Essays on Identity and History by Lucy S. Dawidowicz

THE JEWISH PRESENCE: Essays on Identity and History

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Fifteen years' writings, many of them from Commentary, which chiefly describe and distinctly exalt the elements of a particular Jewish experience: that of traditionally observant religious Judaism, or Orthodoxy. Dawidowicz of course would be justified in replying--as is, in effect, her contention--that this is the authentic Jewish presence. But to invite exploration of ""the question of Jewish identity, of what is a Jew, of how one lives as a Jew,"" and then to restrict Jewishness to the practice of religion, to disparage Reform Judaism as a ""border station,"" to express discomfiture with Conservatism's compromises, is both to close discussion and to deny the individual's right in the United States--which Dawidowicz explicitly recognizes--to define himself or herself as a Jew. It also colors the separate pieces so that, for instance, the discussion of Jewish influence on the American labor movement emphasizes its religious rather than specifically socialist aspects (and ignores post-Revolutionary Jewish adherence to Communism altogether). Other pieces tend to be either overgeneralized--adducing ""the Jewish way of life in America"" from a 1959 profile of one Jewish community in Queens--or highly particularized. The three essays devoted to the Yiddish language are a fund of precise information but not of generative ideas; the review of books illustrating East European Jewish life speaks, as well, to the relatively few persons interested in photo-documentation. Not surprisingly, Dawidowicz--author of Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe and The War Against the Jews--is most worth reading on those topics. She effectively dismisses Albert Speer's pretensions to innocence, reestablishes Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl as a ""killer at heart,"" exposes the model old-age camp of Theresienstadt as an elaborate sham, defends Hitler's victims from the charge of non-resistance. The many summaries of reputable studies and mentions of others commend the book as a synthesis and guide; and it is sure to be disputed among Jews--some of whom will uncontestably be drawn to an author who can write with simple conviction, ""The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.

Pub Date: June 20th, 1977
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston