UNSETTLED by Melvin Konner
Kirkus Star


An Anthropology of the Jews
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A lucid exposition, informed by science and poetry alike, of the qualities and historical accidents that have made the Jewish people so important a presence in so many parts of the world.

Konner (Anthropology/Emory Univ.; Medicine at the Crossroads, 1993) weaves a personal story often retold into his narrative: that of a loss of faith truly felt as a loss, of years in that wilderness before growing “back into Jewishness as children entered my life.” (Some rabbis look askance at this “pediatric Judaism,” he notes, but he counters with his favorite definition of a Jew: “Someone who has Jewish children.”) His larger story reiterates his own: though the Jewish people have long been sustained and moved forward by Jews who did not practice Judaism, at heart the religion itself is the greatest sustenance, a pastoral, fugitive vision of a single God born in repudiation of the pantheistic agriculturalists and city-dwellers of the ancient Near East. Though militant, and though capable fighters, the early Jews, Konner writes, always found themselves sandwiched between stronger neighbors, a buffer state between mighty empires; that fact, he suggests, and the fact of long exile and wandering afterward were important influences in the development of the Jewish character, and far more meaningful than other supposed traits such as a gift for study or a knack for making money (characteristics that Konner, wearing his anthropologist’s hat, has great fun exploring). Borrowing a page from the British functionalists of old, Konner examines Orthodox dietary laws (“It’s not that the animals are clean in their biology or habits, it’s that their categories are cleanly, unambiguously defined”); drawing on Freud, Marx, and others, he looks into the image of the “predatory Jew”; turning over pages of recent history, he explores the considerable Jewish resistance to fascism, resistance that informs the motto Never again and, he suggests, does much to explain the modern state of Israel vis-à-vis the rest of the world. And so on, with some new revelation and novel interpretation at every turn.

Rich in learning and observation, Unsettled ought to inspire discussion, perhaps even controversy at points. A splendid treatise that will inform readers of whatever background.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-670-03244-1
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2003


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