On the Bookshelf
Take a wild guess: What do you think Abe Foxman has to say about the hoary idea that Jews lust insatiably after money and dominate international finance? Remember, this is the professionally thin-skinned director of the Anti-Defamation League, whose primary gig since 1987 has been to oppose (or occasionally approve and endorse) representations of Jews in the international media. In Jews & Money: The Story of a Stereotype (Palgrave, November), he surveys the history of myths of Jewish money lust, which do still circulate today (though, thankfully, not always in venues that would appear to be fertile recruiting grounds for the Aryan Nation or Islamic Jihad).
What’s trickiest about the pernicious myth of a shady financial cabal that controls the world’s markets is that it can be disseminated denuded of any reference to Jews. As Jonathan Freedman points out in a sharp book chapter dealing with the Left Behind series and titled “Antisemitism Without Jews,” such tropes continue to be favored among American populists and rabble-rousing evangelical Christians of our time, even if latter-day demagogues are savvy enough to know that yelling “Kill the Jews!” is just so passé. Eric Weiner’s The Shadow Market: How a Group of Wealthy Nations and Powerful Investors Secretly Dominate the World (Scribner, October) offers a rather different example of how such tropes continue to appeal even to those who wouldn’t dream of maligning a Jewish banker. Weiner never, in fact, mentions Jews—the economic threats in the book come largely from the Chinese—and no one could possibly accuse him of anti-Semitism. But a conspiracy that “secretly dominate[s] the world” through financial machinations and nefarious international bankers? Weiner’s observations might be true, even important—but presented in such sensationalistic terms, they sound a bit creepy.
While anti-Semitic rhetoric, of one kind of another, remains a troublesome presence in American discourse, it is not typically, for the time being at least, the cause of violent acts visited on Jews. This was not the case in Eastern Europe in the years after World War I, when using pamphlets and newspapers to stir up some peasants to rape and murder the local Jews could be employed as a rather straightforward political tactic. The essays gathered into Anti-Jewish Violence: Rethinking the Pogrom in East European History (Indiana, November)—edited by a foursome of scholars based in Jerusalem, Oregon, and Flemingsberg, Sweden—offer insights into how modern pogroms happened, how they were in some cases staved off, and what this might teach us about contemporary threats.
When you descend from people who have been attacked by pogromists bearing sharpened sticks and pitchforks, perhaps it’s no accident when you become an expert in advanced military technology. Not that Victor Krulak—the legendary U.S. Marine who championed the use of Higgins boats and helicopters in warfare—ever acknowledged his East European roots. But, as Robert Coram explains in Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine (Little, Brown, November), Krulak’s parents were Russian Jews who had immigrated to Denver.
Ferocious as Krulak could be in battle, Lewis Black manages to be even more bloodthirsty in his comedy. His latest book, I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas (Riverhead, November), attains the tone of unchecked fury one might reasonably expect if, say, Abe Foxman were asked to deliver the keynote address at a rally of the Ku Klux Klan. Is the inanity of Yuletide cheer too easy a target for American comedy’s most furious Jew? Maybe—but, then again, Black has made a fine career for himself out of an ability to get incensed about the mostly inconsequential and ubiquitous narishkeyt the rest of us manage to shrug off.
The midterm elections are behind us, and everyone has something to worry about: whether you’re terrified that Obama remains in power, or grimly certain that it’s only a matter of time until the Tea Party storms the streets with torches and pitchforks, take solace that Yiddish intellectuals made lasting contributions to world culture even while living through the strangest and most riotous eras of political transformation. S. An-sky, for example, penned a classic play, The Dybbuk—in Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew versions—as well as war diaries, ethnographies, journalism, and poetry, during the reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II, World War I, and the Russian Revolution. Stanford’s Gabriella Safran tells An-sky’s crucial story in Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk’s Creator, S. An-sky (Harvard, November).
Like An-sky, who until 1904 wrote primarily in Russian, Meir Wiener chose Yiddish after already establishing himself in another language. An Austrian scholar of Jewish mysticism who wrote in German, he moved to the Soviet Union in 1926 and committed himself to orthodox Marxism and to Yiddish culture. If Wiener’s name isn’t already familiar, that might be because of the linguistic and logistical obstacles to understanding his rich and fascinating career: In From Kabbalah to Class Struggle: Expressionism, Marxism, and Yiddish Literature in the Life and Work of Meir Wiener (Stanford, November), the University of Michigan’s Mikhail Krutikov surveys his output in German, Yiddish, and Russian and argues that the radical transformations of Wiener’s career are not exactly contradictions, but typical of the dynamism of Jewish intellectual activity in the early 20th century.
In a sense, German-speaking Jews had already established models for multifaceted intellectuals like An-sky and Wiener in the 18th and 19th centuries. Moses Mendelssohn, for example, was a philosopher whom even Immanuel Kant could admire, and he also produced one of the most socially influential translations ever, of the Torah into German. The eminent Israeli intellectual historian Shmuel Feiner explores the personal and professional life of this crucial thinker in Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity (Yale, November).
Samson Raphael Hirsch, for another example, was an intellectual forebear of the movement now recognized as Modern Orthodoxy; in addition to a number of leadership positions, he wrote a commentary on the Torah in German and translated the Psalms, while also founding the Freie Vereinigung für die Interessen des Orthodoxen Judentums, an organization of Jewish communities that would inspire the founders of Agudat Yisrael. Michael Miller contextualizes Hirsch’s activities in the particular history of the region for which he served as chief rabbi in Rabbis and Revolution: The Jews of Moravia in the Age of Emancipation (Stanford, November), which also surveys the achievements of other key Moravians including the Talmudist Mordecai Benet and Hirsch’s ideological opponent Hirsch Fassel. Miller’s study emphasizes that even a relatively small region—in 1754, only 20,000 Jews lived in Moravia, while 750,000 lived in the nearby territories of Poland and Lithuania—can produce world-class intellectuals, whose polemics continue to matter centuries later.
NOTE: This article has been edited to clarify that Eric Weiner’s book is not in any sense anti-Semitic.
As he unveils a new line of affordable Judaica, architect Richard Meier reflects on his Jewishness