Wednesday, December 30, 2015

East of Eden by I. J. Singer

This Yiddish novel should not be confused with John Steinbeck's novel although the Biblical reference is the same. Singer's novel is set in Poland and Russia, not the Salinas Valley.  Singer's theme is the great transformation of Eastern European Jewry from a very religious, traditional parochial God fearing community to a God hating, collectivist internationalism of Marxism that swept Russia.

Historians ask what happened to that very religious community?  What was the attractive nature of communism that swept so many Jews away from their Torah lifestyle?  Singer creates an authentic answer through the medium of a family saga that begins in abject poverty from one of the small Jewish villages, Shtetles in Poland not far from Warsaw and ends with disillusionment in Soviet Russia.

This is a gritty novel of indentured servitude, lack of education, simple faith, simple heresy.  It is a story of seduction in both the sensual world and the world of ideas.  It is a story of being seduced by the new promises of "liberation" only to be disappointed that there is no utopian society.  It is a story of desire, the desire to be Jewish or not to be Jewish!

I J Singer always promises a climatic ending and this novel delivers a powerful message against Communism and the collective society that strips one of one's personal autonomy.  Truly a great novelist, his contribution is highly recommended!

The Golden Age: Shtetl: a new history of Jewish life in East Europe by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

This is a lively well researched, well written history of 18th and 19th century Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement.  It is a lesson that teaches the truth about "the Fiddler on the Roof".  It clarifies exactly what was a Shettle.  It is certainly more than an "Anatevka"!  Professor Petrovsky-Shtern teaches us that most of our understanding of Shtetl life has been falsely idealized and simplified through that famous Broadway show and movie.  He sets the reader straight with copious evidence of the vibrant life and close relationships between the Jews and the Polish gentry and the Polish peasantry.  He reminds us that the Jewish settlement in Pale was a majority culture that was not afraid to stand up and fight back, a community that did not play the victim!

 He shows the evidence of the Jewish trade, Jewish monopolies, and Jewish middlemen to protect the Polish Gentry's investments.  It's a life of feudalism that is advantageous for the Jewish community between the Polish upper class and peasantry.

He shows that with industrialization that comes with the partitions of Poland, the Jewish people are now at a loss on how to relate to a centralized government that views the community as a project to ameliorate. After so many years of independence and autonomy the Jewish community struggles to maintain the status quo unsuccessfully.  Industrialization destroys the Shettle economy and trade and forces the Jewish people to find work in the big cities.  The centralized state smashes the autonomy of the Jewish community!

The Professor's style is rhythmic and lively exhibiting much research and learning.   This is a very excellent, readable textbook on Jewish life in Modern Eastern Europe.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772-1881 by Israel Bartal

This excellent history of modern Eastern European Jewry explains the original conditions of the Jewish people when they were an isolated majority and how the community deteriorated with the indulgence of partitions and interactions of the central states of Austria, Russia and Poland. It is a story of the end of a golden age of Shtetl life with the commencement of the industrial revolution of Russia which forced the townspeople into the big cities.

Modernity for the eastern European Jewry means the change from an agrarian feudal society where the Jews fit in as middlemen and brokers for the Polish gentry to an industrialized capitalism that broke the feudalism.  It is the change of being communally independent to being subservient to the central state of Russian or Austrian or Polish countries.

One reads about the successful Jewish revolution of Hasidism that overwhelmed the entire Ukraine with the lone Lithuanian opposition of the community led by the Vilna Gaon.  What becomes clear is that although the opposition is vigorous and strident, it nevertheless, is a failure.  Hasidism even makes strongholds in Lithuania.  Only the modern yeshiva that follows the approach of the Vilna Gaon becomes the dominant educational vehicle that is transplanted in America.

The Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment makes its way to Eastern Europe and the maskilim, its advocates become very optimistic about the possible reforms and freedoms that seem destined to be visited upon the Jewish people. They become practically agents of the regimes, propaganda machines to convince the people to adopt the various themes of the enlightenment.  The adoption of the Russian language, dropping of Yiddish, integrating secular education is the agenda of changes.

Hasidism is ravaged by the ideologies of the late 19th century: Communism, Socialism, Zionism, Capitalism because of the innate optimism of the Jewish people.  The Central state makes demands that squelch the autonomy of the Jewish community and the hostility of the Russian Orthodox and Polish Catholic churches remain constant.

Ultimately the program to integrate the Jewish community as a Russian minority is a failure.  The Jewish people do not assimilate well since for so many years the community functioned autonomously.  This failure translates into violent attacks, pogroms against the Jews all over Russia! The pogroms marks a watershed, the beginning of the greatest migration of Jewish history mostly to the USA, a  place where most Eastern European Jews experience true emancipation and freedom for the first time.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

John Lennon and the Jews by Ze'ev Maghen

This book is a great apology in the spirit of the great Jewish apologies like Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy's Kuzari.  It is an exegesis, a rationale to be a willing practicing Jew.  The book is a personal screed as a response to a conversation the author had at an airport with Hari Krishna who actually were Jewish Israelis.  Their dismissal of Judaism pained the author and he himself was at a loss on how to respond to their arguments. This book is his deliberate well thought out response why one should retain acting Jewish according to the ancient traditions.

It is written as a "rampage" with much gusto and passion. There is a lot of yelling!  John Lennon's song Imagine is eviscerated as an unworkable paradigm for living.  Mr. Maghen name drops, waxes philosophic by quoting from almost every real and pop philosopher for the last 2000 years.  His breadth of knowledge is breathtaking.

This type of book seems like a yawn from it cover, however, it is very entertaining and meaningful!  If one has ever experienced a polemical discussion or would like a reasoned justification for Judaism in a very contemporary style taking from American and Israeli culture of the past 50 decades, I recommend this book.  It is the type of book that one picks it with some skepticism, and ends up becoming engrossed by it!

The Fish that Ate the Whale by Rich Cohen

This is a biography of Sam Zemurray, a Russian Jewish immigrant who became 'the banana man'.  Mr. Zemurray is objectively an outstanding success, a clear exhibit of the fulfillment of the American dream about one who started with nothing and gained fantastic financial success.  This book is a story, a history of the "Banana Republic", how business and government clash and collude to manipulate people and events.  It is a story of hot wars and cold wars, of revolutions and tyrannies.

The author is ambivalent about the protagonist.  Clearly the author is impressed with Mr. Zemurray's accomplishments - from a generation with drive and determination, vision to see real opportunities when no one else sees them.  As the details emerge, however, about mercenaries, social manipulation and crude crass and bald power the author becomes dismayed.  He shows the urge to criticize the protagonist's shortcomings - the disappointment of not raising a Jewish family or Jewish legacy even though Zemurray is instrumental in helping found the Jewish State of Israel through his fantastic philanthropy practically anonymously.

What seems clear to the author is that the example of United Fruit Corp. represents the worst of what America can be.  I found his analysis to be akin to 'monday morning quarterbacking' using hindsight and contemporary values from the Left to excoriate Zemurray.  Zemurray is depicted as fearless doer!  He is a tough Jew, not one to tremble at the sight of a challenge. His shear determination is limitless.

I found it fascinating that the author linked the murder of Huey Long with Zemurray which cast the 'banana man' as a very shadowy figure.  Chaim Weizmann, however, shows the generous side of Zemurray telling how copiously and effectively he gave to Zionist causes.  Tulane University owes much to Mr. Zemurray because it was one of his profound philanthropies.

I agree with the author about Zemurray not leaving a personal Jewish legacy - none of his surviving offspring practice Judaism but rather identify themselves as Christians.  One may conclude that the freedom of the USA and the relative quiet from Anti-Semitism contributes to such assimilation.  The priority and desire of a Jewish education, however, is probably more important in establishing a Jewish future and legacy, something that clearly did not occur to Mr. Zemurray.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

This account of the first flyers and makers of airplanes is a great example of ambition, observation and study.  The author is a master at telling the true story.  The Wright brothers are an example that a college education is not necessary in gaining success.  Ambition, curiosity and the ability to read are really the components of success.

The brothers showed great curiosity and sought out information from all the available resources at the time.  They received information from the Smithsonian Institution and they read all that was available by the German pioneer in gliders, Otto Lilienthal and made friends with other scientists like Octave Chanute.  The brothers showed patience in observing the different birds and how each one differed from the other; how some soared and some plummeted at great speed with out losing control of their ability to regain altitude.  They were patient in taking notes and making diagrams of the different wings of each species of birds.  They took note of the different ways the birds tilted or warped their wings in flight making turns seem effortlessly.

Studying birds took some 4 years before the brother decided to test the effect of gliding in the air like birds.  They discovered that previous calculations made by the other pioneers were erroneous and they made their own adjustments.  They chose Kitty Hawk on the coast of the Carolinas because of the constant steady winds there.  Launching their glider into the wind to study the wind's effects enabled the brothers to create rudders to control the flight.

There seems so have been somewhat of a race as to whom would be the first flyer and the brothers were very wary of letting others into their circle of knowledge.  Their sister, Katherine was a booster along with their preacher father.  There was an representative of the marketing firm of Flint and Co. by the name of Harte Berg who represented the brothers in Europe.  Being patriotic Americans, the Wright brothers wanted the US government to have first crack at purchasing their airplanes, however when the US government turned them down flat they took their assets to Europe.  It was unclear why the US turned them down.  It was possible that since so much investment was made by Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian that turned into a colossal failure, the US gave up any hope of man's ability to fly.

The brothers created an engine with dual propellers and made their historic short flight in 1903. The next ten years great strides and improvements were implemented. They gave great demonstrations in France to large crowds and became a worldwide sensation that was covered by every major news outlet in the world!  Only after these exhibition flights could they interest their home government.

Although the brothers profited from their invention, they did not earn the fantastic wealth of some of the great entrepreneurs of that day.  And although there was always a lawsuit against someone who violated the Wright brothers' patents they did not seem greedy to get rich but rather only took that which struck them as their fair share.

The Wright brothers were not country bumpkins.  They were well self taught, great readers of literature and history.  They lived by the high moral standards set by their religious father.  For example, they never worked on their Sunday Sabbath.  Wilbur was perhaps more articulate than Orville but they lived by the code of a very close knit family.

This book is another example set by Mr. McCullough that the USA has been home to great exceptionalism where ambition, curiosity and thirst for knowledge produce great results.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Judaism's Encounter with American Sports by Jeffrey S. Gurock

Historian, Jeffrey Gurock of Yeshiva University delivers a fascinating study of the intersection of the Jewish community and American Sports.  Unlike Peter Levine's study that highlights some famous Jews using sports to assimilate and demonstrating his thesis that sports are a means toward becoming truly American, Prof. Gurock studies the communal responses of the seemingly mass exodus from synagogue to gymnasium in the USA.  

After a brief background chapter discussing the interface and clash between the physical culture of Greece and Mitzva culture or Divine covenantal culture of Judea, Prof. Gurock shows the cultural crisis that affected the immigrant generations of the late 19th century through the early 20th century. In order to show that one is truly American, the lure of sports was too easy to pass up.  In droves do the new Americans hit the gym, playgrounds and ball fields.  Prof. Gurock highlights the tensions among the rabbinate on how to attract those playing sports back into the synagogue.  Rabbi Herbert Goldstein in one of the first rabbis to advocate for a synagogue complex that incorporates sports.  Mordecai Kaplan is one uncomfortable with the violation of what he views as 'holy space' with the profane.  One reads of the rise the independent JCC movement and the ensuing disputes between synagogue life and secular Jewish life.

One reads of the eventual 'Yeshiva League' and the incorporation of sports at the modern Orthodox flag ship Yeshiva University.  One learns of the struggles with sports by 'segregationist' Orthodox yeshivos that really do not want to integrate a sports program but nevertheless, their more enlightened leadership understands the great pull that sports has on an American youngster and certain compromises are made.  Red lines are drawn, however, when female athletes and spectators begin to encroach on the male dominated pastimes.  Halachic issues of intermingling and immodesty preclude the segregationists from joining sporting events.

Prof. Gurock's critical skills as historian come out when he discusses the phenomenal rise of High School phenom Tamir Goodman, a person deemed by Sports Illustrated as a "Jewish Jordan"!  Goodman's rise is highlighted at the YU Sarachek Tournament where he gets much attention - too much attention for his yeshiva and the administration becomes threatened by the overtaking of basketball interest at the school instead of Torah Scholarship!  Goodman transfers to a gentile school for his last year of High School with the understanding that the University of Maryland will make accommodations for his Torah observance.  When time comes to sign, the University reneges on the deal.  Goodman gets an offer to play for Towson U.  but there too although he makes the team no accommodations are made and he gets very little playing time and much attention due to an altercation with his coach.  The family claims 'anti-Semitism' and the University claims that Goodman did not meet expectations for Division I ball.  As a representative of the University said, 'comprises are made for real talent!' Goodman goes to Israel and signs with a big league Israeli professional team but ultimately is sent down to the minors!  Mr. Gurock concludes based on the evidence that the Unviersity version is reasonable since ultimately Mr. Goodman could not compete on the pro level.

Tamir Goodman is, nevertheless, representative of how far the Jewish community has integrated sports, and how far America has accepted Jewish Americans without losing a complete Torah observant identity.  Sandy Koufax may have given American Jews a proud excuse that it is ok to give up work and go the synagogue on the one Holiest day of the year but the idea that a completely Torah Observant Jew would be accepted in the world of Sports shows the true tolerance and kindness of  a nation.

Throughout the book, Prof Gurock includes himself as Scholar/Jewish Athlete and peppers his study with personal insight that makes the book a more intimate look into the lives of Jewish athletes.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Heroic Children by Hanoch Teller

This is a book that recounts the ordeal of the survival of certain children during the Holocaust.  Rabbi Teller utilizes his storytelling talents and skill in describing the true events of people who have gone on to lead successful and Jewish lives.

There are some conclusions one may glean from this contribution.  The survivors seem to have had a healthy suspicion toward the Nazis.  There was a natural tendency not to believe what they were being told.  This means that orders were not followed - if the community was told to gather in the a certain place certain individuals did the opposite - they fled.  How did they come to such suspicion when most of the Jewish world naively obeyed is a mystery.  Perhaps one may speculate that because these stories seemed to have occurred from the middle and toward the end of the war when possibly the Final Solution was already widespread these people understood if not intuitively that they were in a fight for survival.

Another point gleaned is that there were gentiles whose hearts were touched by these children and their humanity overcame their fear of the Nazi threat.  Some gentiles offering hiding places, some offered food.  Rabbi Teller does point out that most of these kindnesses were perpetuated on a minimum level like recommending stables or sties for hiding places or offering minimum staples and meager portions of food.

The author bluntly and accurately recounts the brutality of the Nazis, however, the book is resplendent in lessons in faith, a very worthwhile read.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Exclusiveness and Tolerance by Jacob Katz

Jacob Katz discusses and analyzes the ties between Jews and Gentiles throughout the post Talmudic era and shows an historical evolution of attitudes of Jews toward gentiles and Gentiles towards Jews.  He shows that in the beginning of the Middle Ages when life for the Jews was almost welcomed by the reigning Kings, there emerged a certain tolerance in doing business with the Christian community. The harsh Talmudic dictums about the prohibition in dealing and doing business with Gentiles are halachically foregone. One sees, according to Katz that economic necessity and changes in interpretation of Christians creating a category of Gentile not in the same category as the idolaters of the Talmud and thus permitted with whom to do business.

Nevertheless with the growth of the temporal strength of the Church one witnesses the rising polemics and accompanying tensions between the two communities.  Katz points out that the Jewish community was very dependent on the Christians for its livelihood and thus needed to be flexible in business but he shows quite conclusively that the Jewish community of Ashkenaz were steadfast in their belief of Judaism’s innate worth and stubbornly refuse to commit apostasy.

With the Crusades and the Ghettoization of the Ashkenazim, indifference occurs and an insular attitude develops where the Jewish community is completely indifferent to the Christian outside world.  No real religious controversies are recorded like previously during the time of disputations.  What Katz points out are the unusually tolerant statements of the 13th century Provence rabbinic authority HaMeiri toward Christians and Christianity.  Although Prof. Katz mentions that HaMeiri must have witnessed the Expulsion from France, he does not offer any explanation of why HaMeiri is so tolerant. He clearly expresses the logical process to such an Halachic stance but he never offers possible practical reasons.  The explanation of such positive and tolerant attitudes could stem from fear of the Church as noted by a current rabbinic authority [Minchas Asher] does not occur to Katz. {This is probably because the critical historian is limited to the sources laid before him and his method precludes him to go beyond them}

This study is critical in understanding Moses Mendelsohn’s attitude of tolerance.  He has a very close relationship with Lessing, the leading literary figure of his day.  He also has a correspondence with the Christian theologian, Lavater. He has a live and let live attitude.  Mendelsohn believes, however, that Judaism is a revealed religion based on Reason.  This implies that one could conceive it through thought.  Lavater challenged Menelsohnn to convert to Christianity if religion is based on Reason implying that there are not really any significant differences between the majority religion and the minority religion.  Mendelsohn hesitates to express his true view that he could never convert to Christianity because he is not convinced Christianity is a religion based on Reason.  He actually believes that it is irrational.

Mendelsohn’s attitude may be problematic as we see so many of his followers commit apostasy, yet his vision is nothing short of utopian but it does not come to fruition.  Acceptance of the Jew is never realized and the enlightenment period is short lived.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Ally by Michael B. Oren

The former ambassador to the US has written a very engaging sensitive memoir of his days in office. It can be characterized as an odyssey about a man growing up in NJ absorbing all the great values of America, loving America and synthesizing those ideals with a Jewish upbringing culminating in being inspired to make Aliyah after the 6 Day War in 67 through the inspired leadership of Yitzchak Rabin. Being an American and a Zionist for Mr. Oren implies no contradiction.  He sees the only democracy in the Middle East as a kindred spirit of the USA.

Mr. Oren recounts his tumultuous tenure with the tools of a historian (his histories of the 6 day War and America's involvement in the Middle East - Power Faith and Fantasy are outstanding historical contributions) and the sensitivity of one who truly loves the USA.  He recounts how traumatic was the punching of his US Passport symbolizing the irrevocable step of renouncing his US citizenship.
But what makes this contribution significant, I believe, is his attitude towards the US president. Instead of dismissing the President as biased against Israel, Mr. Oren believes that the president believes in the Jewish state but rather forcefully disagrees with the policies of the Likud party and its head, Benjamin Netanyahu. He constantly gives the president the benefit of the doubt when the situation presents itself.  The recent trashing of the book in the press by the President's acolytes belie reading it.  The dismissals of the book are totally off base and misplaced.  The shouting against the book probably testifies to the book's truth. 

The conclusions of the book are troubling.  Mr.Oren squarely places the disagreements and deterioration in the relationship with Mr. Obama.  His tough stance and style with demanding the Israelis freeze settlements that include most of modern Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods for any Israeli government prove difficult.  Mr. Oren claims that the relationship that always implied openness and no surprises changed to Israel being ignored even when its security was at stake like the secret talks engaging Iran.  The Israelis, according to Mr. Oren continue to wonder how knowledgeable or naive are the Americans in understanding how the Middle East ticks! Mr. Abbas was hardly nudged; the lionshare of pushing was against Israel.

Mr. Oren also is troubled by the erosion of American Jewish support of the Jewish State.  Despite the growing support of the non Jewish population in America there seems to be an ever growing divide between American Jews and Israelis.  What once was axiomatic support is now mired with disdain for policies that liberal Jews can not countenance. So called 'settlement activity' is called by the American Jewish community an impediment to peace, however, Arab irredentism is completely ignored!  J Street claims to be pro Israel and Pro Palestinian but one would be hard pressed to cite one pro Israel position!

With a signed Iranian deal that seems to allow nuclear threshold status, Israel must evaluate its next move carefully.  Seeing red lines erode and promises stretched do not bolster confidence in the alliance between the USA and Israel.  The book is a well written engaging romp about diplomacy. Mr. Oren has a great grasp of history and has peppered his memoir with great analogies and insights. He is very aware of the present US policy of disengagement, dissociation and outreach to the Muslim world.  It's a must read in understanding what is happening before our eyes.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

It Happened in Italy by Elizabeth Bettina

The Italian people did not give up for slaughter their Jews during WWII although the Italians needed to create concentration camps and round up the Jews to satisfy the Nazis as their allies.  Elizabeth Bettina has written a report that proves that the so called camps in Italy were not the same as those found in Poland - death camps and work camps where millions of Jews perished.  They were more like summer camps for recreation. She also discovers that many simple Italians protected and hid Jews during the war because of their innate humanity.

Ms. Bettina has written a person discovery about her relatives and friends from the heartland of Italy who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazi clutches.  She recounts how growing up in a NY neighborhood with many Jewish friends she becomes curious about Jewish names that popped up in conversation among her Catholic friends or when she visited Italy for summers she would wonder about certain veiled references or esoteric codes about Jewish people.  As a personal mission she begins research about what happened to one of the Jewish people who was named, and discovered that the Italians by nature did not conform to Nazi ways and did the opposite of collaboration. The bulk of the book is a recounting of very moving reunions of Holocaust survivors with their wartime Italian hosts.

Italy did not require a visa for entry during the war and thus many Jews sought refuge.  80 percent of the Jewish people living in Italy during the war survived - an incredible statistic considering 90 percent of Polish Jewry did not! Only when the Germans ended up administering the country after the death of Mussolini did Jews get transported to death camps in Poland.

The book is written from the perspective of a proud Catholic who can stand tall because her relatives and ancestral home did the right thing!  The book is, however, not critical of the Catholic Church's record on saving Jews during the war but rather highlights the anomaly of some parish priests who saved Jews.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Orthodox Jews in America by Jeffrey S. Gurock

This history of Orthodox Jewry in America is an outstanding example of what a critical historian does.  Prof. Gurock shows that from the beginning of Jewish settlement in North America, the Jewish citizen wanted to desperately fit in and would go to great lengths at bending the rules of Jewish Law without  abrogating his affiliation to gain acceptance as an American.  Prof. Gurock shows us that those people who identify with the Orthodox synagogue and refuse to compromise in their affiliation to join a Conservative or Reform synagogue do not necessarily manifest a wholly observant life style that the synagogue represents.  These people do not, like so many others, go over to the Non -Orthodox synagogues in an effort to assuage guilt but rather tenaciously hold steadfast  their belief that Judaism has an authentic teaching that cannot change with the vicissitudes of social pressures and morays.  Prof. Gurock presents a thesis that there is such a thing as an ‘authentic sinning Orthodox Jew’(my quotation marks).

The historian presents two types of Jews: the one that makes accommodations to American Life to fit in and another who separates himself from the mainstream of American culture but benefits from the legal rights of all Americans.  The accommodationist is highlighted in this very readable history showing a variety of American cultural phenomena that the Orthodox Jew wants desperately to experience (like mixed dancing).  One can feel the overwhelming pressures of the immigrant experience that bring on the agonizing decision to work or not to work on the Sabbath.  One reads about the painful question does one put Tefillin on the Holiday if one is treating the Holy day as a secular moment since one is working on the day!

After WWII, with an influx of Hasidim, and others with a separatist attitude begin to confront the accomodationists.   The book highlights Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s leadership in leading those who accommodate and those Roshei Yeshiva like Rabbi Aaron Kotler who lead the separatists.  Unfortunately, the clash between these two camps becomes aggressive with the separatists casting the claim of ‘illegitimate’ to the approach of those who accommodate! Prof. Gurock outlines some of the innovations that the accommodationist rabbis allow and shows clearly that the innovations (women's prayer groups, women putting on Tefillin, women being called to the Torah or acting as leaders of prayer and even becoming rabbis) come from the social pressures and values of modernity (like feminism).  These social patterns come from the outside and are not germane to Jewish law or Tradition.  The rabbis are not so much leading as much as they are attempting to keep their flock from straying!

The Prof. concludes that even today outside of New York or other Metropolitan areas where the separatists have claimed victory and authority calling into question anyone who does not lead a wholly observant lifestyle, one still finds in the heartland of America or its outer stretches the type of Jew who feels more comfortable in the Orthodox synagogue but does not lead a complete Shulchan Aruch abiding lifestyle.  One may conclude from reading this history that there are social pressures that are so great that even rabbis do not have the sway to change people's behavior.  The separatists only gain a major following when the immigrant experience has already run its course!  When the social model changes from “melting pot” to “salad bowl”; that to be different is in vogue does the separatist gain momentum and clashes with those who want to “be American”.

What I learned from this critical historian is that people do not necessarily follow their leaders but rather social, economic and societal pressures move people.  In such situations, the leadership has to have the wisdom to condone or condemn or ignore the ignominious or irreligious behavior that is not found in the Shulchan Aruch.

Monday, June 8, 2015

When Harlem was Jewish by Jeffery Gurock

This history of Harlem is a fascinating study of the Jewish migration out of the ghetto of the Lower East side of Manhattan by more upwardly mobile people.  Although originally of German Jewish descent, the community grew with the newly fabricated train lines that connected the community with the needle trade, garment district in Midtown and the influx of more and more Eastern European immigrants until it too became overcrowded. What Prof. Gurock makes clear is that the Jewish people of Harlem did not flee as African Americans settled in the neighborhood, but rather shows that the community was well ethnically defined with Irish, Italian, German, African American and Jewish settlement blocks early on in the beginning of the 20th century.

Harlem represented an escape from the Jewish ghetto, it meant that assimilating to American ways was such a priority that it shook up Jewish leadership.  Assimilation evoked new programs to keep Jewish people affiliated with the Jewish community.  Such dynamic rabbis as Bernard Drachman, Herbert Goldstein and Mordechai Kaplan all ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of the America, instituted new outreach programs that attempted to synthesize Jewish traditions and American culture.  

This was an era when the Jewish Theological Seminary produced so called "orthodox" rabbis.  The Seminary's mandate was to produce American rabbis who could inspire Jewish youth to observe Judaism without sacrificing one's American identity. Clearly, Mordechai Kaplan, later the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism veered off to found a new strand, however in the beginning he served Orthodox congregations in Harlem. 

Of the three, Herbert Goldstein was truly Orthodox having received a traditional ordination from a sage in the Lower East side before entering the Jewish Theological Seminary.  He founded the (Orthodox) Institutional Synagogue which is now situated on the West Side with extensive programing reaching out to young Jewish people.

Ultimately, by the 1930's, the Jewish settlement of Harlem emptied to other emerging neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx because of its overcrowding and its own Jewish 'ghettoization'.  The pestering problem of assimilation, the demand to Americanize could well define the American Jewish community throughout its history.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Pressburg Under Siege by Rabbi Moshe Sofer

This slight (only 93 pages) autobiographical memoir of the French invasion of Pressburg during the Napoleonic wars describes the shelling of Pressburg (present day Bratislava, 40 miles from Vienna) and how the Jewish community and Austrian troops responded to the carnage.

The Chasam Sofer, (synonymous with his Halachic Work) tells his reader about the miraculous saving of the Jewish community and how no one was killed except for one individual cut down by a bullet to his thigh that the doctors kept trimming away muscle until he succumbed to his wound but not before confessing his sins. His confession is a fascinating glimpse into the politics of community and the role of the chief rabbi.  Rabbi Sofer reports that the young man was under the influence of a very manipulative woman.  She swayed the man to raise rents preventing the poor from gaining residence thus creating a housing shortage.  As a result, the chief rabbi had to campaign against such inequality.  The young man in response to the rabbi's campaign hurled false charges against the rabbi!  Knowing his time was up, the young man confesses and dies a penitent.

One can not help but wonder about the miraculous saving of the Jewish community.  Although the Jewish quarter was utterly ravaged by fire with home after home destroyed, no sefer Torah was destroyed and no member of the Jewish community lost his life.  As a matter of fact, the rabbi tells of heroic behavior by some carrying others to safety.

I could not help but wonder about this account.  It reminded me of the 9/11 attacks destroying the World Trade Center.  Scores of Hatzalah first responders were on the scene furiously working hard to save lives and incredulously not one lost.  The Fire Chief when asked how many rescuers were lost and heard that none were lost, replied,"your community is obviously blessed!"  To have such a great personage as the Chasam Sofer who at every opportunity interpreted the goings on prudently and accurately creates an obvious blessed community and makes for a fascinating read.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

History of the Jews of Russia and Poland: from the earliest times until the present day Volume I by Simon Dubnow

This classic history outlines the vicissitudes of the great Jewish community of Eastern Europe and how the authorities abused the Jewish people with hatred and suspicion.  It is a story of Medievalism and its independent corporate structure of the Kahal, the Jewish community.  Anti-Semitism is an obvious trend, with a story of the desire to ameliorate a 'strange' people.  Volume one goes through Tzar Alexander I's reign.

The Kahal, the corporate structure of the community remains isolated from the gentile community and operates with autonomy.  The gentiles view the Jews with suspicion and hatred categorizing them as Christ Killers keeping their distance.  The economic necessities of commerce bring the respective communities tenuously together.

Both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Polish Catholic Church remain hostile to the Jewish settlement.  The Polish and Russian dynasties never appreciate the talents of the Jewish people and are either condemning, isolating, restricting or massacring the Jews.

With the onslaught of the Napoleonic armies there seems to be a glimmer of hope that perhaps the liberalism of the West will penetrate the heart of the Tzar who was educated in the West.  His fanaticism, however, toward his church, his hatred and suspicion of the Jews prevent him from ever making any serious reforms in favor of the Jewish people.

Within the Jewish community one witnesses the conversion toward Hasidism away from Rabbinism. Lithuania seems to be the only strong hold of Rabbinism.  The strong leadership of the Vilna Gaon keep the Hasidic advance in check.  The intrigues between the two sides never seem to stop.

The famous attitude of Shneur Zalman of Liadi that Napoleon was a greater threat to Judaism was highlighted.  He held that the liberal values would sweep the simple Jew away from his father in Heaven. In contrast however, being loyal, the Tzar would only be a physical harm and not a spiritual one.  When the Jewish people showed loyalty, the Tzar was actually shocked and almost moved to actually alleviate some of the Jewish suffering.  That motion passed, however, with the passing of the threat of Napoleon.

What is absolutely clear from this history is that the Jewish people are viewed as an alien people.  The authorities are motivated to somehow change them by trying to convert them, conscript them or at least modernize them.  Their efforts fail repeatedly.

The Jews of Eastern Europe really don't experience emancipation until the great migration out of Eastern Europe from the 1880's onward.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Islamic Imperialism: a history by Efraim Karsh

The conventional predominant understanding from progressive circles about the Modern Middle East is that Western countries encroached, and then invaded the area unjustly.  "Muslim Rage" is a term that expresses the outrage of the West's meddling in the Middle East.  Much of today's foreign policies of dissociation stem from this kind of thinking.  Efraim Karsh sets out to explain, however that this predominant understanding is seriously flawed and does not reflect the truth of events in the region.  He claims the fall of the Ottoman empire was not due to Western tampering but rather the intrinsic fault lines and weakness of that empire; the Ottomans required support from the West.  He shows very forcefully that the West was invited to the region; that one need not bleed for what has happened in the Modern Middle East due to the West because Islam always regroups by nature of its imperial force. Islam has always behaved in traditional imperial fashion from its inception with Muhammad and the initial Arab conquests.

Mr. Karsh shows, for example, that the famed Egyptian leader, Muhammad Ali had his own imperial ideas and was only nominally attached to the Ottomans because of the politics of the day.  He was strong enough and the Ottomans weak enough to assert some independence.  Although some claim that he was a vassal for the Ottomans, Mr. Karsh maintains that Ali was more than just a vassal and as a result of his own imperial demands his rule lasts a long time and does not come to end until 1952 with the rise of Nasser, another imperialist.

Nasser asserts a "pan Arab" policy to unify the Arab world.  Mr. Karsh explains that such a policy is a stratagem of imperialism.  The Arab / Israeli conflict becomes a rallying point to unify the Islamic world against the State of Israel and win back the territory lost during the 1948 war of Independence and more! "We are going to drive the Jews into the Sea!" said Nasser in hope of conquering all of Israel; a classic call of imperialism.  His complete failure during the 6 day War came as such a shock that he dies three years later of a broken heart.

Mr. Karsh sees Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terror network in traditional imperialistic terms. The way the prophet is always invoked gives reason to this understanding since Muhammad himself continued conquering lands until he was neutralized, and his successors continued to conquer.  The terror attacks are all thematically linked with a deafening screed against the West giving more reason to believe that Al Qaeda is not just ejecting the West from the Middle East, but rather attacking the West in imperialistic fashion.

The Islamic Republic of Iran manifests an imperial outlook since the leadership is constantly asserting hegemonic superiority.  Moreover, The quest for nuclear power in an oil rich country can only fuel the notion that Iran is looking in imperialistic directions.

Mr. Karsh concludes that one need not feel guilty that the West entered the Middle East and somehow encroached on the lands of Islam.  Mr. Karsh is of the opinion that the politics of a weakened Islamic imperialism encouraged the West's entrance. One should not make, however the mistake that somehow the different factions of Islam will emerge without hegemonic intentions that go beyond the Middle East.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The End of the Holocaust by Alvin Rosenfeld

There are some writers that clearly stand out beyond the pale because their clarity of thought is so vivid.  The organized flow of ideas make reading such writers easy.  Alvin Rosenfeld, Professor of English at Indiana University is such a writer.  His style, organization and clarity make this contribution to Holocaust studies a very worthwhile read.

Although Mr. Rosenfeld's style and clarity make the reading easy, its subject is very disturbing.  Mr. Rosenfeld shows that as time elapses, the Holocaust is reduced, dismissed and ultimately denied as a meaningful lesson from the past.  He shows through the analysis of each aspect of the Holocaust: perpetrator, victim, redeemer, and survivor that the most horrific crime against humanity has lost its truth, reduced to a mere metaphor.

Germany had always difficulty coming to terms with its crime against the Jewish people and the Reagan administration helped bury the past by visiting an S.S. cemetery seeking forgiveness and absolution for past sins.  To put the past behind and move on, Mr Reagan pleaded.  The president, however, did not seem to understand that he or anyone else does not have the authority to grant such absolution.  He enabled the blurring of the crime, a complete reduction of the horror.

Mr Rosenfeld shows how the famous victim Ann Frank is reduced by comparing her diary to a teenager's experience in the war of Kosovo.  He points out that the teen, although talented in writing, did not experience hiding nor even experience the immediate shelling but nevertheless, was heralded as the "next Ann Frank" as she was interviewed on CNN!  One loses perspective because the comparison is not fair: Ann was a victim that succumbed in Auschwitz, the other became famous on TV. Somehow a sectarian war is compared to the Holocaust.  One loses perspective: Ann Frank died needlessly, only because she was Jewish.  She never made it to CNN.

Mr. Rosenfeld notes that the crime is so heinous that there is a desire to search for those that saved Jews during the Holocaust.  People like Schindler, Sugihara and Wallenberg are sought out as heros, however, one never seems to understand that their contribution, however praiseworthy, is puny in comparison to what was perpetrated and as a result, one tends to lose sight of the actual losses created by the Nazis criminals.  Steven Spielberg's Schindler's list is a great example of the unintended distortion of really what happened during the Holocaust.  Even though all of the aspects of the Shoah may be included in this epic film, it is essentially a rescue film and as such distorts and hence reduces the fact of the Holocaust which had no rescue and no redeemer for millions of people.

Even being a survivor is not immune to criticism today, but rather the survivor is assaulted for exploiting the memory of the Holocaust.  Elie Wiesel, probably the most famous and most prolific survivor is constantly accused of exploiting the memory of the Holocaust.  The troubling fact is that there are those who hate Jews and those who are self-hating Jews that attempt to drown out the cry to remember; they can not come to terms with the truth of the Holocaust - it is too shameful to admit. Or alternatively, people are tired of hearing about the slaughter!

As the last survivors succumb to old age, the reality of the Holocaust will be retired to the dust accumulated to the history books and will never regain its rightful true meaning but rather will be reduced to any other heinous crime to be used as a literary metaphor.  For example, it is now acceptable for one going through a divorce to compare one's inconvenient discord with one's spouse to a "personal holocaust"!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Shaping of the Modern Middle East by Bernard Lewis

The Shaping of the Modern Middle East by Bernard Lewis is probably the best brief history of the most volatile region in the world today.  Mr. Lewis incorporates most if not all of the political fault lines that have erupted in the last 100 years.  His thesis is that Western imperialism crashed and imposed itself on an Islamic world forcing a position of subservience to Muslims that proved an anathema.   Creating a Muslim rage through the end of the Cold War, that Islamic civilization took back its dignity by freeing itself from Imperial domination.  Written in 1964 and reworked in 1994 this book is an accurate accounting of what has happened and what is currently happening today despite being written 20 year ago.

Mr. Lewis explains that some concepts were not only alien but also incompatible to traditional Islam. For example, democracy and nationalism are plants in the Muslim world by the West.  Autocracy or monarchy fit well into traditional Islam, but democracy is completely alien.  The only place where democracy flourishes is in a secular Muslim country like Turkey.  The Islamic Republic of Iran, for example is clearly not a democracy that would have an independent voting body.  The Supreme Leader has absolute control like a monarch.  Similarly, Nationalism is unknown because Islam binds all Muslims together, not the nation state.  When the British destroy the Ottoman Empire and instigate the ‘Arab revolt’ there is no real overwhelming feeling against the Turks because they are fellow Muslims and it’s the British that do the lion share of upheaval.  The British seem to place pliable tribal leaders at the head of new state governments.

After the fall of the British Empire, the Cold War becomes the animating force the pushes events in the Middle East.  The Soviets successfully persuade some Arab countries to join in an alliance because the Soviet Union never struck the Muslims of the Middle East as being similar to the Western countries. Socialism and Marxism make its way into some of the Arab countries. Soviet aggression is perceived by the USA as a threat.  The USA decides that the Soviet influence needs to be countered.  The USA sides with the sole democracy in the region, Israel to counteract the perceived Soviet posturing.  Allowing the two Super Powers to dominate the region testifies to the lack of independence and impotence to the many Muslim countries. 

With the Cold War’s end, Mr. Lewis observes festering Muslim rage translates into new opportunities to take back their region and re-establish a Muslim superiority and dominance.  He calls it Islam's response or the Revolt of Islam.  He observes that the Islamic Revolution in Iran of 1979 is just the beginning of re-establishing traditional Islam (albeit Shi’ite formulation).  The Shah, for example, is seen not traditional but rather, as a Western influenced secularist that needed to be removed. 

One can observe now that there seems to be a war between the original countries manufactured by the West's influence and Islamist organizations that view themselves more legitimately; a war within Islam. For example, Egypt is fighting the Muslim Brotherhood; Iraq, Syria and Jordan are fighting ISIL.  The most unfortunate country in the region that seems destined to unavoidable war is the State of Israel.  Israel has always been viewed in the Muslim world in a hostile fashion because as a non Muslim state, it has always been associated with the Imperial Western powers dating back to the Balfour Declaration that committed the British Crown to enable a Jewish homeland in the ancient land of Canaan.  The luxury of the an escape (i.e. like France and England returning to their respective lands) is absent.  Israel was not set up as a colony from some other Nation-state to be able to return. She must fight and convince her opponents that there is no dislodging of her from the region. Arab rejectionism and irredentism seems to guarantee more violence against the Jewish State.

This volume is highly recommended for one looking for a brief, clear insightful observation of the Middle East.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Islam in the Modern World and other studies by Elie Keduourie

Islam, according to Mr. Kedourie took a great hit during the Modern period of the 20th century because it woefully lagged behind European countries' technological advances.  The proud civilization, with a self image of religious superiority over the other original faiths believing Muhammad is the zenith and seal of prophecy, suffered humiliation when England and France completely dominated the former Ottoman empire setting up new individual Arabic states.

Mr. Kedourie outlines the historiography of the famous Lawrence of Arabia, T. E. Lawrence and shows definitively that his life's legacy is exaggerated.  He also claims that Arnold Toynbee deliberately changed British Policy away from the Balfour Declaration that committed aid to setting up a national Jewish Home in Palestine.  He also shows that the British double crossed the Sharifian Leadership in their commitments in promising Palestine.

The 1936 Arab riots are discussed in detail.  The diplomat, George Rendel is seen as completely unsympathetic to Zionism and borders on the Anti-Semitic.   Rendel always takes the side of Arab sensibilities and mischaracterizes the Mufti of Jerusalem as a reasonable man and not as the extremist that he actually was.  Mr. Kedourie points out that an unrealistic romantic attitude set in with the British diplomatic corp, one that ignored the brutal realities of life in the Arab world. The author speculates that had the British been more circumspect and more conservative and not romantic about the Arab world, had the British been much more forceful in following through with their original policies then one might have expected a much different outcome.

The book outlines the 1956 campaign of the Suez Canal crisis and shows how the British and French practically rope in the State of Israel to fight.  British interests in the Canal ignore the US.'s warnings and threats.

Mr. Kedourie also touches upon his experience in writing his original thesis severely criticising British policies that was supposed to grant him the doctorate degree (but was rejected out of prejudice by H. A. R. Gibb) by uncovering new material that seems to confirm and support his original thesis.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The End of the Modern Middle East by Bernard Lewis

I just finished The End of the Modern Middle East by Bernard Lewis, a very sobering rumination of how the Middle East is being taken back by Islam with a rejection of most modern European innovations (Democracy etc) except for current military capabilities and weapons of mass destruction.  This short volume seems to define the period that is ending.  Mr. Lewis discusses the difficult situation of Iran's ideological positions.

In 1798, when Napoleon entered Egypt, the indigenous people were shocked at the ease with which the French were able to conquer the land and ever since have had to contend with imperial powers meddling in Islamic affairs.  

One must always be aware that a Muslim mindset expects success in all aspects of political and religious affairs because Muhammad, in their view, was not only a successful prophet but also a successful king/conqueror, creating a large nation.  The modern Middle East reflects the influences of England, France Russia and the USA, however, now it is clear that the European nations and the USA desire to withdraw from the region and as result of this withdrawal, the different factions of Islam are jockeying and rallying for position and supremacy in the region. Who will be the next Islamic power? ISIS, Iran, Turkey?

Mr. Lewis ruminates about Anti-semitism that has morphed into a virulent strain of Israel bashing. Iran and Turkey seem to lead in the ferocious rhetoric.  As ever the optimist, Mr. Lewis does not give up on the region but is willing to wait for the emergence of a just power similar to the Ottoman empire, one in which the Jewish people were able to generally prosper.  As Iran continues toward the Nuclear threshold, there is always the hope that it's leadership will develop into another Cyrus and not a Haman. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Chatham House Version and other Middle Eastern studies by Elie Kedourie

Professor Elie Kedourie takes on the official British narrative of the making of the Modern Middle East and makes some razor sharp analysis showing that the British experts like Arnold Toynbee and H. A. R. Gibb and others of Chatham House err egregiously in their understanding of Arabic culture and civilization.  Professor Kedourie shows that the British narrative and understanding is more a matter of romanticising and expressing guilt of being a colonial powerhouse then actually effecting a natural Arabic nationalism.  He also shows that Zionist pressure helped push an unwilling Iraqi Jewish community out of Iraq.

The politics of WWI creates a dilemma for Britannia: to destroy or not to destroy the Ottoman empire.  What once was recognized as the long standing stable policing of the Middle East becomes an object of conquest and aggression in the war against Germany.  According to Kedourie, the notion that the Arabs would just rise up and destroy the Ottomans is fantasy and that it is the British that really conquer and prop up various ambitious individuals as an official ruling class and sell the idea that they represent the majority of the people.  Mr. Kedourie is convinced  that all the representative governments set up in the various modern countries of the Middle East are a sham.

In his analysis of Toynbee, Mr. Kedourie shows that the famed historian is really a radical who doesn't stomach politics but rather appreciates culture and art, theorizing that the rise and fall of civilizations are based on violence and aggression.  Any civilization that rises violently and aggressively is bound to fail.  Toynbee manifests guilt in his writings about the West's imperialism. That the West is guilty of violence and aggression, Toynbee agonizes but never seems to be able to see the wanton violence and aggression in the Arab world.  Toynbee's guilt is so deep seated that he blames Judaism for creating an aggressive world through the "chosen people" concept.  The West's arrogance is rooted in a concept of being 'chosen'.  Judaism is a fossil because its 'maccabean' aggression made Jewish civilization doomed to death.  Toynbee is never willing to acknowledge the living traditions of Judaism of which he was truly ignorant even when he discovered legitimate scholars of Rabbinic Judaism like G. F. Moore or R. T. Herferd.  His guilt blinds him of the aggressive nature of those in the Arab world who become the ruling class.

Mr. Kedourie shows that those at Chatham House believed Zionism was a terrible mistake, hoisted and forced upon England due to Zionist propaganda and American Jewry. Mr. Kedourie shows clearly the falsehood in such an opinion since before WWI the Zionists and American Jewry lacked all such encompassing influence.  He shows that the British Government selfishly pursued a Zionist program. Underestimating the aggressive nature and superiority complex of the Arabs force swift changes in Britannia's attitude toward Zionism.  In favoring Arab nationalism, Chatham House downplays the persecution of the other minorities in the region like the Armenians, Assyrians and Maronites.

Interesting analysis is uncovered by Mr. Kedourie when he points his sights at the Iraqi Jewish community.  He claims that the community was interested in making compromises to stay since it was well ensconced culturally and professionally in the business community.  Mr. Kedourie shows that not only Iraqi intransigence contributed to the Jewish exit but Zionist pressure also help displace the Iraqi Jewish community.

This contribution is an excellent work of scholarship and insight about the Modern Middle East.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A Peace To End All Peace by David Fromkin

This major contribution to the history of the Modern Middle East places the roots of most, if not all, the challenges coming out of the Middle East today to the imperial lusts of England and France dating back to the first World War and the defeat and break up of the Ottoman Empire.  Almost in diary form, Mr. Fromkin tells the story of Britain's victory and policies that were put in place when the British defeated Germany and Turkey. Hence the entire book is a discussion of WWI through 1922.

One learns about the necessary interests of safeguarding the colony of India and the so called "Great Game" on how to keep Russia and the subsequent Soviet Union out of the Middle East.  It is a story of secret deals and betrayals of the French and the Arab families that ultimately are given the trust to create new states in old places that were owned by the Ottomans.  Famous personages like T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia fame) are deflated and the so called 'Arab Revolt' is really an exaggeration.

The Balfour Declaration places Zionism on the British Agenda but slowly and then swiftly becomes a sore spot when the British underestimate Arab irredentism. Winston Churchill attempts to keep Zionism on the agenda although scaled back to only that which was west of the Jordan river to the chagrin of Weizmann and other Zionist leaders.  Churchill's determination was a matter of the integrity of the government's pledge and not necessarily out of love of Zionism.  Although there is plenty of evidence that personally Churchill sympathized with the aspirations of the Jewish people.

Churchill comes off in this history as an extraordinary astute of observer.  His plan to a swift victory through the Dardanelles is nothing less than brilliant even though the military professionals hesitated and ultimately lost their nerve when casualties mount.  At one point, Churchill is critical of the break up of the Ottoman empire because he sees the Ottomans as a stable buffer to keep the Russians out of the Middle East, hence a safeguard for keeping India.  One witnesses the mounting dept of the British Empire and how Churchill successfully reduces the expenses dramatically and efficiently.

The making of the Modern Middle East seems to be an outgrowth of the victors' arrogance.  The UK thought it could dictate terms on different levels - secretly or publicly- and expect its will carried out.  One gets the impression that it might have worked if there was enough money to spread around.  Feisel's initial warmth toward Zionism is more about cupidity expecting something big - Syria and Lebanon - from the British than an honest assessment of Jewish aspirations.  The French however also expected Syria and Lebanon which complicates the deals and the entire situation.

Mr. Fromkin's historical record is an outstanding volume that deepens one's understanding of the one of the most unstable areas in the world.