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Book Notes: How Jewish is Jewish History?, Moshe Rosman

John Cooper

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jewish Historical Studies, volume 42, 2009 Book Notes How Jewish is Jewish History?, Moshe Rosman (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization 2007) isbn 978-1-904113-34-8, pp. 234, ?24.95. Moshe Rosman wrote this book about the problems posed by postmod? ernism for the writing of Jewish history while suffering from cancer, and the sense of urgency this lends his writing makes it both thought-provoking and entertaining. According to Rosman, the historian's position on the rela? tive importance of Israel or the Diaspora 'determines the framework within which he ... conducts research and composes a narrative. This framework of beliefs and assumptions is sometimes called "metahistory".' If the histo? rian gives priority to the significance of the Diaspora he, like Dubnow, may believe that the Jews reached the highest stage of nationhood as a cultural and spiritual entity, without the need for a permanent territorial base. The hegemonic centre of the Jews shifted in late antiquity from Babylonia, then to Spain, and to eastern Europe in Dubnov's day. Zionist historians reject the notion that the Diaspora was the fixed condi? tion of Jewish life, and asserted that without a permanent territorial base in Eretz Yisrael Jews would be powerless and lead a distorted and abnormal life. Only with the restoration of Jewish rule in their own land would Jews resume their 'proper political, economic, cultural and ...metaphysical place'. Salo Baron's multivolume A Social and Religious History of the Jews was the classic restatement of the acculturationist position. This grand narrative 'had its roots in nineteenth-century Jewish emancipation discourse' and viewed the Diaspora experience as largely beneficial, based on the view that only Jewish communities which interacted dynamically with the cultures of their host countries flourished. Postmodernity has produced a new metahistory, which Rosman calls 'multicultural'. Each Jewish society is a 'hybrid component of the "hege? monic" [host] society and culture whose framework set the templates according to which ... Jewish identity, culture, and society are "constructed" - differently - in each time and place'. There is no such thing as a worldwide Jewish community 'in dialogue' with host cultures, as 'there cannot be said to have existed one Judaism, one Jewish culture or normative, traditional, or representative types of Jewish communities ... It is difficult, therefore, to speak of "the" Jews; even more so of some unified, 239</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes continuous Jewish history .... To the extent that it is possible to write Jewish history, it must take the form of separate histories of numerous communities, each of which has constructed Jewishness differently.' This viewpoint is best summed up in the Cultures of the Jews, a volume of papers by different authors edited by David Biale, to which Moshe Rosman contributed. Rosman concedes that historians will not be able to avoid replacing the classic grand narratives. Jewishness must be 'defined by a constellation of factors, all of which are never present simultaneously, but a significant number of which, in various permutations, are always in evidence'. Such factors are Salo Baron's 'common descent, common history, common faith, common fate', or David Biale's Jewish 'traditions, ideas and beliefs'. Likewise, Rosman contends that the division of Jewish history into differ? ent periods should not proceed by focusing on some essential event such as the French Revolution, or on a process such as Haskalah, but should look for a constellation of phenomena in interaction which would constitute a distinct period. Discussing Jonathan Israel's idea of the early modern period of Jewish history between 1550 and 1750, based on the concepts of integration and tradition, Rosman dismisses this new periodization. Many aspects associated with Jewish modernity - population growth, migration westward, disintegration of traditional institutions, cultural and social inte? gration - may have started in the seventeenth century and have continued for a long time afterwards. Instead, Rosman suggests a new schema for a modern period stretching from 1700 to 1950, followed by the postmodern period of Jewish history, ushered in by a new constellation of factors. But when Rosman admits that this break came about in the wake of two crucial events, the Shoah and the establishment of Israel, he seems to be returning to a way of examining the past which he deemed to be inappropriate. What were some of the key crite? ria in this new constellation? Between 1700 and 1939 the world Jewish population increased from 1.1 million to 16.5 million, while since the Shoah it has been shrinking. From the seventeenth century there was a spread of the world Jewish population from a European and Mediterranean core to the Americas, Southern Africa and Australia, but since the Shoah Jews have largely disappeared from Muslim countries in Asia and Africa, and 60 per cent of world Jewry lives in only ten metropolitan areas. Whereas the tradi? tional Jewish community was organized in the manner of a medieval corpo? ration, the Jewish community in the postmodern period is a voluntary organization. During the modern period the cultural and social integration of Jews into surrounding societies was regarded as a key process, while today Jews have the option of assuming multiple indentities, and so on. Rosman deals in this book with a number of factors, such as changing 240</page><page sequence="3">Book Notes gender roles and the replacement of an oral by a written culture, which he fails to weave into his schema of changing constellations that mark breaks in the periods of Jewish history. He argues that Jewish women had the free? dom to act as facilitators of Sabbath and holiday rituals performed by men and that this reinforced the division of sexual roles within the family and the political sphere. But he says nothing about the women's liberation movement inaugurated by Betty Friedan which in turn impacted on American Jewry, producing sexual egalitarianism and women rabbis. Surely this movement should be numbered among the key markers of the postmodern period of Jewish history? So too, Rosman extends Haym Soloveitchik's theory of a traditional Ashkenazi Judaism, sustained by an oral culture and replaced by a book culture with an emphasis on the punctil? ious performance of ritual, backwards into the eighteenth century. Again, he does not develop this idea by suggesting ways in which more recent methods of communication, such as the internet and e-mails have affected postmodern Jewry. Yuri Slezkine in The Jewish Century declared that 'Modernization is about everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, articulate intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible. It is about learn? ing how to cultivate people and symbols, not fields or herds ... Modernization ,in other words, is about everyone becoming Jewish.' This is a brilliant organizing principle for grand narrative histories, even if some would question it. To my mind, Rosman's interacting constellations of changing trends do not offer a better alternative way of looking at the recent Jewish past. His modification of the theory of Jewish culture in every age being a hybrid, and of Jewish identity constantly being reinvented, deserves more attention from readers. Despite these few caveats, Rosman's book is thoroughly engaging and makes one ponder deeply on the basic issues of Jewish historiography. It should be read by all Jewish historians whether they are contemplating writing a grand narrative or a micro-study. John Cooper</page></plain_text>