Fate and fortune

Revealing the themes of our past while looking toward the future

history of jews 88 (photo credit: )
history of jews 88
(photo credit: )
While social historians have long squabbled over when modernity began and precisely how the era ought to be defined, the study of modern Jewish history is inextricably linked to how Jews have clashed with or assimilated into their surrounding society. This constantly developing dichotomy between outsiders and integrationists serves as the central theme of Howard Sachar's latest review of the Jewish experience. A leading chronicler of the past several centuries of Jewish history, Sachar, a professor of modern history at George Washington University, has become one of the best-recognized Jewish historians of recent decades. His recent work A History of the Jews in the Modern World is sure to become heavily relied upon by high-school students, graduate-level researchers and beyond. An author who is perhaps most renowned for writing about the rise of Zionism and the State of Israel, Sachar has consciously decided to leave those chapters out of this text. While glibly reporting in his foreword that the omission was due to his belief that Israel deserves a volume of its own, this choice allows the book to embrace a unique thesis - that there are no singular events in modern Jewish experience that can define the period. That being said, Israel is by no means entirely missing from this text, but is rather approached in discussing the relationship of the state and Zionism to events and movements in the Diaspora. Putting the history of the Jews in a more global context, Sachar begins with the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when externally imposed restrictions and discrimination plagued many segments of European Jewry. The book avoids placing too heavy an emphasis on the commonly held notion that the European Jewish experience was always one of persecution and demise. He invests considerable time addressing how European emancipation and enlightenment allowed for increased tolerance toward Jews and open recognition of their right to exist within the greater European society. Even with these notes of optimism, the book charges head-on into the 19th and 20th centuries, when persecution and eventual genocide became the unavoidable themes. Sachar proves his worth as a historian, researcher and writer by introducing elements of color and personality that distinguish this book from drier academic histories. The book often deviates from the basic historical narrative to introduce figures who, though perhaps less significant from an outright historical perspective, enlighten readers as to the nature of Jewry in that time and place. While clearly constructed as an academic history, the writing style provides for a highly readable and often engrossing work. Despite charting a path across several hundred years and communities often highly distinct from one another, Sachar is able to stay true to a formula of comprehensiveness. This, and the inclusion of telling anecdotes, makes this book unique from others addressing similar topics. In recognizing the internationalization of modern Jewry, Sachar makes an effort to mention communities all across the Diaspora. While Sephardi Jewry and communities in Africa and even Latin America are given some treatment, this lacks the comprehensiveness dedicated to the Ashkenazi communities. Scholars expecting a balanced look at trends in global Jewry might be disappointed in this regard, but with the book's focus on Judaism's encounters with modernity, a choice seems to have been made to dedicate most of its attention to Europe, and later North America. The history of the rise of European anti-Semitism and the Holocaust is detailed enough that it could easily have been a book on its own, and is likely to become an oft-cited resource in future scholarly works. Beyond the travails of the Jewish population, Sachar's analysis unveils the psychological and sociological motivations behind the Nazi campaign. With sections detailing relationships between key Nazi figures like Hitler and Eichmann and Jews, the book unveils the complex dynamic that can better shed light on what inspired their hatred. After leading the reader through the tumultuous events of the latter half of the 20th century, Sachar offers a "21st century prognosis," suggesting that more than any other people in history, Jews will always be subject to a synergy of "fate and fortune." Rounding out at 735 pages, with a bibliography that adds another 40 pages, A History of the Jews in the Modern World is sure to be recognized as another important step in establishing Howard Sachar as one of the premier historians of modern Jewry. By taking more than four centuries and packaging them into a comprehensive yet highly readable text, this is one book which should find a place in the collections of scholars and students alike.