The history of the Jews, any history of the Jews, is a story of a once great and mighty nation first known as The Israelites, eventually defeated and for most of the rest of their 2,000 years, dispersed, expelled and exiled.
It is, of course, a story of hope and sorrow. It’s a story about a people filled with such intellectual curiosity, capable of contributing an abundance of social, scientific and philosophical momentum upon each culture they consider home, only to be marginalized, eventually cast out and in Europe’s case practically annihilated.
There have been many books on the history of the Jews, from the eleven volumes by Heinrich Graetz or the heroic portrait by Max Dimont describing a triumphant people who’ve survived an onslaught of persecution to Paul Johnson’s thorough, scholarly take.
Recently I read Michael Brenner’s, “A Short History of the Jews,” where the overall theme that weaves each chapter together is migration. That idea is literally illustrated at the beginning of each chapter with a unique cover design from a Haggadah, particular that the individual chapter, but which universally represents the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
The challenge Mr. Brenner, a professor of Jewish history at The University of Munich, runs into in compiling thousands of years into one book, is what to include and what to edit. With an emphasis in this book on “short,” certain monumental figures wind up with a page or two (Rashi for example) while others (Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Leo Baeck) achieve a modest few more mentions.
In either form, long or short, however, any history of the Jews is always a challenge to read. Our history is filled with such an inordinate amount of despair as we move from country to country and I find myself constantly in need of having to put the book down to catch my breath. I’m left to wonder “why” again and again, as there is so much promise at the outset of each period. Once we Jews arrive and enrich the culture we’ve woven ourselves into, we soon find a sudden political change, turning to rejection; whether in Egypt, England or Spain.
This same history should inform the present. To give up land to an unstable quasi-political organization, one with terrorist factions throughout and whose stated goal is annihilation and to ignore everything the past teaches us.
Rather, to read the history of the Jews is to understand and deeply appreciate its culmination with the rebirth of modern Israel.
This week I’ll be traveling to Israel and blogging from our homeland, where I’ll be considering the long history of the Jewish people, while cherishing the relatively young life of this reborn nation.