Jews: The Essence and Character of a People


In this landmark work, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, vice president emeritus of the World Jewish Congress, and Aron Hirt-Manheimer, editor of Reform Judaism Magazine, answer the question: What makes a Jew a Jew? These prominent Jewish scholars search for the soul of the Jewish character-from the archetype of Abraham and Sarah to the ambivalence of Kafka, Freud, and Woody Allen. They delve beyond conventional discussions of Jewish identity and explore the very essence of Jewish existence. Highly regarded, Jews explains ...

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In this landmark work, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, vice president emeritus of the World Jewish Congress, and Aron Hirt-Manheimer, editor of Reform Judaism Magazine, answer the question: What makes a Jew a Jew? These prominent Jewish scholars search for the soul of the Jewish character-from the archetype of Abraham and Sarah to the ambivalence of Kafka, Freud, and Woody Allen. They delve beyond conventional discussions of Jewish identity and explore the very essence of Jewish existence. Highly regarded, Jews explains how and why great Jewish figures throughout history, who have been victimized by anti-Semitism, have succeeded to rise again and endure.

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Editorial Reviews

George Carey
"It was privileged to be sent an advance copy of Jews: The Essence and Character of a People and found it a compelling and most interesting account of the historic people of God. In this anniversary year, when we honour the founding of the State of Israel, we thank God for Judaism, which has enriched us all. I hope and pray that his intelligent and stimulating book will go a long way in encouraging debate among the religions and jcombating the anti-Semitism which diminishes the whole human family."
Edgar M. Bronfman
"Arthur Hertzberg has one of America's most amazing minds. Whatever he writes is more than worth reading; it's a must for all who are interested in Judaism."
Bill Bradlee
"Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg's life of honor, education and compassion commands our attention whenever he speaks. Few people have communicated so consistently from the platform of their own convictions. If more people had Rabbi Hertzberg's courage, our divisions would diminish. If more people had his wisdom, our possibiilities would expand."
Justice Hayim Cohn
Hertzberg's sharp wit and penetrating mind, his rabbinical acumen, his active involvement in all aspects of Jewish life, his strong commitment to Zionism and Israel--all combine to invest his writings with great authority. This book will no doubt be hailed as the culmination of the author's many literary and scholarly achievements."
Jonathan Groner
Jews is the work of a serious intellectual and amounts to a good deal more than a superficial memoir. Jews represents Hertzberg's attempt to explain the curious survival of the Jewish people for the past three thousand years, a question that has intrigued historians for quite some time. Often reviewing a century or two in a concise chapter, Hertzberg is incisive, inclusive and ultimately optimistic about the future of this perplexing people....This is an excellent book to pick up if you want to understand the dilemmas that face many contemporary Jews. But if Hertzberg really wants to shock his audience, I'm afraid he'll have to try again. -- Washington Post
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a deeply felt, controversial study, the authors (Hertzberg teaches humanities at New York University, and Hirt-Manheimer is editor of Reform Judaism magazine) contend that there is a definable Jewish character that has been manifested in Jews over the centuries. They identify three core components of this reputed personality profile: the self-image of affirming Jews as a chosen people; Jews as a house divided, a fractious group with a history of internal strife; and Jews as the quintessential outsiders in Western civilization. The third characteristic, they argue, is at the root of anti-Semitism: the Jewish people, who, as persistent dissenters in the societies in which they have lived, challenge the majority's beliefs, behavior and prejudices. Hertzberg and Hirt-Manheimer defend their thesis with an unconventional, selective history of Judaism. Their portrait gallery of modern Jews---Moses Mendelssohn, Martin Buber, Freud, Marx, Trotsky, Heine, Herzl, Kafka serves as a prism for their exploration of Jews' ambivalence over what it means to be Jewish. In one interesting passage, the authors question whether "the Orthodox establishment [can] really claim that its version of Judaism is the only effective antidote to assimilation." Their provocative approach to understanding Jewish identity is certain to stir debate.
Kirkus Reviews
A bit of a hodgepodge: part an anthropological attempt to distill the Jews' essential characteristics, part history lite, and part mini-profiles of premodern and modern Jews, as well as Hertzberg's autobiographical anecdotes. Hertzberg (Humanities/New York Univ.), a rabbi and very gifted, prolific scholar and essayist (The Zionist Idea, not reviewed; The Jews in America, 1989; etc.) and Hirt-Manheimer, editor of the journal Reform Judaism, state at the outset, "This is a scandalous book. It runs counter to polite and politically correct portraits of the Jews. It dares to define the lasting Jewish character.þ Unfortunately, despite its focus on Jewsþ belief in their þchosennessþ and other debatable traits, this work is too unfocused to scandalize; rather, the authors flit from topic to topic, rarely exploring any one in depth. Thus, a chapter on the Holocaust discusses the fate of such assimilated and converted Jews as the historian Marc Bloch and Sister Edith Stein, Christian reactions to the genocide, and post-Holocaust theologyþall in fewer than ten pages. The authors also engage in some untenable generalizations, such as their claim that þin the medieval world, in every Jewish community throughout the world, people met their peers daily to study together." This was not true by any mans for Jewish men, and it ignores entirely Jewish women, whom this book radically scants throughout (a section on "The Ascendancy of Women" in the post-Holocaust period, perhaps the most important trend in Jewish life of the past quarter-century, comprises only three pages). Hertzberg makes his most substantive contribution in the mini-profiles of premodern Jewishreligious, intellectual and political leaders, and particularly of ambivalent Jewish modernists (e.g., the central European quartet of Heine, Marx, Freud, and Kafka). But for a first-rate thinker and writer like Hertzberg, this book has a disappointingly diffuse, sometimes even slapdash quality to it.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060638351
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/28/1999
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, author of The Zionist Idea, Jewish Polemics, The Jews in America, Jews, and A Jew in America, is the Bronfman Visiting Professor of Humanities at New York University and Professor Emeritus of Religion at Dartmouth. A world-renowned Jewish scholar, he has served as president of the American Jewish Policy Foundation and the American Jewish Congress and as vice-president of the World Jewish Congress.

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Read an Excerpt

The Chosen

Some years ago I was invited to the Vatican, to the office of an archbishop who sat two doors away from the private apartment of the pope. The conversation went well--so well that the archbishop asked me whether I would want to see the pope. He then added that I would have something in common with His Holiness, because, like him, I was born in Poland. The archbishop presumed that I would be able to communicate with the pope in our native language. I replied that my native language was Yiddish and that I remembered only the little Polish that I had picked up on the street. The archbishop was curious. He wanted to know what Polish I remembered, so I told him. The words that still stuck in my mind, sixty years after I left Poland, were those that were flung at me by the children who chased me down the street screaming "parzhive zhid," "dirty Jew." Suddenly the atmosphere cooled. The archbishop seemed to fear that I might tell the pope the same story--he was right, I would have--so the meeting with the pope never took place.
I did not want to leave the archbishop with the impression that we could not be friends, so I told him another story. At the age of sixteen I was finishing high school in Baltimore and desperately needed a scholarship so that I could go on to college. It was 1937; the Great Depression had not yet lifted, and my parents had no money. It was also a time of the rising power of the Nazis in Germany and ever-increasing anti-Semitism in the United States. With some trepidation, I went to an interview that would decide my future. The interviewer was a professor from Johns Hopkins who had been born in Germany and was clearly very much a Christian. Hetreated me kindly and with a seemingly instinctive understanding of my nervousness. He knew, both from my resume and because I made a point of telling him, that I was the son of the rabbi of the Hasidic community in Baltimore and that I was personally a religious Jew. At the end of the interview the professor told me that he had chosen me for the scholarship. A few days later I got the official notice, so I telephoned the professor's office and asked to see him.
At our second encounter I thanked him profusely and even found a way of saying how deeply moved I was that someone of his background had shown particular concern for a rabbi's son. He did not respond. As I was getting up to leave I assured the professor that I would always be grateful and asked him what I could do to express my gratitude. He answered very quietly and very solemnly, "Young man, one of these days you will be sitting at the other side of the table. When you become the one to make the decisions, remember to help the littlest and the least." At the age of five I had run from Christians, but eleven years later a Christian believer had helped me--because he was a Christian.
The archbishop was comfortable again, and our meeting continued. But I knew that I had upset him because I spoke with a frankness that is uncommon in such encounters. Jews are supposed to be "nice," and here I was telling him that I had escaped a mob of Polish kids who had been taught that I was personally guilty for the death of Christ.
I didn't tell the archbishop how my childhood story ended. I succeeded in outrunning my pursuers (for many centuries Jews have become adept at finding places to hide). When, breathless and trembling, I burst into our house, my mother calmed me down. She told me that it was wrong of these Polish children to want to hurt me because I was different. So I asked her: Why are we different? My mother did not hesitate for one second. We are different, she explained, because God wants us to be. He wants us to behave better than those who try to hurt us. You are different, she added, because your parents expect you to study these holy books--she was pointing to my father's library of sacred Hebrew texts--so that you might know what God expects of Jews and what we expect of ourselves. Still afraid, I headed back to cheder, the traditional Jewish school that had existed for hundreds of years in my native Lubaczow. But I was sure that learning Hebrew, God's own language, was worth running the gauntlet every day.

This personal drama in 1926 reenacted an age-old story. That day, at age five, I learned from my mother what Jews have always known. Their basic emotion is pride, not fear. Affirming Jews cleave to their Jewishness in the conviction that they are the chosen people. This may be a delusion, or at very least an exaggeration, but this is at the very core of their self-image. It has given us the courage, in age after age, to go on and to raise our children within our tradition and community.
What evidence do Jews have to support so outrageous a claim? The best "proof" is that even our enemies believe some version of this assertion. The apostle Paul accepted this truth when he said of the Jews, "God has not rejected the people which he acknowledges of old as his own" (Romans 11:2). Islam is likewise rooted in the belief that God's first revelation was given to the patriarch Abraham and that the ancient Hebrews were God's first messengers. And so most Christian and Muslim theologians would agree that God first addressed the world in the language of the Hebrews.
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