The Wandering Jews

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The classic portrait of a vanished people.
Every few decades a book is published that shapes Jewish consciousness. One thinks of Wiesel's Night or Levi's Survival in Auschwitz. But in 1927, years before these works were written, Joseph Roth (1894-1939) composed The Wandering Jews. In these stunning dispatches written when Roth was a correspondent in Berlin during the whirlwind period of Weimar Germany, he warned of the false comforts of Jewish assimilation, laid bare the schism between Eastern and Western Jews, and at times prophesied the horrors posed by Nazism. The Wandering Jews remains as vital today as when it was first published. "[A] book of impassioned reportage and is impossible not to feel a sympathetic wonder."—Michael Andre Bernstein, The New Republic "In these disturbing yet strikingly illuminating pages, the truth of Jewish destiny from long ago vibrates and sings..."—Elie Wiesel "No other writer...has come so close to achieving the wholeness that Lukacs cites as our impossible aim."—Nadine Gordimer "What a marvelous writer! Read him now. You can thank me later."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World
"[C]aptures and encapsulates Europe in those uncertain hours before the upheaval of a continent and the annihilation of a civilization."—Cynthia Ozick, author of Quarrel and Quandary "[A] writer well worth adding to the short list of giants such as Thomas Mann, Elie Wiesel, and Primo Levi."—Hadassah Magazine, Sanford Pinsker
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Editorial Reviews

Michael Andre Bernstein
[A] book of impassioned reportage and is impossible not to feel a sympathetic wonder.
Elie Wiesel
In these disturbing yet strikingly illuminating pages, the truth of Jewish destiny from long ago vibrates and sings...
Nadine Gordimer
No other writer...has come so close to achieving the wholeness that Lukacs cites as our impossible aim.
Michael Dirda
What a marvelous writer! Read him now. You can thank me later. —Washington Post Book World
Cynthia Ozick
[C]aptures and encapsulates Europe in those uncertain hours before the upheaval of a continent and the annihilation of a civilization.
Sanford Pinsker
[A] writer well worth adding to the short list of giants such as Thomas Mann, Elie Wiesel, and Primo Levi. —Hadassah Magazine
From The Critics

IN THE FORWARD to this monumental book, first published in Germany in 1927, the Austrian writer Joseph Roth remarks, "The author has the fond hope that there may still be readers from whom the Eastern Jews do not require protection....Readers with respect for pain, for human greatness and for the squalor that everywhere accompanies misery."

Roth wrote these words at a time when the Eastern Jews were largely perceived as a threat and nuisance, as aimless wanderers without a proper home. A prolific writer with more than a dozen novels to his credit, among them his magisterial Radetzky March (1932), Roth spent much of the 1920s working as a journalist. During this time, he traveled around various parts of Europe, from France to the Soviet Union, taking note of the different cultural milieus he temporarily inhabited and jotting down his observations, some of which found their way into his reportage, others into his fiction.

Among the fruits of his labors is this collection of anecdotal vignettes, by turns sympathetic and critical, on the different communities of Eastern Jews dispersed across interwar Europe. The first nonfiction work of Roth's to appear in English, it has been translated by Michael Hofmann (whose rendering of Roth's Tale of the 1002nd Night was awarded the Pen Translation Prize) and gives a passionate account of the world of Eastern Jewry on the brink of destruction.

Roth himself was born in 1894 in the Galician town of Brody, in today's Ukraine, a major Eastern Jewish enclave that he eventually left behind for Vienna and later Berlin. Owing perhaps to his extensive first-hand experiences, Roth describes the Jews of the East aspeople who know their world well, yet who also wish to mount an urgent corrective to the widespread prejudices of the 1920s. Along the way, he addresses—in addition to his more personal musings—such paramount concerns as Zionism, anti-Semitism and the possibilities for Jewish life in post-Revolution Russia.

Roth divides his book into a series of discrete, though not unrelated, chapters. He discusses the predicament of Eastern Jews in the West, the "authentic" and "uncontaminated" Jews—surely terms chosen to offset those used by racial ideologues—who are made to feel unwelcome by their assimilated Western brethren (Jews who, according to Roth, "gave themselves up" and who "became ordinary middle-class people"). He continues his sharp critique of Western Jews, and of the bourgeoisie in general, with individual accounts of the Eastern Jewish districts in Vienna, Berlin and Paris, the "Ghettoes in the West." There he describes the travails of everyday life, the struggles to secure proper papers and make a living in a "host" country, or what Roth summarily calls "the occupational hazards of being a Jew."

In one chapter, Roth provides a vivid depiction of a Jewish village (the "shtetl"), a world that Roth's biographer David Bronsen has likened to Roth's own birthplace. Standing alongside one another are Jewish klezmer musicians and singers, storytellers and rabbis. It is the familiar landscape of Yiddish novelist Sholem Aleichem. And it is the stories and the act of storytelling—"A narrative gift is something frequently found in the East"—that capture Roth's attention.

Roth incorporates the tales, some of them more like parables, that he gleans from his encounters. In "A Jew Goes to America," he tells the sobering story of one of many Eastern Jews who follows his transatlantic quest for freedom. After finally making it to the shores of the United States, the Jew finds himself locked up in a quarantine station. "Through the bars of his prison," writes Roth in a moment of deep skepticism vis-à-vis the American dream, "he sees the Statue of Liberty, and he doesn't know whether it's himself or Liberty that has been incarcerated."

Admittedly, The Wandering Jews doesn't have the same historical sweep, nor the sustained lyricism, of Radetzky March. Its merit lies in Roth's loving portrayal of a certain microcosm: Colorful images resonate, whether in his observations of Hasidic dancers in the shtetl ("There was fervor and ardor together, dancing as a form of worship, an orgy of prayer") or in his reflections on the Yiddish Theater in Paris ("The relationship between the stage and audience was close, almost intimate").

Roth combines acute personal insight, an inevitable touch of nostalgia and sentiment and a certain prescient awareness that the world he is observing has almost run its course. (Roth would drink himself to death in Parisian exile in 1939, before Hitler's Final Solution had been formally implemented.) It is these qualities that make the English publication of Roth's book, nearly three quarters of a century after its original release, such an important occassion.
—Noah Isenberg

Library Journal
Published in 1927 but never translated into English, Roth's essays speak afresh in this rendering by the translator of four of his novels. Roth describes the experiences of Jews in order to explore solutions to the Jewish question, particularly the struggles regarding anti-Semitism and an allegiance strained between faith and country. Reflecting his travels, Roth creates affectionate portraits of individual Jews living across Europe. Communities in Berlin and Vienna receive emphasis, and there is an entire chapter about the Soviet Union's treatment of Jews. Roth denounces trust in assimilation, nationalism, and Western humanism. Instead, he advocates respect for Eastern Jews, who value spiritual and historical qualities that bind Jews together and supersede politics and culture. While Roth accepts Zionism as a response to anti-Semitism, he views it as only a partial solution. These essays represent a vivid, historically significant view of the Jewish experience, even though Roth often builds his points on sweeping generalizations about groups of people, cities, or even countries. Another related, recently published work is Ritchie Robertson's The Jewish Question in German Literature, 1749-1939: Emancipation and Its Discontents (Oxford Univ., 1999). Recommended for specialized collections and academic and larger public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/00.]--Marianne Orme, West Lafayette, IN Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
This first English translation of nonfiction by journalist-novelist Roth (d. 1939) incisively portrays pre-World War II European Jewish experience. Includes the 1937 preface for the never published German second edition of (c.1926), comment by Elie Wiesel, and several period photos. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
His fiction, a mesh of realism, surrealism, parable and parody, evokes a lost alternative destiny for modern Europe. Instead of nations and nationalisms prevailing, tearing themselves into near destruction, and tearing away still in the former Yugoslavia, he conceives a Europe not so much embodied -- no bodies in Roth: his people are all wraiths -- as symbolized by the inclusive, invertebrate, sprawling, ramshackle and moribund Austro-Hungarian Empire...The Wandering Jews is a work of disarray, the literary equivalent of how a painter, for example, would render a hurricane: roofs, cows and newspapers dispersed or in tatters. The book's unevenness is the mark of a writer who tried to evoke a manageable reality and ventured on when it turned unmanageable.
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
The first English translation of five eloquent essays on the plight of the European Jews by Austrian author Roth (1894—1939). Roth, many of whose magnificent novels and other works are now available in English (Rebellion, 1999, etc.), first published this collection in 1927, then again in 1937 with a devastating and prescient new preface (included in this edition, oddly, at the end). In it, he describes his visits to the Jewish communities of five extremely different locales: a remote Galician shtetl (which the translator reveals was Roth's own birthplace); the ghettoes of Vienna, Berlin, and Paris; and the Soviet Union (whose government he finds somewhat appealing). In one of his least perceptive sentences, Roth declares that "while anti-Semitism has become a subject for study in the West, . . . in the new Russia, it remains a disgrace." One section deals with Jewish emigration to America (where "consulates want to see more papers than any consulate on earth") and offers the stunning image of a quarantined Jew looking "through the bars of his prison [at] the Statue of Liberty." Roth has enormous respect and an almost romantic fondness for the rural Jews of Eastern Europe, the people who remain close to the old ways and have not committed the error of assimilation. "There is no other people," he claims, "that lives on such a footing with their god." At the shtetl he has a quick visit with a wonder-rabbi (whose powers Roth celebrates), and he describes a rural Yom Kippur, a funeral, and an eight-day wedding celebration (though he, a visitor, was not admitted). Most poignant are his comments about ghetto life. In Vienna, for example, the "two career alternatives are peddlerandinstallment seller." Interestingly, Roth was not a Zionist—he feared and despised all varieties of nationalism, especially in what he called "the deadly antiseptic boredom" of the West. Graphic sketches of a life long gone, rendered with a sharp eye and an even sharper tongue. (9 b&w photos) Schenkar, Joan TRULY WILDE: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar's Unusual Niece Basic (400 pp.) Nov. 1, 2000
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393322705
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/28/2001
  • Pages: 168
  • Sales rank: 769,741
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.50 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Joseph Roth (1894-1939) has been admired by J. M. Coetzee, Cathleen Schine, Jeffrey Eugenides, Joseph Brodsky, and Nadine Gordimer, among others. His noted works include The Radetzky March, The Legend of the Holy Drinker, The Leviathan (his final work, published posthumously after Roth’s untimely death at the age of 44) and the anthology The Collected Stories of Joseph Roth.

For his translations, acclaimed poet Michael Hofmann has won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Dublin International IMPAC Award, the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Prize, the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize, the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, and The Schlegel-Tieck Prize (four times). He is the highly acclaimed translator of, among others, Kafka, Brecht, and Joseph Roth.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
A Comment xi
Translator's Preface xiii
Foreword 1
1 Eastern European Jews in the West 5
2 The Jewish Shtetl 25
3 Ghettoes in the West 55
Vienna 55
Berlin 68
Paris 80
4 A Jew Emigrates to America 93
5 The Condition of the Jews in Soviet Russia 105
Afterword 117
Preface to the New Edition (1937) 121
Credits 139
About the Author 141
About the Translator 145
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Gallant, Mavis
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