Melvin Konner, a professor at Emory University, is an anthropologist and medical doctor by training and Jewish historian by avocation. Unsettled is unmistakably a labor of love, a graceful synthesis of wide and eclectic reading whose purpose "is to understand the cultures of the Jews, from their origins to today and even perhaps tomorrow."
But Konner's openness -- to sources, to ideas -- remains an overwhelming strength. A medical doctor as well as an anthropologist, he manages to achieve secular detachment -- he assumes human authorship of the Bible -- and something simultaneously transcendent that helps him capture the protean nature of his subject … With Unsettled the anthropologist has turned his attention to his own tribe, and the result is nothing less than inspiring.
The history of Jewish culture is as variegated as any civilization that has witnessed the dawn and survived the ruin of many an empire, including its own. Rather than offer an exhaustive catalogue of major events and leaders in this highly readable history of the Jewish experience, Konner draws vividly on the lives of ordinary people for this cultural portrait. A professor of anthropology, human biology and Jewish studies at Emory University, Konner details how the crucible of dominant civilizations shaped Jewish religion, language and intellectual history. For instance, he shows how the clash between the Polish Empire and the Ukraine affected the rise of Hasidism in the 18th century. Each chapter is devoted to the study of one epoch in the development of Jewish life and culture and its contributions to the progress of surrounding cultures. In focusing on the post-Babylonian exile period, Konner discusses the biblical roots and significance of circumcision to show that for Jews, the ritual indicated their unique relationship with God. Other cultures, in Africa and elsewhere, he notes, practiced circumcision as a puberty and/or fertility rite, and returning to the biblical verses, Konner concludes fertility was an element of the Jewish ritual as well. Despite the many threats and challenges Jews have faced through the centuries, Konner concludes, "Jewish life will continue to be strong." He has written a celebratory but evenhanded tale, lauding the Jewish people's strength as he chronicles the adversities they've faced: "Jews, by dint of culture and history, are restless, critical, imaginative, resourceful, ambitious, cooperative, troubled by injustice, and committed to self-defense." (Sept. 29) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
The author of nine books, Konner (Emory Univ.) has taught a popular course on Jewish anthropology, as well as courses in human biology and Jewish studies, and his interdisciplinary approach is apparent in his writing. The book is divided into 18 chapters that roughly correspond with historical periods in Jewish life, beginning with an overview of the theoretical implications of Genesis and moving onto modern times, where his concern for the future of the Jewish people is evident. But the overall approach is more topical than historical. Konner seeks to dispel myths. He believes that a sense of Jewish community has always been as important as Jewish religious practice. He argues that Jews have always been fighters in the physical as well as moral sense, and he examines how such traditional Jewish values as the emphasis on justice and learning evolved. Some readers may feel that he overstates his case at times. This book bears some resemblance to the classic study of Jewish identity, Raphael Patai's The Jewish Mind, though Konner's study is more sprawling and more partisan. Recommended for most libraries.-Paul Kaplan, Lake Villa Dist. Lib., IL Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
A lucid exposition, informed by science and poetry alike, of the qualities and historical accidents that have made the Jewish people so important a presence in so many parts of the world. Konner (Anthropology/Emory Univ.; Medicine at the Crossroads, 1993) weaves a personal story often retold into his narrative: that of a loss of faith truly felt as a loss, of years in that wilderness before growing "back into Jewishness as children entered my life." (Some rabbis look askance at this "pediatric Judaism," he notes, but he counters with his favorite definition of a Jew: "Someone who has Jewish children.") His larger story reiterates his own: though the Jewish people have long been sustained and moved forward by Jews who did not practice Judaism, at heart the religion itself is the greatest sustenance, a pastoral, fugitive vision of a single God born in repudiation of the pantheistic agriculturalists and city-dwellers of the ancient Near East. Though militant, and though capable fighters, the early Jews, Konner writes, always found themselves sandwiched between stronger neighbors, a buffer state between mighty empires; that fact, he suggests, and the fact of long exile and wandering afterward were important influences in the development of the Jewish character, and far more meaningful than other supposed traits such as a gift for study or a knack for making money (characteristics that Konner, wearing his anthropologist’s hat, has great fun exploring). Borrowing a page from the British functionalists of old, Konner examines Orthodox dietary laws ("It’s not that the animals are clean in their biology or habits, it’s that their categories are cleanly, unambiguously defined"); drawing on Freud,Marx, and others, he looks into the image of the "predatory Jew"; turning over pages of recent history, he explores the considerable Jewish resistance to fascism, resistance that informs the motto Never again and, he suggests, does much to explain the modern state of Israel vis-à-vis the rest of the world. And so on, with some new revelation and novel interpretation at every turn. Rich in learning and observation, Unsettled ought to inspire discussion, perhaps even controversy at points. A splendid treatise that will inform readers of whatever background.
A poignant and highly accessible account of an ongoing story that transcends all telling. (Harold Bloom)
Remarkable . . . It is certainly the best one-volume overview of Jewish history and identity available today. (Sander L. Gilman, Director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago)