My interest in the Middle East–hence Israel, too–as well as European and U.S. history led me to a deeper exploration of some issues in Jewish history. In particular, I wanted to look at two things that I felt were fascinating but not sufficiently explained.
The first of these was a history of Jewish assimilation. While there is a massive literature about particular individuals and places, I hadn’t seen a satisfactory study of that whole process.
For the cover, I wanted a remarkable nineteenth century painting, called something like The Jewish Soldier. It showed a young Jew in his colorful, elegant army uniform coming home to visit his family dressed in very traditional clothing. The contrast was startling and it was a beautiful piece of art. Unfortunately, my editor preferred a very ugly post-modernist graffiti-like drawing with the word “Jew” drawn in an ugly way. At least, though, I can reflect on how much things have changed since my publisher was New York Times books.
Assimilation and its Discontents was entitled deliberately to reflect Sigmund Freud’s, one of the people I was writing about, book, Civilization and Its Discontents. Did obtaining the fruits of Western civilization require assimilation? Heinrich Heine had gone one step further saying that conversion was the admission ticket to Western civilization. And what were the advantages and the discontents.
[Note: Sorry, the Assimilation and Its Discontents text is down for the moment and I will repost this when it is available.]
I did a huge amount of research and the book is filled with amazing anecdotes, great quotations, and colorful characters including Marx, the Marx Brothers, Freud, and Woody Allen, as well as many authors, thinkers, and doers. The first part is on Europe and the latter section is on the United States. All I can say is that I’m really proud of this book, think you will find it entertaining, and also that it is very relevant for our current era.
A central issue is the great Jewish debate of the nineteenth century that continues to echo today. Should all assimilation be rejected—as was done by the Haredim who fortified tradition—or should one pick a variety of it?
And which path to choose? The “modern Orthodox” which combined strong religiosity with modernity in everything that did not contradict it? The bourgeois which put social acceptance above all? The liberal, which tried to create an environment in which Jewish equality was possible or the radical, which sought to transform society into one worthy of dissolving one’s identity into? And then there was the “territorialist,” as in the Jewish Bund, which sought autonomy in a Yiddish-speaking culture, or the Zionist, which sought a national homeland in a Hebrew-speaking culture?
If you want to understand why Jews even today seem so allergic to conservatism, why so many of the intelligentsia are neurotically hostile to Israel, and why Jews have had such a disproportionately large impact on Western civilization you will find answers here.
The other book is a personal one but by that I mean it has personal relevance for you, too. It is called Children of Dolhinov: Our Ancestors and Ourselvesand is about my grandparents’ hometown (halfway between Minsk and Vilna on a key roadway) and my own ancestors. Again, I did years of research and interviews that took me all over the Western world.
But the book is deliberately written not to be narrow and to apply to you as well. Its central theme is the importance of knowing our ancestors in order to understand ourselves, how and why we are the way we are. I call this the need to study one’s own prehistory.
Hopefully it will inspire you to look at your own family history. Basically, there are two kinds of people: those who find such an investigatory journey fascinating and those who couldn’t be less interested. Frankly, I cannot understand the latter group. And I’d add that nowadays with such massive resources online it is remarkably easy for most people, if they use a bit of ingenuity and have some patience, to dig out a remarkable, personalized story.
Here, for example, is part of one man’s description of men departing for America in the late nineteenth century:
“All the worshippers watched them with great pity and compassion. Everyone tried to imagine what he would feel like if he were in their shoes, having to leave his beloved wife and children, and go on such a long journey…arriving at a strange land….In the homes people spoke about it the entire day. The women commiserated with the wives of the immigrants, and some broke into tears….”
There is a large section on the Holocaust which has been massively written about but far less on the Eastern Front. None of Dolhinov’s Jews ever saw a concentration camp. They were shot down by the Germans and their collaborators or fled into the forest where, if they were lucky, joined Soviet partisans and if they were not were shot down by Polish or Soviet partisans.
The book is also about how a small town plays a role in history and how individuals along with the decisions they make matter so very much. Everyone had to make choices and how they did so cannot be generalized based on religion or nationality but only on conscience and personality. Even German soldiers in the Nazi army, as the book shows, had alternative roads to take.
Again, I think this book is entertaining, or at least it tries to be. But deliberately in distinction from my usual work it is highly focused on average individuals.
Where else can you meet the granddaughter of your family’s Polish neighbors and mutually discover to your amazement, 70 years after the events that her uncle and your uncle were in the same KGB prison cell for being, respectively, a Polish nationalist freedom fighter and a Zionist? Or track down a heroic Estonian partisan’s fate and find his descendants living a ten-minute drive away?
Here’s how the book ends, with a conclusion appropriate for today:
“When my highly educated and cultured ancestral in-laws were singing the praises of Stalin on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the 1930s, their relatives were starving and being threatened with concentration camps; and by the early 1950s, those in the USSR were directly experiencing the threat of a new antisemitism which might well have turned into an, admittedly far milder, version of what Germany had carried out during the preceding decade.
“That is why real Jewish history and Israel are so feared and reviled by Jews–no matter how removed they are from any such identity–on the left….It is a form of kryptonite to their delusions about the nature of the world, the behavior of people, the truthfulness of nice-sounding ideologies, the realities of populist dictatorships, and the glories of rootlessness.”