Book Reviews

The Struggle for a Jewish History of the Holocaust

By Michael Berenbaum — September 4, 2020

Mark L. Smith’s “The Yiddish Historians and Struggle for a Jewish History of the Holocaust” (Wayne State University Press) is a significant work. A successful architect turned historian, Smith explores the life and work of five Yiddish historians, all steeped in the prewar tradition of Yiddish historiography, who chose to continue their historical work in the language of those they left behind. Theirs was an act of homage to those who died in the Holocaust and of solidarity with their fellow survivors.

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Chasidism Taught Through a Modern Lens in Two-Volumes

By Michael Berenbaum — June 17, 2020

In the two-volume “A New Hasidism,” subtitled “Roots” and “Branches,” editors Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse explore the attraction to and transformation of Chasidic teachings by a generation of Western seekers inspired by the teachings of an 18th- and 19th-century movement that had captured Eastern European Jews. But as products of contemporary Western civilization, they chart their own path more interested in spiritually integrating two clashing traditions, well understanding that the conflict cannot be solved but it can be lived.

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Conflicting Perspectives on Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth

Reviews by Michael Berenbaum and Jeffrey Herf

Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015. 462 pp. $35.00.

Reviewed by Michael Berenbaum, American Jewish University

Timothy Snyder’s much-acclaimed book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, published by Basic Books in 2010, aroused serious concern among many Holocaust historians. They feared that his emphasis on dou- ble genocide—German and Soviet—was a backdoor attempt to diminish the uniqueness and singularity of the Holocaust. In Black Earth Snyder’s emphasis on the Holocaust and its lessons should assuage these critics. Early in the book he writes: “The History of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal and its lessons have not yet been learned. . . . The Holocaust is not only history but warning.” He makes good on this promise, perhaps too good. He treats the Holocaust as the axial event of modern history, thus giving testimony to its centrality.

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Begin biography moving, not convincing

March 12, 2014

Daniel Gordis

Daniel Gordis

In his new biography, “Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul” (New York: Next Book, Schocken), Daniel Gordis writes passionately and poignantly about the life of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, from childhood in Brisk (now Brest-Litovsk) to the post of prime minister of Israel. Along the way, Begin escaped from the Nazis, was tortured by the Soviets and hunted by the British in Palestine. Because of his role in the pre-state battles among Zionists, he was ignored by the Israeli establishment and suffered multiple electoral defeats before becoming Israel’s first non-Labor prime minister. He made peace with Egypt and attacked the nuclear reactor in Iraq, securing Israel and the West from Iraqi nuclear terror. He was undone by the 1982 War in Lebanon and unraveled by the death of his beloved wife, Aliza. His journey from hunted “terrorist” to Nobel Peace Prize winner is the stuff of legend, and Gordis skillfully capitalizes on it.

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Living at the heart of a “Promised Land”

Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2013) pp. 449).

The anguish of the believer is not the same as that of the renegade, and Ari Shavit writes as a believer in the Zionist enterprise. Not Zionism in the mystical sense that sweeps away all reality and overlooks all issues and problems, but as a man loves his wife of many years, fully aware of her virtues, fully mindful of her flaws and fully embracing the love that is at the core of their relationship. He writes of Israel as “we,” not “they.” He hears in the many discordant Israeli voices that often rage at one another voices that make the society thrive.

Ari Shavit’s new book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” is a tour de force. Written in lyrical prose by a distinguished journalist who listens attentively when he interviews, Shavit engages his subjects and also the land of Israel. He is the great-grandson of Herbert Bentwich, a religious English Jew who came to survey Palestine in 1897 to evaluate its potential as a national home for the Jewish people and then returned to create a familial home, a national home. Shavit does not write of others, but of his own nation, his promised land.

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