Jewish History

A Very Short Introduction

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David N. Myers
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     2017.
     176 pages.
     $11.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780199730988.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

David Myers’s Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction, proves to be a valuable piece of literature, as well as a helpful guide for those who are searching for answers without a large investment. Although short, this introductory guide to Jewish history is nevertheless a fruitful body of scholarly work.

Myers’s main goal for the text is articulated in his introductory chapter: “This book…seek[s] to explain how, rather than why, the Jews have survived. It does so as part of the effort to chronicle, in a very short space, the long history of the Jews, for their very survival is the main drama in the tale” (xxiii). There are two distinctive features Myers notes that have been “key components of that adaptive mechanism,” namely that (1) the Jewish people have been in “constant motion throughout their long and wide dispersion”; and (2) “they have been consistently disliked” (xxii-xxiii).

Myers argues that two key factors, assimilation and antisemitism, have converged to make the adaptation and survival of the Jewish people possible. Playing off his unconventional thesis and the convergence of two seemingly ironic ideas, he chooses not to divide the book into a conventional, chronological timeline of history, but rather chooses five themes that “capture some of the major animating forces of the Jewish past” (xxvi). Significantly, Myers chooses to render each of these themes in the plural. For example, the term “Cultures” is employed rather than its singular counterpart to indicate and reflect “the diversity of cultural encounters of a widely-dispersed group in many different venues” (xxvi).

In his short introduction, Myers includes embedded definitions for terminology he later employs (e.g., antisemitism and assimilation); he warns readers that this is not an exhaustive list of thematic and categorical divisions of Jewish history, but rather a selective undertaking of moments in history; and finally, presents a well-developed thesis that guides his readers towards his thematic division by re-defining how to “write” history.

The first section, “Names,” notes that the Jews have amassed several names over their collective life, “including but hardly restricted to the term ‘Jews’” (1). Myers runs through names such as Israelites, Hebrews, Judeans, and so forth, but his focus here is to understand the interconnected names that the Jews themselves have chosen to identify with. By understanding these self-identifiers, “we can see the continuity and change that add such animating tension to Jewish history” (2). The self-identifiers Myers chooses to include in this chapter are tribe (that can branch to family, genealogy, and language), people of the book, diaspora people, nation, and race. While not all of these self-identifying factors have positive connotations, it reminds us that there are variations among Jews in self-definition and, like Jewish identity, “Jewish history… has never been a static proposition” (22).

The second chapter, “Numbers,” is a refreshing, captivating inclusion in a historical introduction to a group of people. Here Myers includes statistical information regarding Jewish movement, settlement, and affiliation. He answers important questions like, “How many Israelites were there?” (25) or “What happened with Judaism, Islam, and Christianity in the Middle Ages?” Again, Myers does not stick to the typical chronological account of Jewish history, but throughout the course of his thematic chapters, he does create an evident linear connection between chronological events.

Chapter 3, “Cultures,” heavily reflects the issue of assimilation that Myers chooses to emphasize as a key part of this historical endeavor. Myers remarks in the early pages of this chapter that “assimilation has been a constant feature of Jewish life insofar as Jews have continually adapted to new circumstances and environments… repeatedly absorb[ing] the languages, names, dress, and social customs of their host societies” (46). Tapping into the historical side of his thematic argument, Myers makes sure to include that assimilatory resiliency has been a key feature of Jewish history.

Chapter 4, “Politics,” wraps up the chronology of the text by exploring Jewish modernity. The chapter opens with the “seminal event” (75) in the history of the Jews: the creation and establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This chapter explores three relationships that engaged the political activity of the Jews. The relationships that Myers explores are Jews and the community, Jews and the state, and Jews and the self. The rich political history of the Jews, Myers claims, exists in their “homeland and in the diaspora, [and] in their own state and beyond” (73). The lack of a Jewish state (prior to 1948) did not diminish the political prevalence of the Jewish people nor should it discredit their political influence.

The final, concluding chapter, “Perceptions,” opens with what Myers refers to as competing sensibilities: “a frequent feeling of vulnerability… and a somewhat mythic feeling of invulnerability… as Jews have survived trials large and small for… years” (98). The sub-headings of the chapter were coined with unique phrases that have, at one point or another, been used to define, discredit, or distinguish the Jewish people from “others.” The demonization of this group of people has assisted in their survival, alongside their renewed strength. Myers drew from Roman historian Tacitus, Karl Marx, and Wilhelm Marr & the League of Anti-Semites to demarcate this chapter.

This short text offers a historic overview of the “most formidable and the most remarkable race that has ever appeared in the world” (115) while emphasizing an alternative chronological approach that favors thematic plurals over specific historical events. Myers text is the perfect overview of a truly remarkable history of a resilient grouping of people.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Madison Tarleton is a doctoral student at the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology Joint Program.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA. He is the author of numerous books and articles in the field of Jewish history, with a particular focus on modern Jewish intellectual history.

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