Turning Points in Jewish History

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Marc J. Rosenstein
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    Jewish Publication Society
    , July
     2018.
     480 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780827612631.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Marc J. Rosenstein, an ordained rabbi with a doctorate in Jewish history, envisions his work, Turning Points in Jewish History,“ as a tool for individual or group study of the sweep of the history of the Jewish people from its biblical beginnings until the early twenty-first century” (xv). One cannot expect detailed presentation of the entirety of Jewish history spanning three millennia. Rather, one finds a solid survey that, while encompassing the entirety of Jewish history, selects specific points that have greatly affected that history. Each chapter focuses on one of those turning points: the Exodus, the Babylonian exile, the destruction of theSecond Temple, Maimonides and Iberian Jewry, Nahmanides and Kabbalah, the Holocaust, or the founding of the Jewish state. With so many years of history, so many people, so many events, how does one limit their selections? There are thirty chapters or turning points all told. 

Rosenstein specifically selects thirty events given that it fits the academic year. Each chapter is easily readable and informative. One could easily assign the chapter for preparatory reading so students arrive to class with a framework with which to understand a discussion on the event. Rosenstein has even published suggested discussion questions for each chapter on the Jewish Publication Society’s website.

Each chapter has the same basic organization. It begins with a survey of the history of the turning point, often sub-divided into smaller sections. A timeline follows, offering dates and a sentence synopsis of the individual events which contextualize it. Depending on the topic, one could also find a brief list of important figures of the period. Rosenstein then presents a primary text from the period with his brief commentary in the right column offering helpful background information. Once the events and history itself have been presented, the legacy of the event is examined. The legacy of the event is offered in two parts. The first being the impact it had on the history of Judaism, and the second, on how the event is perceived in the Jewish memory. Rosenstein then offers a very brief text to aid in discussing the impact of the turning point, and finally a short bibliography on the topic at hand.

Each chapter is short, averaging fifteen pages. The longest is the chapter on the Jewish state, which encompasses a mere twenty pages. With such brevity, one cannot expect a deep analysis or complete presentation. What one does find is a brief sketch that manages to offer the necessary information to understand what lead to or caused the turning point to happen, and how it impacted Jewish history and thought. While there is debate surrounding a number of the topics, Rosenstein evenhandedly supplies the information necessary to understand such debates. 

Turning Points in Jewish History offers an accessible, readable introduction that successfully offers a substantial introduction to the history of Judaism—from its beginnings with Abraham in the mists of time to today’s founding of the state of Israel and the feminist revolution. This reviewer particularly appreciated the primary text and Rosenstein’s contextualizing of it in each chapter, but was disappointed with his suggestions for further reading. While some suggestions were more recent, much of the suggested reading is more than twenty years old. While history doesn’t change, our understanding and grasp of it certainly can. The afterwards offers a summary of themes that one finds throughout the book: what is the nature of Jewish identity?; how does the covenant stay vital?; the catastrophe’s, hope’s and faith of the Jews; and, how do we understand the map of history and the pace of change?

All told, this book offers an articulate, readable, balanced introduction to Jewish history, one that could be utilized in the classroom or for individual enrichment.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marie Nuar is Adjunct Professor of World Religions at the Catholic Distance University.

Date of Review: 
March 26, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marc J. Rosenstein is the former Director of both the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion’s Israel Rabbinical Program and the Galilee Foundation for Value Education. He is the author of Galilee Diary and the coauthor of Our Place in the Universe: Judaism and the Environment.

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