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Building the Perfect Beast

By Monty Noam Penkower
Academic Studies Press, 407 pages, $65
By Mikhal Dekel
Northwestern University Press, 304 pages, $29.95

Roll Up Your Sleeves: How hoeing looked to the Jewish National Fund.

‘Very few people know who I am,” Salvador Dalí is reputed to have said, “and I am not one of them.” Well, count me in — at least when it comes to the question of what a Jew is. The question of Jewish identity has indeed been well rehearsed in recent decades. From the first tottering steps in the 1950s, when social scientists tried to figure out what made American Jews “Jewish,” and throughout the period while the maturing State of Israel has called into question many previously held assumptions, historians and sociologists continue to ponder the question of what is a Jew. To take a recent example, Zvi Gitelman’s collection of essays, “Religion or Ethnicity? Jewish Identities in Evolution” (Rutgers University Press, 2009), tackled this estimable question of Jewish identity from a historical perspective, from ancient times to the murky present.

Two new books address the identity dilemma — one in explorations in modern history, the other from the perspective of modern literature.

In his collection of essays, “Twentieth Century Jews: Forging Identity in the Land of Promise and in the Promised Land,” historian Monty Noam Penkower’s horizons are narrower than Gitelman’s and than those of others who have addressed this issue; Penkower’s focus is on America and the pre-Israel Palestine yishuv, and he mines the 20th century — “the terrible twentieth” as Winston Churchill put it — for valuable ore.

“Twentieth Century Jews” takes the long way around the identity journey — the book is a congeries of essays on a range of topics, each one very different from the other — and it’s well worth the trip. Penkower’s thesis is basic: Beleaguered Jewish communities “grappled with their Jewish selves in the twentieth century,” and Jewish identities, both American and Israeli, evolved from their struggles.

Penkower cannily sets the stage for his history with the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, which was the paradigm for violent anti-Semitic attacks throughout Russia and the Pale of Settlement in which thousands of Jews were murdered. Penkower crisply narrates the horrors of Kishinev. But the rendition is more than good narrative history; to Penkower, Kishinev was nothing less than a turning point in Jewish history. The pogrom shaped the coming century in two ways: First, it led to the emigration from Russia of nearly 1 million Jews to America between 1900 and 1914. In this, the author links the decline of European Jewish destiny with a new destiny, that of America. Second, Kishinev radicalized young Jews across Eastern Europe, creating a generation of Jews who engaged in self-help and who rallied to Zionism — a separate destiny.

Eight essays flesh out the volume: four on “the land of promise” and four on “the promised land.” Penkower’s analysis of the complexities of Jewish identity is the underlying conceit of chapters on individuals as varied as Jewish national poet Hayim Nahman Bialik, who generated and engaged debates on literary Modernism; Haim Arlosoroff, the brilliant political moderate whose assassination in Tel Aviv in 1933 changed the course of Zionism and whose influence is debated to this day; Abraham Selmanovitz, unknown today, who immigrated to the New World of America and founded an Orthodox community that enshrined the values of the Old; New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, a confirmed anti-Zionist who refused to appoint Jews to leading posts on the paper or to print the full names of his Jewish contributors, and who was responsible for downplaying the Times’ coverage of Nazi atrocities; Shlomo Ben-Yosef — likewise, anonymous today — the first BeItar activist (many BeItar graduates became Irgun activists) hanged by the British in Mandatory Palestine, and Felix Frankfurter, confidant of Franklin Roosevelt.

The chapters on Arlosoroff and Ben-Yosef are exemplars of Penkower’s mastery of the intramural political intricacies that inhered in the yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine — of his polymathic knowledge of the personalities that are the central ingredient of his narratives, and of his understanding of the arcana of 20th-century Jewish history. What “Twentieth Century Jews” does in these two chapters is carry the narratives of Arlosoroff and Ben-Yosef beyond those particular tragedies, bringing them up to Israel’s present. This approach sharply distinguishes Penkower’s treatment from the standard histories of these two significant chapters in Zionist lore.

Intriguing, as well, is the briefest of glimpses that Penkower gives us of Poalei Agudat Yisrael (commonly known as PAI), all but forgotten today, but once a significant voice in the Orthodox world. PAI was a leftist voice in the right-wing religious movement of Agudas YisrOel, and it had an impact on the yishuv. Penkower’s comment on Poalei Agudat Yisrael is tantalizing; the reader hoped for more.

There are occasional stylistic infelicities (Can “the grit of history” “tie itself into knots”?), and a few factual misjudgments: Did Bialik’s masterwork “B’Ir Ha-Hareiga” (“In the City of Slaughter”), on the Kishinev pogrom, directly result in, as Penkower has it, the establishing of Ha-Shomer, an early paramilitary defense group in the yishuv? Historians are decidedly not of one mind on this question.

The portraits in “Twentieth Century Jews” develop a neat point-counterpoint of the narrative of American secularization and assimilation that were the byproducts of American “freedom” and of the political and ideological cholent that characterized the yishuv. Collectively, Penkower’s rich portraits give the reader a larger picture: that of the tensions and interactions — political, cultural and religious — that contoured Jewish identity in the new, “post-European,” dispensations of Jewish life.

Penkower understands well that in the 20th century, the destiny of the Jews at long last left Europe, a Europe in which Jewish life depended on “rights” — rights that could be granted, and therefore taken away. The Jewish destiny in the 20th century has been a friendly competition between two new realities: the reality of a Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel, and the reality of a pluralism in America. These realities are developed astutely by Penkower as vehicles for parsing differing approaches to Jewish identity.

Mikhal Dekel, a City College of New York professor of English, tackles, from a completely different direction, the question of identity in Zionism and the yishuv. Dekel, in her impressive “The Universal Jew: Masculinity, Modernity, and the Zionist Moment,” uses literature as a vehicle for understanding identity, starting at 19th-century England and then heading to Theodor Herzl and other writers of an emerging Zionism. Beginning with Leo Pinsker’s watershed 1882 tract, “Auto-Emancipation,” which made the case for Jewish nationalism based on pervasive anti-Semitism, Dekel walks the reader through the Jewish literature of nationalism and “national standing,” and in the process analyzes what she calls the “national imaginary” — “the network of fantasies, icons, and dreams” that informed Zionist history and, by extension, Zionist identity.

So what’s new? Other scholars have teased out identity from literary history. What’s new is that Dekel’s eponymous “universal Jew” is a blending of concerns about gender and sexuality, nationalism and Jewish consciousness, all coming together in the “Zionist moment” at the turn of the past century. You want to know whence come the Israeli “macho” persona and the idea of the reborn Hebrew warrior? Read Dekel’s chapter tracing the Nietzschean heritage in early-20th-century Hebrew literature. How did the first glimmers of Jewish nationhood appear in European literature? All is revealed in “The Universal Jew.” And a bonus: For a book that started out life as a doctoral dissertation, “The Universal Jew” is written in readable English.

Scholars, take note!

Jerome A. Chanes is a contributing editor to the Forward and editor of the forthcoming “The Future of American Judaism” (Trinity/Columbia University Press).


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