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Bialystok Redux

In her letter responding to my June 3 critical review of her book, “Jewish Bialystok and its Diaspora,” Rebecca Kobrin argues that I have “fallen into a classical trap” of assessing her book not on its own merits, but on those of the book I wish she had written, which she argues would have been a post-Holocaust “Yizkor Book,” instead of a pre-Holocaust history of the Bialystok Diaspora. As the author of some two hundred reviews of scholarly books, I have always taken great care to avoid precisely this trap, ever conscious of the requirement for objective analysis and personal distance. In this instance, anyone who reads the review will hopefully see that this is not the case. Kobrin cites the description of the “Yizkor Book” literature from my opening paragraph to buttress her argument, but the fact is that immediately thereafter I position her book, by contrast, in the emerging field of Diaspora and transnational studies, and it is on its merits as such a study that I assessed her work. There is no need to repeat that criticism here.

The “most troubling” aspect of her response (which she deems the “most troubling” aspect of my review), is that it impugns me personally. I refer to Kobrin’s accusation that I write with “condescension” and “ridicule” towards her main subject, David Sohn, and her scolding me about the “historian’s task” being “not to ridicule” but to “make sense” of her subjects. In fact, the historian’s task is critically to assess her subjects, and it is the objective analytical criticism of sources that separates the historian from the hagiographer. It is precisely the absence of any critical assessment of David Sohn’s dreams of building his worldwide “Bialystok Empire,” and his repeated, elitist references to the empty notion of some quality of “Bialystokness,” that I found lacking in Kobrin’s book. As for my reference to Sohn’s self-delusions, it is largely from Kobrin’s own account of the destiny of his greatest achievement, namely the Bialystok House towering over East Broadway (which was presumably to serve as the world nerve center of the imagined Bialystok Empire), that I arrived at this admittedly harsh assessment. Within less than two years of its high-profile dedication, and lacking any concrete purpose to serve, it became, and remains to this day, a kosher nursing home. It is hard to imagine a more tragic metaphor for his delusions. This is not to ridicule; it is to offer an objective historical assessment.

All this notwithstanding, I did learn a great deal from Kobrin’s book. It is clearly the product of assiduous research and reflects well on the author’s instincts to conceptualize originally, even if not as broadly and critically as I would have liked. It is never pleasant to be reviewed negatively after having worked so hard, and it is almost as unpleasant to write a mostly negative review.


Professor of Religion

Drew University

Madison, N.J.

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