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The Schmooze

30 Days, 30 Texts: ‘Great Jews Since Bible Times’

In celebration of Jewish Book Month, The Arty Semite is partnering with the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA) and the Jewish Book Council to present “30 Days, 30 Texts,” a series of reflections by community leaders on the books that influenced their Jewish journeys. Today, Jonathan D. Sarna writes about “Great Jews Since Bible Times” by Elma Ehrlich Levinger.

My first Jewish history book recounted the entire story of “great Jews since bible times” in 160 pages.

One of many children’s books written by the writer and educator Elma Ehrlich Levinger, “Great Jews Since Bible Times,” published in 1926, introduced me to a wide range of fascinating characters, 35 in all, from Akiba to Zangwill, and from the Talmud to the 20th century — complete with illustrations. Individual chapters recounted the story of “Hillel, the poor student,” who, when he had no money to pay the door-keeper of his Jewish school, eavesdropped on lessons from the roof, and almost froze to death in a snowstorm; Abraham Ibn Ezra, “The Happy Traveler,” who traversed the world of his day, composing poetry; the philosophers Philo and Spinoza; even the false messiah, Sabbatai Zevi.

What amazed me as a child was that numbers of the “great Jews since Bible times” lived as I did in America — a full fifth of the total, including Haym Salomon, Benjamin Nones, Mordecai Manuel Noah, Uriah Phillips Levy, Judah Touro, Isaac Mayer Wise and Solomon Schechter. Levinger, along with her husband, Rabbi Lee Levinger, maintained a deep interest in American Jewish history, and worked mightily to ensure that it would be considered part of the Jewish historical narrative as a whole. She was a lot less sensitive about including women, and today their absence from a gallery of post-biblical Jewish heroes seems glaring. While she atoned with a volume entitled “Great Jewish Women” in 1940, being a boy, I never read it.

“Great Jews Since Bible Times,” by contrast, I read and reread. I have a sense, looking back, that it shaped my career.

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. He also chairs the Academic Advisory and Editorial Board of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati and is chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. Author or editor of more than 20 books on American Jewish history and life, his “American Judaism: A History” won six awards including the 2004 “Everett Jewish Book of the Year Award” from the Jewish Book Council. Sarna is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Academy of Jewish Research.

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