When we talk about the Enlightenment, or the Haskalah, in Europe, we have a general historical sense that all Jews were in ghettos and then the walls came down. One day pogroms, the next Einstein, Freud and Kafka. The period of time was indeed extraordinary, as Michael Goldfarb elucidates in his book “Emancipation: How Liberating Europe’s Jews From the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance,” recently released in paperback from Simon & Schuster. The shift, however, was more gradual and more geographically specific than we might imagine, and the results were more nuanced and even more spectacular than could have been expected. I caught up with Goldfarb at a recent book talk at the JCC in Manhattan and, unfairly, asked him to summarize his 432-page book in a couple of minutes.
He was a proud Russian, a renegade Orthodox Jew, an ardent advocate of Jewish autonomy, and the man who pioneered the field of Jewish historiography at the turn of the 20th century. Yet Simon Dubnow continues to inspire Jewish scholarship today, as evidenced by a day-long conference at the YIVO institute for Jewish Research on October 24, marking the 150th anniversary of Dubnow’s birth.
Behind the ever-abiding divisions between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews is the widely-held belief that Ashkenazim, as leaders of the Haskalah, or Enlightenment movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, were pioneers of modernity. Now David Ruderman, a Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Pennsylvania, hurls a well-researched grenade into such presuppositions.