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Story of the Jewish people (abridged)
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Story of the Jewish people (abridged)

Professor offers trends, lessons in condensed Jewish history

Jewish history professor David Myers said despite a recent resurgence of anti-Semitism, American history is “bending toward ever greater integration into American society.” Photo by Scarlett Freund
Jewish history professor David Myers said despite a recent resurgence of anti-Semitism, American history is “bending toward ever greater integration into American society.” Photo by Scarlett Freund

It may sound unlikely, if not impossible, but in just over 100 pages of his new book and in the course of a one-hour speech, history professor David Myers will offer a poignant — but obviously condensed — presentation laying out “All Jewish History in One Hour…Really!” at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston on Wednesday, Sept. 6.

The Scranton, Pa., native — who has bicoastal roles as president of the Center for Jewish History in New York and the Sadie and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History at UCLA — said in creating these written and oral narratives he is attempting “to distill the essence of a long and complicated 2,500-year history.” 

He described his work in an Aug. 24 phone interview with NJJN.

NJJN: Why offer such an abbreviated history?

Myers: I was asked to write a book entitled “Jewish History: A Very Short Introduction.” [Oxford University Press, May 2017] I find it a challenge to capture main trends of a complicated and multifaceted topic. I think of myself as a translator of complex ideas into simple language.

NJJN: What are the highlights of your presentation?

Myers: The highlights are three major revolutions in Jewish history. One was the monotheistic revolution that transformed a band of nomads into a great world religion that gave the world an ethical code that endures to this day. 

The second is marked by the rise of Christianity, which has its own effects on Judaism. Christianity is a development arising out of Judaism. 

The third revolution is the secularizing revolution that brings to an end the long reign of rabbinic Judaism. But the most pressing question is: Just how did the Jews survive? 

NJJN: So how did the Jews survive? 

Myers: I’ve come up with two answers: assimilation and anti-Semitism. If it were not for the engagement of Jews with the many cultures in which they lived and the exercising of their cultural muscle by absorbing norms from their surrounding environments and crafting those norms into a distinctive Jewish idiom, Jews would have become ossified or fossilized [and] anti-Semitism, the hatred of the Jews by the gentiles, has reinforced the Jews’ defensiveness. 

NJJN: Given that you have reduced a 2,500-year history to 125 pages and one hour, what has been left out?

MYERS: There are many important strains and currents that one leaves out. One is that the role of Jews as economic agents has been absolutely crucial to their preservation and the global Jewish Diaspora. I don’t spend a great deal of time on that. The hasidic movement has been an extremely important source of revitalization and contention in modern Judaism, and I don’t spend much time talking about Hasidism. Invariably, when you are engaged in the kind of [work] I am you exclude a lot of key factors.

NJJN: How do you view Jewish survival in 2017? Is it something to be concerned about?

MYERS: America is an unprecedented experiment in Jewish history, with the arc of that history bending toward ever greater integration into American society without the obstacles that past generations faced. But now, recently, we see the resurgence of anti-Semitism, with Donald Trump and the alt-right. There are some anti-Semitic forces on the Left as well, but not nearly comparable to what we see on the alt-right, which has been emboldened under the current administration. It serves as a reminder to Jews who had felt we had arrived in the Promised Land that their paths may not be as [uninhibited] as they had thought. 

NJJN: What do you see as the future of Jewish communities, Orthodox and non-Orthodox?

MYERS: The issue for non-Orthodox Judaism is how to maintain a meaningful connection to Jewish collective identity and ritual tradition and basic literacy. We are seeing a recalibration of the power base in the Jewish community with the growing centrality of the Orthodox and the diminution of the Reconstructionist, Reform, and Conservative movements. That in likelihood will lead to a shift to the political Right if these trends continue. But Trump is such an unexpected intervention into U.S. history that one doesn’t know how things will play out, but there seems to be drift toward the demographic decline of the non-Orthodox community and the ascent of the Orthodox. 

NJJN: Is there a particular lesson from Jewish history we should learn?

MYERS: If any group knows how easy it is for seemingly marginal rhetorical claims to become an incitement to violence it is the Jews, and I think we need to be vigilant and alert as we prepare to take up the cause for equality, and not just for fellow Jews.

NJJN: Are you optimistic?

MYERS: At the moment, I am heartened by the response of Jewish individuals and organizations in standing up to intolerance and bigotry. I am mindful that for generation after generation we have been predicting the demise of our people and for generation after generation we are here…. This is a people that has been honed by historical experience to adapt to ever-changing circumstances with remarkable skill. That gives me cause for optimism.

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