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Reviewed by:
  • Shylock's Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe
  • Michael Berkowitz
Shylock's Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe, by Derek J. Penslar. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2001. 374 pp. $45.00.

At the risk of sounding over-the-top, Derek Penslar's Shylock's Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe is a masterpiece. Simply put: it is the best book, ever, dealing with modern Jews and their economic lives. Generations of scholars will be able to glean pearls of wisdom from it, and the issues illuminated should foster scores of compelling academic projects. Shylock's Children is not, however, "economic history" in the way that "economic historians" work: one finds neither number-crunching nor equations as in, say, the Journal of Economic History. It is a book intended primarily for historians and social scientists (even economists may find it interesting) and the more discriminating general public.

Penslar, not surprisingly for a historian influenced by Gerald Feldman, the premier historian of the modern German economy, is most concerned with the social significance of changes in the economic thinking of Jews and about Jews. His central thesis, that Jews developed distinctive views of themselves and their coreligionists regarding economic roles—which played a huge part in their overall self-perceptions, and were neither understood nor appreciated by most of the societies of which they were a part—is stunning in its brilliance. His synopses and analyses of the most pertinent institutions and organizations, as well as the key personalities—many of whom are little or unknown even to specialists—is unparalleled. Penslar's interpretation of the (moderately antisemitic) German economist Werner Sombart is second to none, as is his dispassionate discussion of "Jewish philanthropy." As Gerald Feldman's oeuvre is a rich context for understanding the circumstances and demise of German Jewry—which too few modern Jewish historians have made use of—Penslar's Shylock's Children can be seen as providing great insight in almost every setting of Jewish history since the medieval period.

Penslar's canvas is so broad, and his strokes are so deft, that it is pedantic to dwell on the small mistakes, such as calling the writer Joseph Conrad "James" (p. 155). More significantly: an area where Rabbinics scholars may wish to delve further is Penslar's decision not to address directly the economic thought of Moses Isserles (ReM"A, 1530-1572), citing the contention of Miriam Bodian that "[m]odern Jewish economic sensibilities did not originate among the Ashkenazic economic elite in the early eighteenth century but rather among its western European Sephardic counterpart a few decades previously" (p. 59). Penslar might have given Isserles credit for permitting Jews to privilege what was required to make a living and flourish, as opposed to obsessive commitment to arcane points of "observance"—about which he faced vociferous objections. Moving ahead four centuries, although he is the archetypal "non-Jewish Jew," Karl Marx, who makes only a brief appearance in Shylock's Children, might have been more extensively treated due to the problems with his reception on Jewish matters (pp. 3, 44, [End Page 178] 275). Referring to scholars such as Jack Jacobs and Shlomo Avineri (among the few Penslar seems to have missed) would have clarified the "socialist" side. In my own work I have a different interpretation of the "Brandeis/Weizmann" conflict, concerning the inception of the Keren Hayesod as a central Zionist financial instrument; on that I imagine we will agree to disagree.

But none of these concerns, in themselves or combined, detracts from the colossal contribution to Jewish history this book represents. As opposed to the common bifurcation between Zionism and everything else, Penslar's book is in league with Jonathan Frankel's monumental Prophesy and Politics for incorporating Zionism within a larger context. There are few works that combine a synthesis of the vast corpus of important scholarship of an unwieldy subject with original archival work, as well as thoughtful readings of long runs of periodicals and other published sources. It will be savored by those who read it, and it will provide more enlightenment about Jewish history in general than...


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