- The Jewish Century
In 1973 Milton Himmelfarb of the American Jewish Committee entitled a book The Jews of Modernity. But for Berkeley's Yuri Slezkine, the Jews are modernity—and everything in his flamboyant account of their fate over the past century follows from that equation. "Modernization is about everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible," he writes: "It is about learning how to cultivate people and symbols, not fields or herds. It is about pursuing wealth for the sake of learning, learning for the sake of wealth, and both wealth and learning for their own sake. It is about transforming peasants and princes into merchants and priests, replacing inherited privilege with acquired prestige, and dismantling social estates for the benefit of individuals, nuclear families, and book-reading tribes (nations)." So "modernization . . . is about everyone becoming Jewish" (p. 1). A tiny minority does not merely make historical contributions; it is what we mean by contemporary civilization.
No brief review can do justice to this extraordinarily rich, supple, and thrilling meditation on the Jews' social and economic success—and on the price that they paid for their appetite for embourgeoisement and for education. Slezkine has a flair for Big Ideas, which he propounds with epigrammatic succinctness; and he has a knack for weaving intricate and clever arabesques around his generalizations. At a time when the typical monograph is so bereft of a compelling idea that not even the Global Positioning System could find one, The Jewish Century manages to pack insights onto virtually every page and draws from whatever discipline—anthropology, social psychology, literary criticism—might illuminate the past. The author's fondness for soaring metaphors is reminiscent of Spengler (with whom Slezkine shares not only a swing-for-the-fences audacity but even a proclivity for a term like Apollonian).
The Jewish Century is studded with curious facts that make its generalizations sparkle. Did you realize that, in the sealed train that was destined to deposit Lenin at the Finland Station in 1917, seventeen of [End Page 316] the other twenty-nine revolutionists were Jews? Did you know that, as early as 1886, half the lawyers in Odessa were Jews? Or that, in Leningrad in 1939, two-thirds of the dentists were Jews as well? Early in 1937, when Stalin inaugurated the Great Terror, Jews even outnumbered Russians in the top ranks of the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs. (Inevitably, not every statistic is accurate. Two-thirds of the white Freedom Riders who challenged racial segregation in the South in 1961 were not Jewish, according to Raymond Arsenault's recent monograph, though perhaps a fifth were—which is still a staggering overrepresentation.) An irrepressible gift for paradox also makes this book a constant delight to read (even though Slezkine's native language is not English but Russian), quite apart from the formal scholarly addition that The Jewish Century makes to the synthesis of modern Jewish history.
At the very least, readers can infer that Yiddish is not a romance language. The Jews of the shtetl wanted to transform themselves, to repudiate their heritage, to propel themselves away from the world of Sholem Aleichem (whose famous dairyman and his daughters provide the literary trope that shapes Slezkine's book). Jews who loved Zion made aliyah and learned Hebrew. Jews who loved socialism stayed in the USSR and learned Russian. Jews who cherished upward mobility moved to the United States and learned English. The three political exits from yidishkayt are called Zionism, Bolshevism, and liberalism; the Jews who are Slezkine's subjects subscribed to virtually everything but Judaism. But by the dawn of the new millennium, the descendants of Tevye who had lived under Soviet Communism no longer believed in it. The 230,000 Jews living in the Russian Federation constituted only about an eighth of the estimated Jewish population of the Soviet Union in 1968 and less than 3 percent of the Jews living in the czarist empire in its waning decades. American Jewry represented a stable population at best. But Jewish nationalism had proven...