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  • Three Recent Books in Jewish Studies from France
  • Alan Astro (bio)
La renaissance du hassidisme: de 1945 à nos jours, by Jacques Gutwirth. Paris : Odile Jacob, 2004.
La souffrance comme identité, by Esther Benbassa. Paris: Fayard, 2007.
Les temps de la fin: Roth, Singer, Boulgakov, by Carole Ksiazenicer Matheron. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2007.

These three works from different disciplines—anthropology, history, comparative literature—attest to the variety and depth of French research in Jewish studies.

Jacques Gutwirth, a founding figure of urban anthropology in France, is no doubt best known for his incredibly detailed and methodologically sophisticated ethnography of the Belzer Hasidim in Antwerp, Vie juive traditionnelle: ethnologie d'une communauté hassidique (Paris: Minuit, 1968). That study was remarkable in its focus on constancy and deviancy in that community. Gutwirth calibrated variation, for example, by assigning to the different actors involved numerical scores for their conformity to Hasidic custom, practice, and dress (which he described at length), and then correlated complexes of behaviors with such variables as origin (Hungarian or Polish) and socio-economic status (richer diamond brokers versus less well-off diamond cutters). In that work, Gutwirth proposed a veritable "sociology of Jewry" [sociologie de la judaïcité] that traced the success of postwar Hasidic settlement in Antwerp to the anachronistic pre-industrial, even medieval nature of the diamond trade, and posited the Hasidim as a yardstick against which all sectors of the Antwerp Jewish community measure themselves. [End Page 155]

Gutwirth has published articles on other Hasidic communities (including the Gerer and the Bostoner) as well as books on televangelists and Jews for Jesus. His wide-ranging expertise is evident in La renaissance du hassidisme, which presents the main sites of the entire Hasidic universe today. Gutwirth divides his analysis of that world according to the cities or neighborhoods hosting various communities; thus there is one chapter each on Hasidim in: Antwerp, Williamsburg, Borough Park, Crown Heights, Jerusalem, Bnei Brak (along with other towns in Israel), and Paris. Of much greater breadth than his 1968 monograph, La renaissance du hassidisme cannot provide the same level of detail. However, the book contains a wealth of historical and sociological background, and shows how much an intelligent and discriminatory use of the Internet can reveal. Gutwirth writes that the web was an "incomparably useful means of research" for this work (p. 218); he might have added that the Internet is a part of the phenomenon he is studying, a vector of the spread and cohesion of Lubavitcher Hasidism, at the very least.

Indeed, the most fascinating aspect of this book is its focus on the renaissance, the rebirth of Hasidism after the war, its flowering in the postmodern era. As the most obvious of Jews, Hasidim were among the most thoroughly destroyed groups of Jews. Yet post-war Hasidic communities appear as "a haven for psychological rehabilitation" (p. 197), fostering the present-day vitality of Hasidism, evident in its exponential demographic increase and (in Gutwirth's view) its function as a point of reference and pole of attraction for other sectors of Jewry. Gutwirth thus remains faithful to the "sociology of Jewry" he elaborated in his first book. He sees no schism between Hasidim and other orthodox groups on the one hand, and liberal currents of Judaism and even less constraining forms of Jewish identification on the other. Rather, there is a continuum. Even if "the immoderate cult of the rebbe" (p. 214), the dogmatism, and the intellectual paucity (in modern terms) of the Hasidic worldview are off-putting to other Jews, the Hasidim embody a "maximal Jewish identity," even perhaps a "genetic nucleus" of which other sectors of Jewry constitute the "cell" (pp. 213, 215).

Those surprised by Gutwirth's thesis might argue that few non-Hasidic Jews would claim the Hasidim as their model in any sense, but (if I may use a psychoanalytic analogy) that element of the societal ego-ideal may well be unconscious. Otherwise, how could we explain the good-natured tolerance and measure of fascination most non-Hasidic Jews display nowadays toward Hasidim? Our times are certainly not characterized by any major opposition to Hasidism, like the campaign of the Vilna Gaon or (lehavdil!) the hostility...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 155-160
Launched on MUSE
2009-02-13
Open Access
No
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