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Reviewed by:
  • Turning the Kaleidoscope: Perspectives on European Jewry
  • David Weinberg
Turning the Kaleidoscope: Perspectives on European Jewry, edited by Sandra Lustig and Ian Leveson. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2006. 239 pp. $80.00.

It is a commonly held assumption among Jews in Israel and in the United States that European Jewry ceased to exist after World War II. Decimated by the Holocaust, weakened by massive emigration, and increasingly plagued by rampant assimilation, the Jews of Europe are said to have disappeared as a population group, as a cultural entity, and as a significant force in both European society and the Jewish world. Though recognizing that Jewish communities continue to survive, most Jews outside Europe share historian Bernard Wasserstein's pessimistic view of the future of continental and British Jews. "Soon nothing will be left," he remarks in his work Vanishing Diaspora: The Jews of Europe since 1945 (Cambridge, 1996), "save a disembodied memory" (p. 285).

Turning the Kaleidoscope is a collection of essays that seeks to demonstrate that Jewry is alive and well in contemporary Europe. While admitting that European Jewry has been reduced in size and influence, the authors contend that as the Shoah fades into the past and as Israel ceases to be a magnetic attraction, the European Jewish experience has once again become a viable and creative way of living Jewishly. In contrast to the "nationalized Jewishness" of Israel and the highly structured American Jewish community, European Jewry's multi-varied perspectives, cultures, and beliefs reflect a postmodernist reality more attuned to the needs and concerns of contemporary life. Open-ended, in [End Page 196] constant flux, and ultimately dependent upon each individual, European Jewish identity forms a "kaleidoscope," its shapes and patterns ever turning and shifting in colorful and dramatic ways.

The volume is divided into three sections that highlight the pan-European experience at the beginning of the twenty-first century—overarching questions that seek to explain the distinctive role of the Jews of Europe on the Continent and in the world Jewish community; issues of rebuilding and continuity; and a discussion of the "Jewish Space," which examines the relationships between Jews and the non-Jewish environment in which they live. The contributors come from all segments of Jewish life. Some are religiously observant and involved in their Jewish communities; others are unaffiliated and alienated from communal institutions. The essays are heavily oriented toward the distinctive challenges facing the Jews in Germany. Unfortunately, Eastern Europe is not represented. Nor are there any authors from England, where the notion of a distinctive European Jewish identity was first posited in the 1960s in the pages of the journal European Judaism.

For some contributors, the Jews of Europe clearly represent a "third pillar" between America and Israel, their distinctive history and contemporary experience providing important insights into creative ways of expressing Jewish identity and culture. This is especially true of Diana Pinto in her two essays, which argue that with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the gradual acceptance of the Holocaust by European nations as part of their history, and the Vatican's redefinition of its relationship toward Judaism, Jewish communities on the Continent have assumed a crucial role in the development of democratic pluralism and toleration in the new Europe. Others, including the two editors, are not quite as triumphalist, choosing instead to emphasize European Jewish identity as a work—or works—in progress, whose goals and directions remain to be determined.

Turning the Kaledoscope tries hard to demonstrate the distinctiveness of the European Jewish experience vis-à-vis North America. Yet its authors' frequent references to the problems of intermarriage, unaffiliated Jews, continuity, and declining population point up significant commonalities that challenge all Diaspora communities. The generally optimistic tone of the collection, which is most notable in the discussion of "Jewish Space," i.e. the growing acceptance of Jewish ideas and culture in the European public arena, is belied by the recent resurgence of anti-Jewish hostility throughout the Continent and especially in France, which boasts Europe's most vibrant and active community. Even the editors of the book, Sandra Lustig and Ian Leveson, in what is one of the more perceptive essays...


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