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Reviewed by:
  • How Jewish is Jewish History?
  • Michael C. Hickey
How Jewish is Jewish History?, by Moshe Rosman. Oxford and Portland, Oregon: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2007. 220 pp. $24.95.

Moshe Rosman recognizes that postmodernism has changed the way historians approach their craft, but he rejects those trends in postmodern scholarship that he believes deny the "Jewishness" of Jewish history. His concern is that much postmodern academic discourse, especially in its postcolonial variant, reduces Jews to a metaphor for some larger historical process. He believes that this undermines the legitimacy of Jewish Studies (and, implicitly, of the Israeli state). He therefore proposes a way of synthesizing a postmodern approach to texts with "traditional" historical methodology.

Rosman begins by introducing challenges posed to historiography by postmodernism's "central tenet": "that there can never be objective description, only subjective interpretation" (p. 1). His first chapter then examines the difficulty of defining Jewishness and Jewish history and examines metahistories that guided modern Jewish historiography. Rosman defines a metahistory as "a historian's position on a priori issues . . . [that] determine the framework [End Page 166] within which he or she conducts research and composes a narrative" (p. 47). The remaining essays, first published between 1993 and 2004, examine periodization in Jewish history, postcolonial theories regarding Jewish cultural hybridity, multiculturalist critiques of Jewish studies, approaches to Jewish cultural history, the relationship between Jewish cultural history and folkloristics, and work on women's history by pioneering Jewish social historian Jacob Katz. In his conclusion, Rosman pulls this material together to argue for a methodological synthesis that he describes as "reformed" positivism. He illustrates his methodological points with examples from the Jewish history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a topic on which he has written two excellent monographs and several important articles.

Rosman is especially concerned with a trend that he defines as "the Jew as a trope." He singles out Yuri Slezkine, who in The Jewish Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press) described Diaspora Jews as the embodiment of modernity and concluded that the twentieth century triumph of modernity made everyone "Jewish." If everyone is Jewish, then particularistic Jewish identity is an anachronism. And, as Rosman reads Slezkine, so is the state of Israel. Rosman is particularly worried about postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha's influence on Jewish scholarship, exemplified in Bryan Cheyette and Laura Marcus, eds., Modernity, Culture, and "the Jew" (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Rosman focuses on Bhabha's description of "traditional premodern Jewish communities as subaltern peoples" and "Jewish culture everywhere, like the cultures of modern colonized peoples, as primarily hybrid with the culture of the majority" (p. 95). Therefore, Rosman argues, Jews become a metaphor for all subaltern colonized peoples, whose localized hybrid cultures result from resistance to and the domination of colonial masters. Rosman sees this as leading to the paired conclusions that: a) Jewish cultures (plural) were dependent upon "dominant" cultures; and b) there was no coherent common Jewish culture, only local hybrids. To Rosman, not only is this historically inaccurate, but it inappropriately delegitimates Jewish history and Jewish Studies as disciplines. He is critical, though, of Jewish postmodernist scholars like Diana Pinto who defend Jewish Studies by positing what he calls a revamped "contributionist metahistory," not unlike earlier justifications of Jewish history that cited "the Jewish contribution to civilization." In Pinto's version, Jewish Studies is relevant because it illuminates and "realizes" the pluralist agenda. Rosman, however, holds that Jewish history and Jewish studies have intrinsic value and need no justification.

Many of Rosman's prescriptions for the practice of history echo ideas sounded in earlier works, like Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York and London: W. W. Norton, [End Page 167] 1994). Pace post-modernism, Rosman says historians must recognize that the narratives they construct from their sources are contingent, but nonetheless must meet "standards of evaluation shared by the community of historians" (p. 183). His recommendations, however, are emphatically framed in regard to the practice of Jewish historiography and not the historian's craft more generally. For example, Rosman notes that periodization imposes a metahistorical framework on the past, generally built around "essential events...


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