- Prophets of the Past: Interpreters of Jewish History
"Tell me who you are and I'll tell you what kind of history you write" (217). This aphorism, which appears towards the end of Michael Brenner's comprehensive and insightful survey of modern Jewish historiography, sums up the main thesis of the work. Building on the scholarship of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Michael A. Meyer, Ismar Schorsch, and David Myers, among others, Brenner constructs an elegant framework that contextualizes the last two centuries of Jewish historical writing.
In many ways, this book is a companion volume to the German-language collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jewish historical writing that he edited, along with Anthony Kauders, Gideon Reuveni, and Nils Römer (Jüdische Geschichte lesen, Beck: 2003). Unlike this earlier source book, however, Brenner has here divided the material into five and a half master narratives, each one a competing and coherent vision of how the Jewish past should be understood (the sixth is more a master methodology than narrative): Jewish history as the history of a religion, Judaism
1. Jewish history as the history of a people, the Jews
2. The nationalization of Jewish history
3. The anti-lachrymose conception of Jewish history
4. The Zionist narrative of Jewish history
5. Postmodern approaches
At the same time, Brenner carefully explicates the political context of each master narrative, tying it to the political and social needs of the historians. Most modern Jewish historians have embraced the value of objectivity in historical writing, but as many scholars of Jewish historiography have noted, this goal often rests in overt tension with the express desire of these same historians to obtain some political or social benefit for Jews through their historical writing. Brenner builds on this existing research by expanding his analysis beyond the traditional focus on Wissenschaft des Judentums (the nineteenth-century German-language scholarship of Judaism). [End Page 147]
This expanded focus is one of the major strengths of Brenner's work. In each chapter, he looks beyond the traditional actors to include a wider range of historical figures. For example, while Brenner devotes most of the chapter on the nationalization of Jewish history to Shimon Dubnow, he also includes a fascinating review of eastern European scholarship during the interwar period, including not only Polish, but also Soviet historians.
Similarly, in his excellent chapter on how the relative acceptance of Jews in the United States and Great Britain led to the development of an antilachrymose view of Jewish history, and which naturally focuses on Salo Baron and Cecil Roth, Brenner also expands the scope of the discussion to include female Jewish historians in Weimar Germany, such as Selma Stern, Hannah Arendt, and Bertha Pappenheim. While at first this juxtaposition may seem unusual, it reflects a deeper commonality. It is precisely the greater freedom of Jews in American and British societies that drove this antilachrymose narrative, a greater freedom that gave these German-Jewish women the opportunity to research and write.
One of the tragic ironies of modern Jewish historiography is that Baron's condemnation of the presentation of Jewish history as only a "vale of tears" emerged just prior to its greatest tragedy: the Holocaust. Here, Brenner examines not only the last, desperate years of German-Jewish scholarship, but also discusses some of the most important Nazi researchers on Jewish history. This is merely the most striking example of another important pattern within the book: the inclusion of non-Jewish scholars of Jewish history in the discussion of modern Jewish historiography.
Brenner's final, partial master narrative is postmodernism, here exemplified by Daniel Boyarin and David Biale. In one of the strongest sections in the entire book, Brenner contrasts the work of the various historians included in Biale's Cultures of the Jews with the corresponding treatment of similar subjects in Ben-Sasson's Zionist-oriented History of the Jewish People, providing a finely nuanced and textured contrast between the two master narratives.
While Brenner's Prophets of the Past divides up modern Jewish historical writing...