Category: Jewish Studies

A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide (Author Interview Video)


On the night of November 9, 1938, now known as Kristallnacht, the Nazis burned the Hebrew Bible everywhere in Germany. In the video below, Alon Confino explains why this act, among the other horrors committed that night, was particularly unusual. There is not a direct connection between the Nazi’s racist ideology and the burning of religious holy objects. The act can only be understood as part of the Nazi’s effort to build a new civilization independent of previous religious ideas and morality. Confino explores the thoughts and ideas that led the Nazi’s to the belief that Jews and Judaism had to be eradicated to build this new society in A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide. Watch Confino’s eloquent responses to the questions of why we should strive to understand the Nazi imagination,  and why historical storytelling is important.

“The main issue in explaining the holocaust is not what happened in Auschwitz, but is about the imagination that made Auschwitz possible to begin with.”Alon Confino

Jewish American Heritage Month Features The Glatstein Chronicles

Get the ebook of The Glatstein Chronicles for only 2.99 via Open Road Media this Jewish American Heritage Month!


In 1934 and with World War II steadily nearing, Jacob Glatstein, one of the most prominent Yiddish-language poets of his time, boarded a ship from the United States to visit his dying mother in his hometown of Lublin, Poland. It is this trip that serves as the basis for the two novellas of autobiographical fiction comprising The Glatstein ChroniclesTold from the first-person perspective of Yash, The Glatstein Chronicles highlights the decline of an entire community through the lens of international Jews in the years leading up to World War II. Book One, “Homeward Bound” details Yash’s observations of his fellow passengers’ political and social leanings over the course of his journey. Glatstein combines childhood memories of violent pogroms in Poland with commentary on escalating anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe to highlight the resilience of the Jewish people and their ability to remain united as a collective group in the face of growing hostility.

In book’s second half, Glatstein reveals the true matter at hand, once again through the experiences of others: the utter despair and seeming lack of hope that must be endured by the Polish Jewry in an environment almost wholly overtaken by anti-Semitism. The Glatstein Chronicles’ importance lies not only in its ability to shed light on the Jewish experience in the years leading up to World War II, but also in its prescience, foreshadowing the imminent horrors of the Holocaust Jews had yet to face at the time of the novellas’ publication.  At the end of Book Two, “Homecoming at Twilight,” before his return to the United States, Glatstein reflects:

Even my mother’s death seemed to coincide oddly with the downward movement of my own life, and all this was in step with Jewish life as a whole, maybe even with the twilight now settling down over the whole world.

Although fraught with anguish and hopelessness, The Glatstein Chronicles serves as “a filial homage to Polish Jews,” offering hope, a hope rooted in the notion that solidarity with one’s community is the most crucial to enduring harship.

This month is the perfect time to explore the life of Yash Glatstein and the experiences of the Polish Jew through The Glatstein Chroniclestranslated by Maier Deshell and Norbert Guterman and part of Yale University Press’s New Yiddish Library series.


Our Texts are Palatial: Words from Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger

Jews and Words is a book that celebrates the written word with a very particular voice that grew out of a lifetime of father-daughter conversations between co-authors Amos Oz, and Fania Oz-Salberger. As Martin Peretz of the Wall Street Journal noted, “You cannot get the taste of this book, let alone its essence, without reading it.” It seems natural to let Amos and Fania’s words speak for themselves.


Amos and Fania’s interviews with NPR and i24 News provide another glimpse into their ongoing dialogue about the Jewish literary tradition. Hear in their own words what it means to be Jewish atheists, how the words “Jews” and “readers” can be interchangeable, and how Jews grew uniquely dependent on words.

npr-books-logo-color i24logo podcast-logo1

For more from Amos and Fania, listen to their conversation on the Yale Press Podcast with John Donatich and like Jews and Words on Facebook.


Extraordinary Stories of Everyday Lives

Get the Kindle Edition of Everyday Jews for only $1.99 in March 2014


Everyday JewsEveryday Jews was first published in Poland in 1935 by Yehoshue Perle in an attempt to document the daily experiences of Polish Jews. It is a story of love and sex and spirit, a beautiful testimony to a strong and enduring people. Although originally chastised as crude, the novel quickly became a canonical work in explaining this time period. Although the story’s narrator, Mendl, is only a child, this work catalogs the intricate lives of Polish Jews. As he works though the stuff of twelve-year-old boys – puberty, sexual identity, family drama –the world around him also drastically changes. The result is a complex, interwoven tale told in a simple and precise tone, which is neatly captured in this translation.

Perhaps even more important than the book’s characters is its incredible sense of prehistory. Published just before the outbreak of the war, Perle’s text speaks to the experience of Jewry before the Holocaust. The Holocaust’s omnipresence can be felt throughout, a terrible foreboding of what is to come. And yet, this is still a story of hope, built on the believe that sharing a cultural history is of the utmost importance. Yehoshue Perle’s slice-of-life fiction provides a resonating voice to this population.

In his introduction, editor David G. Roskies writes:

We now offer Everyday Jews to the English reader is Maier Deshell’s masterful translation… Whether looking for vanished Jews or for a window into the everyday, the English reader will here – for the first time – discover a modern master. This is no everyday occurrence.

This March is the perfect time to explore the life of Mendl and the history of the Polish Jew through Everyday Jews, translated by Maier Deshell and Margaret Birstein and part of Yale University Press’s New Yiddish Library series.

For the Introspective Writer

No one sings as purely as those who inhabit the deepest hell—what we take to be the song of angels is their song.

—Franz Kafka in a letter to Milena Jesenska, August 26, 1920

kafkaThe anguished metaphor that Kafka describes to Jesenska is perhaps characteristic of his life and work. In his letters, diaries, and especially his fiction, there is a pervasive sense of guilt and shame that never quite seems to go away. Pulitzer prize-winning historian Saul Friedländer sets out to explore these personal anxieties in his fascinating intellectual biography, Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt. “Very early on,” Friedländer explains, “Kafka must have felt that he was different from most of those who surrounded him, different in his erotic cravings and different in the powers of imagination and expression he sensed within himself. [...] In his fiction he demolished the very norms to which he submitted in his everyday life.”

Owing in part to the vast interpretive possibilities of Kafka’s writing, countless studies have been written on his life and work. Friedländer acknowledges that “treasures of erudition have been spent on recording the tiniest details of Kafka’s life and on excavating the philological, literary, and philosophical foundations of each of his metaphors or name games,” but also points out that “some huge spires towering over Kafka territory–his sense of shame and guilt, perceived by every reader–have elicited mainly very general and abstract interpretations that do not sufficiently point to the personal anguish from which they stemmed.” What were the experiences and relationships in Kafka’s life that produced such anxiety? And how did it manifest in his writing? Friedländer‘s highly original work grants readers a glimpse of that tortured world. One of his central claims is that the issues tormenting Kafka were of a sexual nature. Commentators have pointed out his fear of sexual intercourse and suggested impotence, which helps us to understand the domain for shame; as for his feelings of guilt, Friedländer ties them “not to some concrete initiatives on his part but to fantasies, to imagined sexual possibilities.

For anyone who enjoys Kafka’s work or is intrigued by the interplay between life and fiction, Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt is an ideal gift.


Bernard Berenson: Living a Life Devoted to Great Art

9780300149425Bernard Berenson’s life is an inspiring story of a poor immigrant to America achieving great fame and fortune. A sensitive and articulate consumer of art, his incredible eye and his talent for engaging listeners in interpretations of artworks took him from his humble beginnings to a lavish lifestyle assisting Gilded Age millionaires in building their collections. Watch the trailer for Rachel Cohen‘s biography Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, shared below, for a window into Berenson’s life interpreting great art.

“With horror I think what I should have become if I had lived a life of an ill-paid professor or struggling writer, how rebellious if I had not lived a life devoted to great art. Worse still if I had remained in the all but proletariat condition I had lived in as a Jewish immigrant lad in Boston.”—Bernard Berenson

After his dramatic self-reinvention, Berenson felt a sense of alienation and loneliness that feels quite modern as rendered by Cohen. This contribution to Jewish Lives series uses new archival research to document Berenson’s navigation of anti-Semitism and the art world, and the inner toll his success took.

Raphael Lemkin: The Unsung Hero Who Gave Genocide Its Name

Guilt without guilt is more destructive to us than justified guilt, because in the first case catharsis is impossible.

Totally UnofficialHe was the man who coined the term “genocide” and dedicated his entire life to making it illegal — but most people still don’t know his name. Raphael Lemkin, a Holocaust survivor, successfully campaigned in the 40s for the United Nations to approve the Genocide Convention, which establishes genocide as an international crime and emphasizes the punishment of the perpetrators. And yet for the better half of the past century, he has been largely ignored by the general public. Published here for the very first time, more than fifty years after his death, is Lemkin’s own account of his life.

Part history and part memoir, Totally Unofficial, edited by Donna-Lee Frieze, intertwines the momentous events of World War II with the intimate thoughts of a Polish Jewish refugee, who could only watch helplessly from America as his entire family was killed in the Holocaust, and who then threw himself into an all-consuming, self-punishing quest to fight the worst of all crimes against humanity.

Born in 1900, Lemkin was just six when he received news about a pogrom in the city of Bialystok, a few miles away from his family farm. There, anti-Semitic mobs had cut open the stomachs of their victims and stuffed them with feathers from pillows and comforters. He took an intellectual interest in the persecution of minority groups as soon as he learned to read, devouring books about the destruction of the Christians by Nero; of Carthage, the Huguenots, the Catholics in Japan. These readings left an indelible mark on his young conscience, as he renders sensitively in his introduction:

My conscience protested when I read that the Huguenots in Lyon were roasted alive by being compelled to sit with naked bodies on heated irons. The Moors were deported on boats. While on deck they were stripped of their clothes and exposed for hours to the sun, which finally killed them. Why should the sun, which brought life to our farm and reddened the cherries on our trees, be turned into a murderer?

Later in his youth, when he was a law student at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, he was similarly affected by the case of Shalom Schwarzbard, a Jewish tailor who had shot the Ukrainian minister of war, Symon Petliura. Petliura was responsible for the massacres that had taken the lives of Schwarzbard’s parents. Schwarzbard was eventually acquitted on the grounds of insanity, but Lemkin deplored the legal framework in which the decision had been made. The man had avenged hundreds of thousands of innocents with this assassination, but he had had to take the law into his own hands to do so. Why did the perpetrators of genocide have to be punished by vigilantes, and why could the court condemn only the latter?

When the Nazis invaded Poland, Lemkin was forced to flee to Sweden, and then to the United States, where he obtained a visa based on his appointment at Duke University. One morning in June 1941, he opened a well-worn envelope which had been traveling for more than two months. Written on a scrap of paper were a few simple words from his parents: “We are well and happy that the letter will find you in America.” Something within Lemkin told him that this was his parents’ final goodbye, and for days he could not chase away this heavy feeling:

Several days later, when the North Carolina night was paling, I woke, covered with deep sweat. I had had a dream in which my mother’s face came close to me. I didn’t see her body, just her face, with her hair combed low on her forehead. Her eyes smiled through a thick mist of sorrow, as if she knew a secret I did not. I stretched my hand toward her face, to caress it, but she moved back from my touch, fading gradually, and I awoke.

Several years later, he learned that his parents’ home had been burned to the ground, and that they had been sent to the gas chambers.

In a sensitive and penetrating review in The New Republic, Michael Ignatieff examines the obsessional quality of Lemkin’s devotion to his cause. Lemkin never married, had few friends, and left stable jobs to pursue his campaign to promote the Genocide Convention. In 1959, he died alone, with neither money nor friends. “He appears,” Ignatieff writes, “to have been on of Kafka’s hunger artists, those moving, self-punishing creatures who cut themselves off from the world, preyed upon by a guilt they cannot name, making their misery into their life’s work.” Towards the end of the book, Lemkin recounts an exchange with—who else—himself, as he considers the enormity of the project he has undertaken. In his mind, the sacrifice for the survival of future generations was always one that had to be made, and one that he took on in full knowledge that it would, ironically, lead to his own demise.

But this fight will finally destroy you, yourself. So what? Whoever fights for an ideal must risk his life.

Fania Oz-Salzberger Asks: How Can Books Keep Families and Generations Together?

Fania Oz-Salzberger—

Jews and Words tells a story, and grinds a few axes, on two of our favourite perennial themes: How did the Jews remain Jews? and, How can books keep families and generations together?

Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, credit Ben Weinstein

Fania Oz-Salzberger and Amos Oz, credit Ben Weinstein

We offer our readers a hard yet playful look at our own Jewish identity, as a father and daughter, novelist and historian. We are Israeli secular Jews, bred on Hebrew texts, and fascinated by Jewish continuity. Our conversation dwells on parenthood, scholarship, humour  and an ancient habit of intellectual innovation.

Entering some current frays, we argue against narrowly orthodox concepts of ‘Judaism’, and see our legacy as a line of gritty individuals, most of whom were readers, many of whom asked difficult questions. Ours is not a bloodline, we say, but a text line. Alongside religiosity, Jews have always cherished literacy, instilling it to their children at a very young age. Family tables combined food and texts since time immemorial, to the great benefit of women as well as men. Defeated and persecuted, Jews were often forced to flee; but they fled holding a child in one hand and a book in the other. Jewish continuity is thus more verbal than political or ethnic.

Jews and WordsThe Jewish nation was not ‘invented’ in modern times. Rather, it posits a special model of nationhood, dependent on common textuality predating modernity. This nationhood hinged on parents and teachers, and on children socialized to become parents and teachers, rather than on kings, politicians, ideologues and soldiers.

Our readers are enthusiastically invited to argue with us as they read. Can one remain Jewish without God? Our answer is an adamant ‘yes’: our love of the Bible is not diminished by acknowledging that much of it might be ‘fiction’, because we know that fiction can tell deep human truths. Is sensuality relevant to scholarliness? Very much so; familial love, food and words can blend into a powerful intergenerational potion. On this juncture, Judaism outdid Christianity and Islam. Are chutzpah, doubt and irreverence good things? Indeed they are: Hebrews and Jews have struggled with (and sometimes ridiculed) the Almighty as well as the mighty. All the way from Abraham to Woody Allen.

Fortunately, our private dialogue became a book at the invitation of the Posen Library of Jewish Civilization, joining the inaugural volume of this forthcoming 10-volume anthology. Felix Posen, a unique visionary of cultural Judaism with a special knack for approaching young people with new ideas, invited us to write this volume. Felix understood that the vast Library project, led by some of the best contemporary scholars of Jewish history, needs a lighter, essayistic voice to spell out some of its deep themes. We agreed.

Be warned: we are taking sides. We deem ourselves ‘Atheists of the Book’. We refuse to leave Jewish identity and morality to ultra-purists, in Israel and beyond. Our understanding of being Jewish goes against the grain of the nationalists, the chauvinists, but also the fashionable deniers of the Jewish past or a Jewish future. We wrote this book in English, but we live and thrive in Hebrew. And, last but not least, you don’t have to be a Jew to take full part in this conversation. All you have to be is a reader and book-lover.

Do you disagree? Excellent. Pitch in, and welcome to our family dinner table. Just keep in mind the quintessentially Yiddish admonition: Don’t take everything to heart. It’s not healthy for you. Hot er gesogt! It’s just words.


Fania Oz-Salzberger is a writer and history professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa. She recently held the Leon Liberman Chair in Modern Israel Studies at Monash University, and a Visiting Laurance S. Rockefeller Professorship for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton University. She is co-author, with her father Amos Oz, of Jews and Words.

On the Tradition of Jewish Humor…

Listen to the podcast interview for Jews and Words on iTunes!

Below you will find an excerpt from Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger’s Jews and Words, an exploration of the role of the written word in Jewish culture within the topics of continuity, women, timelessness and individualism.

Amos Oz & Fania Oz-Salzberger—

Jews and Words

Another closely related offshoot of the Jewish way with words is humor. Modern Jews probably display more humor than their ancient forebears, at least if we go by written evidence. Still, the second Patriarch was named Isaac, ‘‘He who will laugh,’’ because both his parents laughed at the divine promise for a child in Sarah’s barren old age. As we have mentioned, Sarah and God embark on a rather amusing argument on that occasion: ‘‘Then Sarah denied, saying: ‘I laughed not’; for she was afraid. And He said: ‘Nay; but thou didst laugh.’’’ How many religions began with God playing a game of ‘‘you did, too’’ with the ancestral matriarch?

Ecclesiastes, said to be King Solomon, took a dim view of merriment: ‘‘I said of laughter: ‘It is mad’; and of mirth: ‘What doth it accomplish?’’’ The Bible’s terse, stark, magnificently concise Hebrew is seldom jocular. In fact, some of the funnier people in the Bible are not Hebrews at all. The Philistine Achish, King of Gath, lands a good punch when he dismisses David, who plays the fool in his court: ‘‘Wherefore do ye bring him to me?’’ Achish scolds his servants. ‘‘Do I lack madmen, that ye have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence?’’ This turn of phrase bears an uncanny resemblance to Yiddish (nu, oych mir a meshugener). Did ancient Philistine wit somehow feed into medieval German-Jewish dialect? This is a nice thought. We often notice that present-day Israelis and Palestinians share a common sense of humor.

Frequently biting, indeed self-biting, and sometimes outright self-derisive, Yiddish made Jewish humor into an art, and Groucho Marx and Woody Allen transformed it into a universal brand. Freud did not explain why among Jews fear, anger, or despondency is so often and so effectively detonated into wit. Jewish humor is almost always verbal, and thus it is characteristically far more Groucho than Harpo. Body language, though richly employed, has almost always served as a vehicle for funny words. Pantomime is almost un-Jewish.

Argumentativeness and humor breed that other Jewish trait, irreverence. Rather peculiarly for a people of staunch faith, and certainly untypical of other monotheistic religions, Jewish chutzpah targets prophet and rabbi, judge and king, gentile and coreligionist. Its earliest recorded target was the Almighty himself. This irreverence can dovetail with devotion in a way distinctly alien to other systems of faith, and displays a temperament more democratic, not to say anarchic, than other systems of politics.

There is something adolescent, eternally puerile, about some Jewish attitudes to God, rabbis, and worldly authority. The book of Genesis is full of fathers and mothers of various sorts, as well as a plethora of offspring, all under the fatherly gaze of the Creator. There is plenty of sibling rivalry and intergenerational bickering. Tellingly, the term family in the Bible is often equivalent to nation. And of all the ‘‘families of the earth,’’ as the prophet Amos put it, the Israelite family considered itself closest to God and most accountable to him: ‘‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities.’’ Note how family, nationhood, verbal imperative, and accountability—hence, guilt—are knotted together from a very early time.



Excerpted from Jews and Words, Yale University Press 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger. All rights reserved.

Amos Oz is the internationally renowned author of more than twenty works of fiction and numerous essays on politics, literature, and peace. He is also professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. Fania Oz-Salzberger is a writer and history professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa. She recently held the Leon Liberman Chair in Modern Israel Studies at Monash University, and a Visiting Laurance S. Rockefeller Professorship for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton University.

On a Favorite Jewish Pastime…

Listen to the podcast interview for Jews and Words on iTunes!

Below you will find an excerpt from Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger’s Jews and Words, an exploration of the role of the written word in Jewish culture within the topics of continuity, women, timelessness and individualism.

Amos Oz & Fania Oz-Salzberger—


“Why is asking questions a favorite Jewish pastime?

Jews and WordsBiblical Hebrew knew no question marks, but the Book of Books is full of questions. We haven’t counted them all, but judging by the prevalence of whats and hows and whos and whys, it may well be the most inquisitive of holy scriptures. Quite a few, to be sure, are rhetorical, proclaiming God’s glory. God himself is a great interrogator. The answers to some of his questions may seem self-evident, but they are not. Modern readers can still ponder them like deep unsettling riddles. Such are the first questions ever asked.

God to Adam: “Where are you?” and: “Who told you you are naked?”

God to Eve, and later to Cain: “What have you done?”

God to Cain: “Where is Abel your brother?”

And Cain, the first man ever to answer a question with a question, brazenly irreverent, darker than the darkest shade of chutzpah: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Yes, brother, you are. Or are you?

And the child reads. This is not children’s literature. Children’s literature is modern. The boys in the old Jewish schoolroom read of Eve and the Snake and Adam, they read of Cain and Abel, they read the questions, and they question the questions. They have to face Cain’s response from the same angle that God and the grownups must face it.

Other biblical inquiries display all-too-human sensitivities, not least God’s own sensitivities. See his query to Abraham, “Wherefore did Sarah laugh?” The Supreme Being seriously takes offense at an old woman’s disbelief in his promise of a baby. But I didn’t laugh, the somewhat-frightened Sarah protests. You did too, God retorts.

Other questions are rhetorically furious: ‘‘Who asked this of you, to trample my court?’’ asks Isaiah, fuming on behalf of God. ‘‘Why did you let our people cross the Jordan, only to be lost at the hands of the Amorites?’’ asks Joshua, fuming against God. ‘‘Why did you cheat me? You are Saul!’’ the angry Witch of En Dor tells the disguised king of Israel, fuming on her own behalf.

But numerous biblical queries are genuinely interrogative. Some of these are intellectually spellbinding. ‘‘That which is, is far off, and exceeding deep; who can find it out?’’ ‘‘Will you indeed demolish the righteous along with the wicked?’’ ‘‘What profit has man of all his labor that he labors under the sun?’’ ‘‘For what advantage has the wise man over the fool?’’ ‘‘Why is the way of the wicked successful, and all the treacherous are safe?’’ And the most enchanting of the lot: ‘‘What is the way of the wind?’’

There are gigantic questions and dwarfish questions. For the Talmudists, with their unquenchable legalistic curiosity, nothing was too small to be scrutinized. Why does a camel have a short tail? How did Moses know where Joseph was buried? What should be done with an egg laid during a sacred holiday? What happens when a mouse enters a house that was already cleared of leavened bread, prior to Passover, with a bit of pastry in its mouth? And if you later see a mouse leaving the house with similar loot, how can you tell it is the same mouse or the same pastry?

Some of these questions sound funny, perhaps intentionally so, serving at least two intellectual purposes. First, brain teasing: you acquire the practice of inquisitiveness by leaving no stone unturned. Second, the Talmud constantly suspends some of our normal perspectives of size and importance. In God’s world, the tiniest things matter as much as the greatest. Delving into the intricate laws governing the most minuscule particles of human existence is an act of faith.

In addition, the rabbis obviously had a sense of humor. They played with ideas, made fun of colleagues and ancestors, and parodied their own learning. There is much about the Talmud that alienates the present authors, but not its humor. Nor its fondness for the seemingly trivial.
Excerpted from Jews and Words, Yale University Press 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger. All rights reserved.

Amos Oz is the internationally renowned author of more than twenty works of fiction and numerous essays on politics, literature, and peace. He is also professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. Fania Oz-Salzberger is a writer and history professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa. She recently held the Leon Liberman Chair in Modern Israel Studies at Monash University, and a Visiting Laurance S. Rockefeller Professorship for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton University.