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Half the Story

A chronicle of the Jewish saga without religion.

Nov 15, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 09 • By DAVID WOLPE
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Popular history of the Jews used to be written in the salvific mode: History was moving toward an apotheosis—if not exactly eschatological, at least historically redemptive. But modern history does not permit such credulity; progress is no longer a clearly marked highway to messianism, in either the classical or secular versions. “Israel, an embattled homeland” is one more chapter in the saga, hardly distinguishable from other migrations. Certainly nothing in the tone would signal the reader, as in more traditional expositions, that this is the long-awaited culmination of dreams. In contrast to many chroniclers of the Jewish story, Brenner does not permit himself to write in the heroic mode. Here is the most drama-laden sentence in his description of the Warsaw ghetto uprising: “They were able to hold their own for a month without receiving any appreciable assistance from the Polish population outside the ghetto.” Accurate, succinct—and utterly removed from anything that might quicken the blood.

Earlier popular books on Jewish history, such as Max Dimont’s Jews, God and History (1962) and Chaim Potok’s Wanderings (1978), were criticized for what we might call egregious teleology: They assumed that Jews were heading toward something, that Jewish history was a grand, passionate drama. Brenner is thoroughly unintoxicated. But it made me think of Yeats’s damning verdict that the worst thing about some men is that, when they were not drunk, they
were sober. 

David Wolpe, rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters.

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