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Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews Paperback – September 28, 2004

4.4 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The history of Jewish culture is as variegated as any civilization that has witnessed the dawn and survived the ruin of many an empire, including its own. Rather than offer an exhaustive catalogue of major events and leaders in this highly readable history of the Jewish experience, Konner draws vividly on the lives of ordinary people for this cultural portrait. A professor of anthropology, human biology and Jewish studies at Emory University, Konner details how the crucible of dominant civilizations shaped Jewish religion, language and intellectual history. For instance, he shows how the clash between the Polish Empire and the Ukraine affected the rise of Hasidism in the 18th century. Each chapter is devoted to the study of one epoch in the development of Jewish life and culture and its contributions to the progress of surrounding cultures. In focusing on the post-Babylonian exile period, Konner discusses the biblical roots and significance of circumcision to show that for Jews, the ritual indicated their unique relationship with God. Other cultures, in Africa and elsewhere, he notes, practiced circumcision as a puberty and/or fertility rite, and returning to the biblical verses, Konner concludes fertility was an element of the Jewish ritual as well. Despite the many threats and challenges Jews have faced through the centuries, Konner concludes, "Jewish life will continue to be strong." He has written a celebratory but evenhanded tale, lauding the Jewish people's strength as he chronicles the adversities they've faced: "Jews, by dint of culture and history, are restless, critical, imaginative, resourceful, ambitious, cooperative, troubled by injustice, and committed to self-defense."
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

In what Konner labels "the grand sweep of Jewish culture in time and space," the author examines five related themes, including peoplehood (something quite different from religion), that have been a part of Jewish identity and of the myth of the Jews as a mild, ethical people who do not fight. He explores the thesis that the Jewish gifts to the world--monotheism, the Ten Commandments, and resistance against tyranny--were born of weakness in a group of tribes, producing allegiance to a single all-powerful God who could protect them. Konner also discusses the idea that the Jews did not come to Israel from anywhere else, but they have been there from time immemorial, suffering bitterly, but every generation celebrating life. The author, an anthropologist and the author of nine previous books, draws on archaeological findings, census data, diaries, oral histories, and religious texts to illustrate how the Jews influenced the non-Jewish world and how that world influenced them. His study is highly relevant and unflinching in its approach to controversial and difficult concepts. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (September 28, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142196320
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142196328
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,394,632 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By W. Harwood on January 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This book could be more accurately described as a collection of essays by a scholar with specific interests in selected topics of Jewish history. The most notable omission is the lack of discussion of Jewish experience outside the Middle East except for Spain, North Africa, Ethiopia, China, and Cochin. There is nothing about the great migration of Jews into the tolerant Polish Commonwealth, so there is nothing about the role of Jews in Eastern Europe until Zionism and anti-Semitism spring up in the nineteenth century. He describes the destruction of the Jewish communities in Poland, but how did they get there and what was their anthropology? I bought the book to find out, but there was nothing. Also, his footnotes and bibliography make no reference to sources that place this vital topic in a wider historical context, as a general history of Eastern Europe or even of Jews in the Habsburg Monarchy, for example, or Russia. What is the culture that gave us Freud, Marx, and Mahler? Nothing on that. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a refuge for Jews from Western Europe. Nohting on that. This is definitely not a book for the general reader.
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By A Customer on February 9, 2004
Format: Hardcover
As an avid reader of history, I purchased this book expecting a historical survey of Jewish history from an anthropolgists' point of view. It is not really a history at all, but a collection of anecdotes and interesting observations. That would be fine, if they were held together with a coherent theme. Or held together at all.
The author does not even seem able to put together a cohesive chapter. He jumps all over the place and it makes a difficult, at times painful read. It really needs an editor, and if it had one, they should be fired for poor work.
The author also makes factual mistakes. One that jumps out is a claim that only Jewish culture used the lunar calendar. This is false. China used the lunar calendar throughout its long history, right into the 20th century. I also found the survey of ancient Jewish history to be weak: no context at all is provided about the area or its people and the author's conclusions are arrived at with little supporting evidence or even argument. For example much is made of a single inscription in a stone from 1200 BC.
Overall the book is more of a personal journey by the author into his cultural roots, than it is a sytematic or well thought-out study. If you want the later, don't buy this book.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is not a straight dry history book. It is an anthropological account of a people who have survived despite all odds. The author delves into the intellectual, sociological and economical reasons as he goes around the globe to tell the story. There have been better histories told about the Jews of Eastern Europe but not necessarily from this perspective. However, the accounts of Jews in Ethiopia, China, Uzbekistan, to name a few are eye opening. The Bible calls the Israelites a stiff-necked people. Perhaps, without realizing it, the author explains that in essence, this is the reason for Jewish suvival through the ages. No matter the tyrant, king, oppression, opportunity, the Jewish people kept to the principles of their faith. This is a good read.
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Format: Paperback
Some of the other five-star reviews, in particular Gerard J. Delaunay and J. Davis, give, in my opinion, a good summary of this excellent work by Konner. I read the same author's "The Tangled Wing" and was interested to see how he would handle such a huge subject as Jewish history/anthropology. (Konner's interests are very wide ranging; he wrote, in addition to "The Tangled Wing," an early, perhaps the first, book on the now famous Paleo diet and a book on the history of childhood, among others.) Though of course the book is not comprehensive or exhaustive (how could a one-volume work on the 3,000-year history of any subject be?), it does provide a nice overview of Jewish history, tying in culture, religion, and even anthropology (as one would expect). And even though I thought the two-star reviews added some valid criticisms, they weren't enough for me personally to detract from the great merits of the book. It made Jewish history interesting enough for me, a non-Jew, to want to read more, which I'm sure the author would find gratifying. And, as usual for this author, the writing is excellent, as other reviewers have pointed out.
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Format: Hardcover
The 3,000 year old history of the Jews has been the subject of
many one volume works, and some many volume masterpieces. It is impossible to be "comprehensive" so the author has to select
certain episodes to construct a winning narrative. Melvin Konner succeeds because he is such a talented writer. This
book has the flavor of a James Michener novel as opposed to a dry scholarly tome. Take a look at just two examples of his writing: "The roots of the Jews are lost in the deep, blood-soaked mud of ancient empire." And speaking about Jacob wrestling with the angel, Konner writes: "But of course it is not just Jacob who limps away hurt, with a new name. It is all his descendants, destined, he has been told, to be as numerous as the stars. ISRAEL: a whole nation of God-wrestlers, striving and undaunted, hurt but not subdued."

True there are many areas of Jewish history that are passed over. Rather than include everything, Kooner searches for nodal points that changed the Jewish outlook. I especially liked the chapter entitled: "Women of Valor; How Jewish Women broke the Patriachal Bonds."

If the reader wants a handle on what makes the Jewish people so
important in world history, this is the book to read.
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