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The Jewish Century Paperback – August 27, 2006

4.1 out of 5 stars 47 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The provocative argument that underlies this idiosyncratic, fascinating and at times marvelously infuriating study of the evolution of Jewish cultural and political sensibility is that the 20th century is the Jewish Age because "modernization is about everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate.... Modernization, in other words, is about everyone becoming Jewish." A professor of history at UC-Berkeley, Slezkine plays a delicate game here. Knowing that his grand statements are more metaphorical than supportable with historical fact, he maps out a new history of Jewish culture over the past 100 years in four radically diverse but cohesive chapters. In a history of Jewish group identity and function, Slezkine depicts Jews as a nomadic tribe that functions as a promoter of urban cultural and economic change. The book's last chapter ("Hodel's Choice") uses the image of the daughters of Sholem Aleichem's famous milkman Tevye to discuss the three great recent Jewish immigrations—to America in the 1890s, from the Pale of Settlement to the Russian cities after the revolution and to Palestine after the birth of Zionism. Through these migrations, Slezkine argues, the modernism of Jewish culture spread throughout the world. Nearly every page of Slezkine's exegesis presents fascinating arguments or facts—e.g., that "secular American Jewish intellectuals felt compelled" to become more Jewish when they were allowed into traditional American institutions. While not strictly a traditional history, Slezkine's work is one of the most innovative and intellectually stimulating books in Jewish studies in years.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Winner of the 2005 National Jewish Book Award, Ronald S. Lauder Award in Eastern European Studies, Jewish Book Council

Winner of the 2005 Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize, American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies

Winner of the 2004 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Religion, Association of American Publishers

"One of the most innovative and intellectually stimulating books in Jewish studies in years. . . . [An] idiosyncratic, fascinating and at times marvelously infuriating study of the evolution of Jewish cultural and political sensibility in the 20th century. . . . Nearly every page of Slezkine's exegesis presents fascinating arguments or facts."--Publishers Weekly

"Jews are not unique, [Yuri Slezkine] maintains in his fascinating new study, and it is only European provincialism that makes them seem that way. . . . Slezkin''s interpretation of Jewish history . . . is wonderfully antiparochial not only vis-à-vis the Jews but vis-à-vis America, which, he reminds us, not everyone saw as a promised land and which large portions of the huddled masses struggled to avoid."--Daniel Lazare, The Nation

"To come across a daring, original, sweeping work of history in this age of narrow specialization is not just a welcome event; it is almost a sensation."--Walter Laqueur, Los Angeles Times

"If Osama Bin Laden ever reads this book, he will be spinning in his cave."--Gene Sosin, The New Leader

"For Slezkine, Jews, urban, mobile, literate, flexible, have been role models of adaptability in a changing modern landscape."--Joel Yanofsky, National Post

"Brilliant. . . . The Jewish Century is history on a majestic scale. . . . [It] is fresh, compelling and frequently startling. . . . The clarity of analysis is extraordinary, and the relatively simple conceptual tools Slezkine provides are unexpectedly powerful."--Noah Efron, Jerusalem Report

"This book is witty, sardonic and clever, written with zest and brilliant imagination and presents us with remarkable images of our recent past."--John Levi, Australian Jewish News

Yuri Slezkine's The Jewish Century defies standard categorization, and this makes it a masterly work of history."--Marc Dollinger, Journal of American History

"[T]his is a brilliant book--it is extremely well written. . . . Slezkine's book joins a very small number of first-rate studies of the modernization of the "Jews" seen through the lens of eastern rather than western history. . . . Buy the book; read the book; use the book in Russian history and Jewish culture classes."--Sander L. Gilman, Slavic Review

"The Jewish Century revives, with intellectual sophistication and stylistic verve, an old perception of the Jew's centrality to modernity."--Hillel Halkin, Commentary

"Reading Yuri Slezkine's scholarly arguments . . . may make for difficult reading but it also provides intriguing ventures into highly original thinking."--Jewish Book World

"Yuri Slezkine's work. . . . is a serious scholarly study of East European Jewry in the modern age, but dressed up in an eccentric and nonconventional style. . . . [An] immensely entertaining and diputatious book. . . . It is a work which will simultaneously inform, irritate, and entertain any reader with an interest in Russian, the Soviet, or modern Jewish history."--John D. Klier, Russian Review

"This brilliant essay may significantly alter how we think about twentieth-century history. . . . The part that the Jews played in Soviet Russia, or, perhaps better, the part that Soviet Russia played in the cultural imagination of the Jews, lies at the heart of the book."--Angus Walker, Central Europe

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 456 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; New Ed edition (August 27, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691127603
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691127606
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #652,459 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Slezkine, a professor of history at Berkeley who came to America from the Soviet Union in 1982, restores the dignity of Jews, after decades of being portrayed solely as passive victims of history, by showing how Jews, qua Jews, were among the most dynamic actors in the central events of the 20th Century. You simply cannot understand the main events of European history of the last century without reading Slezkine' brilliant book.

Slezkine's interest is in the tragic ironies of history and he empathetically allows us to enter into the mindsets of hundreds of individuals as they made decisions that, well, seemed like a good idea at the time.

We've all read enormous amounts about two Jewish migrations -- one to America and one to the Holy Land -- but Slezkine vividly documents the forgotten third Jewish great migration, the one his grandmother made, from the towns of the Pale of Settlement in the Polish and Ukrainian lands to Moscow and the other great cities of Russia/Soviet Union. For at least two decades after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, this migration appeared to the more worldly Jews around the globe as the most successful of the three migrations. Jews, untainted by any association with the Czarist regime and showing the most enthusiasm for the new Bolshevik regime of any ethnic group, flourished in the Soviet Union even more than in America, where anti-Semitism channeled most of the Jewish immigrants' genius into meritocratic fields like entrepreneurial business and science, rather than into politics, the military, or the more comfortable parts of the corporate world.

In 19th Century Europe, secularizing Jews believed they were hated because of nationalism and capitalism.
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Format: Hardcover
Of the daughters of Tevye the Milkman (the Fiddler on the Roof), Hodl married a revolutionary who would come into his own when the Bolsheviks came to power; Beilke and her husband emigrated to America; and, for symmetry's sake, Slezkine imagines that Chava emigrated to Israel. As Slezkine admits, Sholem Aleichem's book says no such thing about Chava; but then Slezkine loves this conceit, since he wants to deal in his book with their "descendants", the three strands of Jewish emigration from the Pale into the three areas whose histories they subsequently play such a disproportionate role to shape.

To this conceit he adds another one, as irritating, repetitive, and forced. It is to divide the world into Mercurians and Apollonians. Mercurians are "service nomads" like the Jews: outsiders, originally mostly traders and then professionals, who service the needs of the resident Apollonians, mostly landed folk. The Mercurians are important enough when they are serving a landed society, but they become even more important when, in the course of modernity, Apollonian societies are forced to transform themselves into Mercurian ones: experience, talents and education then give the Jews a headstart in such societies.

To these "clever" conceits, Slezkine adds a brilliant capacity to coin striking phrases of a kind of which the following, on page 366, is just one example:

"From being the Jewish God's Chosen People, the Jews had become the Nazis' chosen people, and by becoming the Nazis' chosen people, they became the Chosen People of the postwar Western world."

Leaving these characteristics of the book aside, it is full of illuminating and sometimes controversial reflections.
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This is a remarkable book in many ways and difficult to summarize. If the author wasn't a Russian, a professor at Berkeley, half Jewish, and the book wasn't published by a major university press, I think somebody would be yelling "anti-Semitism." It is loaded with hard-to-obtain data (about one-third of his sources are in Russian) on the very active but less well known Jewish participation in all aspects of Russian life, especially from the time of the revolutions to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, including their roles in the gulag, the NKVD and spying on the US. He even refers to Communist Jews as "Stalin's willing executioners" (p. 103).

His purpose in the book is to show the role of Jews in shaping the modern world, and especially 20th Century Russian and East European history. As he says, "The Modern Age is the Jewish Age . . ." To the extent that we are urban, mobile, literate, and occupationally flexible, we are all Jewish. "Modernization, in other words, is about everyone becoming Jewish."

(See other customer reviews for more on this and on the Jewish role in Bolshevism.)

My quarrel with this book is that I think he exaggerates the Jewish role in the life of everyday America. Furthermore, he ignores Kevin MacDonald's magnificent analysis of the role of Jews in modern American life. There's not one mention of Kevin MacDonald's three volumes.

He is very convincing on what he knows well: the Jewish experience and influence on Russian and Eastern European history. But when he gets to Jewish influence on American life, he is much less convincing. He writes as though everyone lived in New York City. Freud most definitely did not have the influence on American life that he claims.
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