One Historian’s Look at How Jews Shaped the Modern Age

\"The Jewish Century,\" by Yuri Slezkine. (Princeton University Press, $29.95). Yuri Slezkine opens this major new book by declaring: \"The modern age is the Jewish age, and the 20th century, in particular, is the Jewish century.\" This assertion may ring bells.
December 30, 2004


“The Jewish Century,” by Yuri Slezkine. (Princeton University Press, $29.95).

Yuri Slezkine opens this major new book by declaring: “The modern age is the Jewish age, and the 20th century, in particular, is the Jewish century.” This assertion may ring bells.

Anti-Semites have long claimed that Jews, a miniscule fraction of the world’s population, exert a disproportionate influence, be it in local settings, such as fin de si?cle “Judapest” (as Budapest was known) or through that irrepressible literary trope, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Along comes a university-trained historian and suggests that, indeed, the modern age has been permeated through and through by Jewish influence.

But before we leap to a quick and erroneous conclusion, Slezkine is no anti-Semite. He is a gifted historian from Berkeley who has written a big, provocative and brilliant book.

Indeed, in a year of big books that offer intriguing new perspectives on the Jewish condition — Philip Roth’s counterfactual “The Plot Against America” and Jonathan Sarna’s “American Judaism” come to mind — Slezkine’s “The Jewish Century” may be the most important. And what is most intriguing in the book is the claim that those qualities that the Jews have historically embodied and still represent — social mobility, economic ingenuity, intellectual achievement — are the defining features of the modern age, all the more so in the era of globalization.

Now one may agree that Jews have embodied these qualities, perhaps more than any other group. And yet, it seems premature, at the very least, to suggest that these properties have won out over their opposites: economic stasis, national-ethnic tribalism and cultural revanchism.

Could we not argue as plausibly that the 20th century was the century of genocide, or totalitarianism, or capitalism, or, perhaps, of the Americans? It is certainly the case that Jews figured prominently in some or many of the century’s dramas.

Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein surely had a major hand in defining the cultural and intellectual direction of the century. And it may well be that the Shoah is the paradigmatic act of genocide — and anti-Semitism, the longest and most enduring of hatreds.

But it still strikes me as triumphalist and tunnel-visioned to award the entire 20th century, no less the whole modern age, to the Jews. This Judeo-centric vision, while framed in most idiosyncratic fashion by Slezkine, has more popular (and misguided) versions of which we should be cautious: assertions of the unreplicable uniqueness either of Jewish achievement or of Jewish tsuris that wrench the actual Jewish experience out of its deeply embedded context.

Despite these reservations about the book’s core thesis, I hasten to add my admiration — I dare say envy — for “The Jewish Century.” It is a work of staggering erudition, literary grace and most precious of all, big ideas. While one may disagree with its big ideas, it is hard to avoid being stimulated by them. It is equally hard to deny the book’s contribution to our understanding of modern Jewish history.

Not only does Slezkine shed new light on largely unknown chapters of the Jewish experience in Soviet Russia; he also fleshes out the personality of one of the most vexing and elusive characters in the modern Jewish experience: the non-Jewish Jew.

A Russian-born historian of partial Jewish origin, Slezkine happened on to this book by chance. Initially, he was interested merely in producing a textured social history of life in a certain apartment building in Moscow. This point of entry soon led him to a broader domain of inquiry: the story of Soviet Jewish communists, a fair number of whom populated the apartment in question.

Slezkine used these Jewish communists, a few of whom were his own relatives, to unfold an even larger story: the unsurpassed success of Jews in gaining access to positions of prestige and power in the Soviet Union in the early decades after the Bolshevik Revolution, only to end up — after Stalin’s purges began — as one of the most anti-Soviet and oppressed groups of all.

This compelling and tragic story led Slezkine to yet another vast new domain of inquiry: the migration of millions of Russian Jews from that large chunk of Eastern Europe (including parts of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine) known as the Pale of Settlement, into major urban centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg in the late,19th century.

Slezkine presents in “The Jewish Century” a thick and nuanced description of this Jewish migratory stream that, along with Benjamin Nathans’ “Beyond the Pale” (2002), sheds important new light on an enormously consequential — and yet under-researched — movement of Jewish life and culture.

One of the key innovations of Slezkine’s approach is to juxtapose this migratory current to two other — and more notable — currents issuing from the Pale around the same time: the large stream of Eastern European Jews to the United States and the smaller, but influential, current of Russian Jewish immigrants to Palestine. Slezkine associates these tributaries with three of the five daughters of Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye the Dairyman,” the hero of the classic “Fiddler on the Roof.”

He uses this literary cover to suggest that Tevye’s daughters, emblematic of most turn-of-the-century Russian Jews, were of one mind in seeking exit from the confines of the shtetl but disagreed considerably over their preferred locus of resettlement. Thus, in Slezkine’s version, Bielke followed her husband to the “goldene medine” of America, Chava made off to the land of milk and honey and Hodel became a revolutionary and emigrated from her parochial shtetl to a major urban center in Russia.

In tracing these three paths, Slezkine offers far more than an homage to Aleichem. His use of Tevye’s daughters as vectors of historical change belies an unusually keen and subversive literary sense. This sense is manifest both in Slezkine’s own writing (which, owing to his formative upbringing in another language, evokes the likes of Conrad and Brodsky) and in the breadth of his reading. Indeed, “The Jewish Century” is, among other virtues, a feast of literary delights, with extended borrowings from and learned excurses on Pushkin, Proust, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Joseph Roth, Osip Mandelstam, Vassily Grossman and Roth, to mention but a few.

At the same time, the book is also a piece of uncommon scholarly virtuosity. While a newcomer to the precincts of Jewish history, Slezkine reveals a commanding knowledge of the Eastern European Jewish experience, and, particularly, of the Jewish “immigrants” to big Russian cities.

His perspective is decidedly not that of an insider — what we might call an internalist Jewish historian — who relies on Jewish communal records or self-consciously Jewish cultural expressions to tell his story. Rather, Slezkine is an externalist, and this has a number of important implications.

First, his chief interest is not in the overtly and avowedly Jewish historical personality, but in those whom Isaac Deutscher famously called “non-Jewish Jews,” those hundreds of thousands who willingly surrendered a distinctive Jewish cultural idiom in favor of a more universalist political agenda or cosmopolitan social milieu. Through a mix of conceptual analysis and statistical evidence, Slezkine traces the rise and fall of these Jews, particularly intellectuals and political activists, who abandoned their Jewish origins to embrace the Soviet communist vision, only to become the chief enemies of the very system in which they had invested so much blood, sweat and faith.

To the extent that these figures were far less identifiable and visible than their Israeli and American Jewish cousins, studying them requires a fine and nuanced set of historical tools. Slezkine makes masterful use of these tools, and his treatment of the metaphorical figure of Hodel and her Russian Jewish descendants is the finest portion of the book. More ambitiously, it amounts to a kind of Jewish counterhistory in which the non-Jewish Jew stands at the center.

There is a second way in which Slezkine’s externalist perspective becomes clear. It is in his tendency to adopt a sweeping comparative perspective in studying Jews. Throughout the book, the Jewish experience is placed alongside and in contrast to that of many other groups, especially fellow Diaspora travelers like ethnic Chinese, Indians and Gypsies.

This tack provides him with an opportunity to make the bold equation of Jewish and modern mentioned at the outset, although, in fact, the origin of Slezkine’s analytical framework lies in Greek mythology. The world used to be divided, he argues, into two distinct groups: Mercurians, who were fleet and fast-moving service nomads, and Apollonians, who were landed, rural food gatherers. Historically, Jews were the classic Mercurians — “urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious and occupationally flexible.”

In the modern age, these qualities have become more widely disseminated and absorbed — to the point that they seem to blend seamlessly into what we routinely call today “globalization.” Through this process of dissemination, much of the world has become Mercurian. In that Jews are the Mercurians par excellence, the past century was, by extension, “the Jewish century.”

In laying out this stark Mercurian-Apollonian divide, Slezkine recalls grand social theorists of the past like Karl Marx and Max Weber (as well as less notable figures like Werner Sombart and Thorsten Veblen) who have advanced sweeping claims about the social function of the Jews. But he also exposes himself to the congenital weaknesses that theorizing of this scale produces.

For example, beyond similarities in their economic functions, do we gain much by comparing and then conflating the cultural experience of Jews, Gypsies and ethnic Chinese into a single Mercurian type? And even among Jews, themselves, does the Mercurian label really tell us very much?

Imagine if we were to assemble in one early-20th century Parisian salon the following characters: Aleichem, Walter Benjamin, Nathan Birnbaum, Freud, Rosa Luxembourg, Max Nordau, Baron Edmond de Rothschild and Leon Trotsky. Would this mix of capitalist and communist, Orthodox and atheist, Zionist and cosmopolite find common cause, indeed, speak a single Mercurian language? It is highly doubtful.

And if we have difficulty affixing the unified label Mercurian to this group, all the more so for the modern age at large. After all, the potent and enduring force of nationalism, with its spasmodic outbursts of ethnic violence, has marked much of that era. This pervasive neotribalism is the embodiment not of Mercurianism, but of what Slezkine calls the Apollonian instinct.

Accordingly, it seems a stretch to label our age Mercurian. Perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of a ceaseless battle between Mercurian and Apollonian impulses, if not of outright Apollonian victory.

Both the porousness of Slezkine’s opposing categories and the premature victory accorded Mercurians (i.e., Jews) in the modern age ultimately undoes the grand theory undergirding “The Jewish Century.” But the merit of this book does not rest on the theory’s ultimate success. Through his wide-ranging erudition, Slezkine challenges us to think about deep structural patterns in human and Jewish history, as well as about the uniqueness of the Jewish historical experience.

Moreover, his wide comparative lens brings into focus three distinct Jewish paths in the modern age, two of which are rather well trodden (America and Israel) and one of which (the Soviet Russian) receives rich new attention. The effect is a fascinating literary and historical journey that leads to a rewriting of modern Jewish history, a kind of counterhistory populated by a motley crew of mainly non-Jewish Jews. At once ubiquitous and marginal, privileged and persecuted, Mercurian and Apollonian, these figures rise up against their creator to demonstrate that the modern Jewish condition is complex, diverse and resistant to reduction.

At the same time, they empower their creator to ask the big and important question of whether the age in which they live is created in their own intriguing image. At the end of the day, I think it is not. But Slezkine is owed a big debt for forcing us to think deeply about our own purchase on the claim of Jewish uniqueness.

 David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA.


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