“They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” (HIS 155 Lecture 1.1)

Merneptah Stele, earliest non-Jewish reference to Jewish history. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Merneptah Stele, earliest non-Jewish reference to Jewish history. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Instructions: please watch the lecture, review the reading below, and kindly take the anonymous poll.  Thank you!

To view the Prezi associated with this lecture, please click here.


Excerpt from The Jewish Diaspora: A Brief History

Henry Abramson

1. What is Jewish History?

“They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” 

So runs the old joke, condensing the massive scope of Jewish history into a single pithy statement. From Pharaoh to Haman, from Hadrian to Hitler, this vision of Jewish history describes a pattern of persecution by vicious, even pathological enemies, followed by miraculous salvation and a brief respite before the cycle begins again. Implicit also is the belief in an ultimate and final redemption that will finally bring everything to a glorious and fulfilling end. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr. (paraphrasing Theodore Parker), “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  In the Jewish tradition, Maimonides’ statement of faith encapsulates the confidence in the final denouement of Jewish history:  “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may tarry, nevertheless I await his arrival.”

History in general, and Jewish history in particular, should be understood as the encapsulation of a distinct and coherent narrative that lays a strata of meaning on the otherwise chaotic and random series of events that make up quotidian life. History provides a framework for the creation of civic mythology, the term used here not in the sense of something false, rather in the sense of widely shared stories that define the essential values of a culture or society.  Circulated in a Homeric fashion, children are often taught these stories at an early age, inculcating a common consciousness of the elements that render meaning to the assembly of a discrete group of people and their collective activity.  What American child, for example, has not heard of George Washington’s response to his father, surveying a fallen cherry tree: “I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet?” The fact that this story may have emerged fully-formed from the imagination of an early 19th century biographer, without any basis in reality, is not relevant: children hearing this story about the first President of the United States learn that truthfulness, courage, and even repentance after error are all American values (not to mention wanton disregard for the environment). The veracity of historical data is not nearly as important as the willingness to share a common perception of that reality.  It is no coincidence that the word “story” is fully embedded in the word “history.”

Jews, perhaps more than any other people on this planet, have mastered the narrative power of history, imbuing this power into centures of shared ritual activities that initiate children and reconfirm adults, generation after generation. Consider the narrative impact of the Passover ritual, a classic example of the “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat” narrative. The family gathers around a table that has been radically transformed for the event, completely removing all leavened products from the home. Each participant is given symbolic equal access to the historical data in the form of the Haggadah, translated and illustrated to maximize its communicative ability as the text is read, studied, and debated. The patriarch of the family typically leads the seder, but great prominence is given at the beginning of the meal to the youngest participants, who must ask the four ritual questions, all of which focus on the purely physical and even technical minutiae of the evening: why do we lean, why do we dip our food twice, and so on. The observations of the mundane provide an excuse for a deep communal participation in historical memory,  a multi-media event that stimulates not only the intellect but even the body through the gastronomic experiences.  I remember myself how, when I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old and my father insisted I taste a small amount of my Aunt Enid’s ground horseradish. Never having eaten anything like it, I took a generous helping of what I thought was a candy-like substance into my mouth. It was as if my entire body rejected the bitter herbs all at once: my eyes thickened and teared, my temperature rose several degrees, my throat constricted, and so on. I turned to my father in surprise and shock, and he said to me, “that’s slavery.” I remember thinking that if just a small spoonful of slavery tasted this bad, how awful it must have been to endure it for an entire day, a year, a lifetime!  The historical experience of the Exodus was forever seared in my memory.

Thus the Jews, throughout their millennial travels, translated their narrative of history into thousands of rituals large and small, communicating common values through shared storytelling.  The term “storytelling” has a distinctly childish connotation, but its importance is deadly serious. Without storytelling, the Jewish people cannot survive. Good stories–stories that are logical, comprehensible but sophisticated, stories with mystery and wonder–serve a distinct social function by reinforcing commitment to group integrity. The breakdown of these stories, or the dearth of good storytellers, represent challenges to the spiritual, philosophical, and even physical well-being of the Jewish polity. Stories convey meaning to group existence: when there is no story to be told, there is no point belonging to a community, a nation, or a people.

Ironically, the traditionally Jewish narrative of history is not weakened by periods of persecution, it is strengthened thereby. Another Jewish ritual to illustrate: hard boiled eggs are customarily consumed on occasions of loss or tragedy, such as after funerals, on the eve of Tisha B’Av (commemorating the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem), and even as an appetizer in the aforementioned Passover meal. This is because Jewish tradition compares the egg to the Jewish people as a whole: the longer it boils, the harder it gets. Persecution, loss, and tragedy make the Jewish people stronger, not weaker.  How so? Through the narrative power of history. The experience of persecution links a generation to their past, absorbing the meaning of that specific tragedy within the larger narrative of the long arc that describes the Jewish passage through time. “In each and every generation,” reads the Haggadah, “someone arises against us to destroy us, but the Holy One who is Blessed rescues us from their hands.” Just as the readers at the Seder may reflect on whatever tribulations affect them in their immediate present, they simultaneously validate the second proposition: we are here because we survived the earlier persecutions, and just as we survived those, the Jewish people will survive the current difficulties.  This is followed, of course, by the festive meal.  “Let’s eat.”

* * * * *

The narrative power of history is certainly useful in an anthropological or sociological sense, but what does it actually say about history itself? Furthermore, what value can be ascribed to the traditional Jewish understanding of history, if we look it as merely a device for maintaining group alliances? Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) recognized these questions in his pioneering research in the field of historiography, that is, the discipline of writing history.  He stressed above all the need for accuracy in reporting, or in his memorable phrase, wie es eigentlich gewesen war, “the way it actually was.”  Historical data must be presented comprehensively and objectively, in order to describe as valid a portrait of the past as possible.  Jews, perhaps the most historical of all peoples, reacted to his thinking with remarkable alacrity.

Jewish historical documents are at at the very beginnings of western culture. The Bible, after all, contains a wealth of historical accounts, from the Exodus through the conquest of Canaan and the establishment of the Israelite monarchy, and so on. After the biblical period, documents such as the ancient Scroll of Fasts (Megilat Ta’anit) that chronicle historical events for the purpose of maintaining a commemorative calendar and medieval histories such as Rabbi Menachem Meiri’s 13th century Seder ha-Kabalah continued this tradition. These texts, however, were not composed with von Ranke’s sensibility, rather they were purposed with the task of reinforcing Jewish attachment to Judaism, and should properly be viewed as primarily religious in nature. Their primary concern was not “the way it actually was,” rather “the way it actually should be.” They contain immeasurable historical value, but they are not histories in the modern sense at all, and reading them in that manner would distort both the author’s intention and likely the historical record as well.

Research into Jewish history began in earnest in the middle of the 19th century in Germany, with the works of early scholars like Isaac Marcus Jost (1793-186)  and especially Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891). Many were associated with a movement called  Wissenschaft des Judenthums, or the “science of Judaism,” an attempt to create a modern analytical approach to Jewish civilization in all its elements. German Jewry was enduring an exceptionally tumultuous period at the time, and much of the research undertaken by adherents of the Wissenschaft des Judenthums movement was directed toward political and social goals, explicitly or otherwise. Jews were struggling to achieve emancipation, that is, the granting of equal citizenship alongside non-Jewish Germans. This was a goal achieved by French Jewry in the aftermath of the 1789 revolution, and throughout the century Germany’s neighbors followed suit one by one.  Even in Germany itself (which was not a unified country for most of the century), Jews enjoyed brief periods of emancipation in the wake of the short-lived 1848 rebellion. Disillusioned by the lack of progress, many German Jews elected to simply convert to Christianity to gain social and economic advantage, including the poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) who famously described baptism as his “ticket of admission into European culture.”

Some Jews, arguing that emancipation should be granted without conversion, felt that Jews had to somehow “earn” the right to stand alongside German non-Jews as equals by demonstrating their value and loyalty. Some, like Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) of the Liberal (Reform) movement, felt that Judaism itself had to adapt to the sensibilities of the modern era, and instituted innovations into traditional Jewish practice such as the introduction of organs into the synagogue service, the removal of the mehitsah separating men and women during prayer, and so on. Others were more traditional-minded, such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), who argued that Jewish practice may be adapted to modern sensibilities only to the point that Jewish law would not be violated. It is in this context that Jewish historians began to compose modern histories. Some historians scoffed at traditional understandings of historical events (especially those impinging on religious doctrines), and hoped to demonstrate that Judaism and the Jewish people could be sufficiently reformed to meet 19th-century German social standards. Others downplayed this approach, preferring instead to emphasize the heroic aspects of Jewish history, portraying them as a wrongfully persecuted minority who invariably conferred benefit on whatever society welcomed them.  Heinrich Graetz was clearly in the latter camp.  He enjoyed widespread popularity among Jewish readers (not surprising), but attracted the ire of reactionary German historians (also not surprising).  His contemporary Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896) accused him of distorting Jewish history, and argued that the Jews only brought destruction and decay to their neighbors. In his memorable phrase, later adopted as a slogan by the Nazis, die Juden sind unser Unglück, “the Jews are our misfortune.”

The point for us, as early 21st century students of Jewish history, is obvious: despite von Ranke’s exhortations to record history “as it actually was,” we cannot separate it from “who we actually are.” 19th-century German Jewish historians cast their work in terms of their struggles for emancipation. 20th-century Israeli historians cast their work in terms of their perception of the ideological basis for the modern Jewish state. Who are we, and what coloration will that have on our understanding of Jewish history? It doesn’t take much to imagine the concerns that impact our perspective: we live in an era slowly emerging from the long shadow of the Holocaust, when it is harder and harder to meet people who have Nazi tattoos burned on their forearms. Israel is firmly established as a geopolitical reality, but constantly threatened by hostile neighbors, and its government often adopts policies that dissatisfy large swaths of Jewish opinion, both within the state and in the larger Jewish diaspora. American Jewry, a huge demographic chunk of world Jewry, is drowning in its own wealth, with assimilation far outpacing anything Jews have experienced in two millennia, despite a resurgent Orthodox minority.  These are the conditions, for better or worse, under which this book is written.

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