This essay collection presents a series of literary portraits of Jewish thinkers, leaders, and artists who played a role in creating Jewish modernity. The 43 men and women profiled here were chosen for their role as “critical spirits,” who were crucial in creating and interpreting intellectual, cultural, and political transformations of the 20th century, and who drew on tradition even as they tore down social and political conventions within and outside of normative Judaism.
At almost 700 pages, this book is a useful reference volume that will allow students and educators access to foundational knowledge on key Jewish public intellectuals from the past century. The essays within this volume were penned by contemporary Jewish intellectuals such as Leon Botstein (Bard College), Peter E. Gordon (Harvard University), and Leora Batnitzky (Princeton University) — all of whom contribute thoughtful analyses, if not fresh takes, on their subjects.
In their introduction, the volume’s editors lay out the criteria they used to classify and curate the figures they have selected as makers of Jewish modernity. They define modernity as a liminal space or border zone, and simultaneously as a complex relation to time that defies linearity. According to this perspective, Jewish modernity involves a series of relationships held in tension, such as universal/particular, objective/subjective, and tradition/innovation. Thinking Jewish therefore requires acts of radical imagination, drawing from the past in order to shape the future.
In order to further illuminate their themes, Picard, Revel, Steinberg, and Zertal invoke Tunisian-French philosopher Albert Memmi, who distinguished between judaïcité and judéité, or what we might consider as the distinction between “being Jewish” and “doing Jewish.” Surprisingly, Memmi himself is not featured as a subject of one of the volume’s essays. In fact, the editors admit that Jewish modernity, as they define it, is largely a European phenomenon. Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, and the Sephardic diaspora, it seems, require a volume of their own. Furthermore, the thinkers featured here are almost entirely men — only seven women are included. The essays in this book, therefore, largely present well-fashioned micro-biographies of familiar figures such as Theodor Herzl, Martin Buber, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Primo Levi. Several lesser-known figures are also included, such as Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, a founder of Religious Zionism; and the Soviet Yiddish poet, Peretz Markish. The book is most innovative in its last section, which includes essays focusing on late 20th- and 21st-century public intellectuals, such as Israel-born Hebrew poet Dahlia Ravikovitch, gender theorist Judith Butler, and the filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. By placing Freud and Butler as bookends within a continuum of Jewish modernity, the editors provoke a larger conversation about how the acts of “being, doing, and thinking Jewish” have changed over time.