The Bless­ing and the Curse: The Jew­ish Peo­ple and Their Books in the Twen­ti­eth Century

  • Review
By – February 25, 2021

We read lit­er­a­ture for many rea­sons: per­haps to see the world through the eyes of oth­ers, to grow in ways that make us more human, or to study truth. In The Bless­ing and the Curse, Adam Kirsch, win­ner of the pres­ti­gious Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship for Cre­ative Arts, and author of sev­er­al prize-win­ning books of poet­ry and lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, takes the read­er on a pro­found jour­ney into the minds of some of the twen­ti­eth century’s most enlight­ened Jew­ish writ­ers — from Franz Kaf­ka, to Cyn­thia Ozick, to Elie Wiesel, and more. Kirsch illus­trates, with clar­i­ty and con­sis­tent vision, how these most tren­chant works illu­mi­nate the human con­di­tion and pos­sess the pow­er to alter one’s world-view.

The Bless­ing and the Curse is a col­lec­tion of essays that intro­duce major con­cepts in mod­ern Jew­ish thought, tack­ling geno­cide and immi­gra­tion, anti­semitism and the dias­po­ra, exile and return, and ret­ri­bu­tion and repen­tance. Par­tic­u­lar­ly keen­ly real­ized are Kirsch’s insights into the rela­tion­ship between assim­i­la­tion and anti­semitism. All togeth­er, the essays flow eas­i­ly from one idea to the next, con­nect­ing con­cepts with the light­est threads. As the sec­tions build, Kirsch guides the read­er for­ward and back­ward in his thoughts simultaneously.

The book is divid­ed into four parts: three geo­graph­i­cal­ly focused sec­tions that present an analy­sis of writ­ings about Europe, Amer­i­ca, and Israel, and one more about mod­ern Judaism as a whole. The Bless­ing and the Curse begins by explain­ing its title – a nod to a pas­sage in Deuteron­o­my, in which Moses presents a choice for the Jew­ish peo­ple as they are about to enter the Promised Land: I have set before thee life and death, the bless­ing and the curse; there­fore choose life, that thou mayest live.”

This thought­ful title sets the tone for the essays that fol­low. Kirsch weaves us into the text of each lit­er­ary work he ana­lyzes, writ­ing with a col­or and verve that brings the sto­ries to life. He deft­ly sets the his­tor­i­cal stage so that the read­er can sit­u­ate them­selves in time and glimpse the cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal pres­sures bear­ing down on the authors. Whether the sto­ry he is exam­in­ing is strange, hope­ful, men­ac­ing, ambigu­ous, or uplift­ing, Kirsch pro­vides a struc­ture that enables the read­er to grasp them easily.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions