The Jewish Odyssey begins in Mesopotamia and spans the entire history of the Jewish people. Told more as a story than a strict history, the book combines Halter’s narrative and creative skill with his broad and deep knowledge of Jewish history in a highly personal account. Halter juxtaposes incidents from one period against incidents from another — an illustration of the Arch of Titus is followed, two pages later, by a portrait of Sigmund Freud; a discussion of the Khazars — with the remark “No doubt I too am a little bit Khazar” — faces photographs of a New York City delicatessen and a Warsaw bagel seller.
The book also relies on the reader’s knowledge to fill in gaps and omissions. For example, there is no mention of Kristallnacht or the Holocaust. The history is heavily Europe-based, with special attention to France, Halter’s home country. North African and American Jewish history get scant attention, and his very brief account of American Jewish denominations is outdated and inaccurate. On the other hand, the founding of Israel, from the early 20th century on, is very well covered, bringing out all the maneuverings and complexities.
Subtitled “An Illustrated History,” The Jewish Odyssey brings together both predictable and delightful selections and uses the illustrations and their captions to tell a good part of Halter’s story. Overall the book is best read for Halter’s personal and family experience of Jewish suffering and history and his long and appreciative view of the Jews’ role on the world stage. The index is highly abbreviated.
Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club.