The Jew­ish Odyssey: An Illus­trat­ed History

Marek Hal­ter; Charles Pen­war­den, trans.
  • Review
By – August 29, 2011
Marek Hal­ter, hav­ing escaped Poland to Uzbek­istan with his fam­i­ly, saved him­self by telling sto­ries to a gang of teenage thieves who had set upon him. Thus began Halter’s career as nov­el­ist, aca­d­e­m­ic, polit­i­cal activist, and above all, keep­er of sto­ries to tell and to pass on.

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.

Book Trail­er

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.

Discussion Questions