The Peo­ple and the Books

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

Much has been writ­ten about the insep­a­ra­ble bond between the Jew­ish peo­ple and their lit­er­a­ture. Often called the Peo­ple of the Book” — a phrase orig­i­nal­ly used in the Koran to describe both of Islam’s sis­ter reli­gions — the Jew­ish peo­ple have adopt­ed this title as an hon­or. Indeed, his­to­ri­ans have sug­gest­ed that it is this eter­nal rela­tion­ship to lit­er­a­ture that keeps the Jew­ish peo­ple alive and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty vibrant.

Adam Kirsch’s new book, The Peo­ple and the Books, is a close read­ing of eigh­teen influ­en­tial pieces of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture from across the ages. His selec­tions include the Bible as well as works of phi­los­o­phy, his­to­ry, ethics, auto­bi­og­ra­phy, and mys­ti­cism. Kirsch begins with a pref­ace that out­lines his obser­va­tions in bring­ing these books togeth­er: Per­haps the most strik­ing thing that emerges from read­ing these books togeth­er is the remark­able con­ti­nu­ity of Jew­ish thought, despite all the cat­a­stro­phes and rup­tures of Jew­ish his­to­ry. From the bib­li­cal Book of Deuteron­o­my in the sev­enth cen­tu­ry BCE to the works of the Yid­dish mas­ter Sholem Ale­ichem in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry CE, a few sub­jects pre­oc­cu­py every kind of Jew­ish writer. They might be reduced to four cen­tral ele­ments: God, the Torah, the Land of Israel, and Jew­ish people.”

The Peo­ple and the Books is divid­ed into four­teen chap­ters. Kirsch reviews the eigh­teen books in chrono­log­i­cal order and con­nects each analy­sis to those that pre­cede it. In chap­ter six, Kirsch con­sid­ers the Itin­er­ary of Ben­jamin of Tudela by the Span­ish-born trav­el­er of the same name and the Kuzari by poet and philoso­pher Yehu­dah HaLe­vi. Ben­jam­in’s mem­oir recounts his trav­els across the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties of the twelfth cen­tu­ry, includ­ing his vis­it to Tiberias and the grave of Yehu­dah HaLe­vi. In his analy­sis, Kirsch con­nects the themes of these works; both explore the life of Jews under Mus­lim and Chris­t­ian rule and are res­o­nant with the Jew­ish yearn­ing for a return to the Land of Israel.

In chap­ter thir­teen, enti­tled If You Will It,” Kirsch explores The Jew­ish State and Old New Land by Theodore Her­zl. The chap­ter flu­ent­ly blends Herzl’s biog­ra­phy, his vision for the first mod­ern Jew­ish State, and an in-depth analy­sis of these two works. Kirsch’s read­ing is com­pre­hen­sive and bal­anced, rec­og­niz­ing both the enor­mous inno­va­tion and the naiveté in Herzl’s ideas.

The final chap­ter of The Peo­ple and the Books is a close read­ing of Tveye the Dairy­man by the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Yid­dish writer Sholem Ale­ichem. It is through this final read­ing that Kirsch brings us full cir­cle in his dis­cus­sion of Judaism’s cen­tral themes, demon­strat­ing they are reflect­ed in moder­ni­ty. The Tevye sto­ries, then, car­ry us to the very brink of the Jew­ish world we inhab­it today. For the Holo­caust, the State of Israel, and the emer­gence of Amer­i­can Jew­ry define the con­stel­la­tion of Judaism in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry,” writes Kirsch. They set the terms of our think­ing about God and prov­i­dence, peo­ple­hood and sov­er­eign­ty, assim­i­la­tion and cho­sen­ness, cat­a­stro­phe and redemp­tion. These themes, how­ev­er, are not cre­ations of the mod­ern world. On the con­trary, to read the books that have defined Jew­ish his­to­ry is to real­ize that all these issues have been part of Judaism from the very beginning.”

The Peo­ple and the Books is an enter­tain­ing and enlight­en­ing review of eigh­teen clas­sic works and, at the same time, Judaism’s most impor­tant ideas and ideals. It deserves to be on the Jew­ish book­shelf along with the eigh­teen books it opens for its reader.

Relat­ed Content:

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions