The biblical book of Lamentations ends with a plea from the author to God to “renew our days as of old” — a most fitting request, as the story of the Jewish people throughout history, and particularly in our era, is no doubt one of survival and renewal.
In Turning Points in Jewish History, Marc J. Rosenstein tells that story through the prism of thirty transitional stages. Through summaries of these periods, excerpts from salient primary texts, timelines of major events and actors in each era, and suggested further readings, Rosenstein provides an engaging launchpad for in-depth study of these impactful stages of our history. The book’s scope extends from the Bible to our own day, covering theological innovationssuch as God’s call to Abraham, the popularization of Kabbalah, and feminism’s effect on Jewish law and rabbinic authority. It also deals with geopolitical upheaval, discussing Napoleon and his Sanhedrin, the development of Zionism and its ideology, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the movement to save Russian Jewry. In the spirit of historian Salo Baron’s opposition to the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” it is not only trials that are covered, but also Judaism’s, and the Jewish people’s, many triumphs.
Particularly helpful for high school students of Jewish history as well as adult learners, in addition to members of other faiths looking for an accessible and yet substantive introduction to the topic, Turning Points in Jewish History is reflective of an experienced educator’s passion for historical material alongside its contemporary relevance. Through varied primary and secondary material — including charts of the Hasmonean family tree, talmudic stories, timelines of the Inquisition’s development, tales of the Baal Shem Tov, and excerpts of Moroccan Israeli poetry — readers receive an intellectually stimulating and moving tour of the growth, wandering, survival, and flourishing of the Jewish people. As Rosenstein notes in his conclusion, “There is no GPS for the map of history.” In an ever-changing world, there will surely be upcoming challenges, opportunities, thinkers, texts, and ideas that will further shift the tale of the Jews. Studying our adaptation to previous turning points assures us that the Jewish story will continue to evolve and advance.
Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost of Yeshiva University. He has edited or coedited 17 books, including Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity and Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, and has lectured in synagogues, Hillels and adult Jewish educational settings across the U.S.