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The Jewish Century
The Jewish Century
Yuri Slezkine
Princeton University Press, 2004
344 pp., 45.82

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Jonathon Kahn


A Mythical Jewishness

Is modernity a Jewish creation?

Trapped within Yuri Slezkine's The Jewish Century, struggling to free itself from Slezkine's ideological thesis, is a poignant history of Russia's Jews. It is a history of desire—of 19th-century Jews seeking to free themselves of the Jewishness of the Pale of Settlement by exulting in the Russia of Tolstoy and Chekov; of zealous Jewish commitment to and success within the early Soviet Revolution; of the shock of betrayal under Stalin, as Jews were persecuted for their ethnic Jewishness; and finally, of Soviet Jews' spasmodic, discomfiting, but at times passionate rediscovery of their Jewish identity. The emblazoning image Slezkine leaves us with is of thousands of Russian Jews, most of whom "had probably never been to a synagogue before," coming to meet Golda Meir in 1948 on Yom Kippur at the Moscow synagogue, chanting in the streets, "Next year in Jerusalem."

Unfortunately, Slezkine surrounds and ultimately overwhelms the promise of this narrative with a thick and loathsome typological shell. Instead of dealing fully with actual Jews, Slezkine mythologizes all Jews as the descendents of Mercury (Hermes), "the god of all those who did not herd animals, till the soil, or live by the sword." As Mercurians, Jews work with their minds and by their wit. They value language, they value ideas, they value talent and merit. Even when they dwell in a land for centuries, they are essentially nomads, eschewing any permanent connection to place and nation: "A Jewish house in the Ukraine did not resemble the peasant hut next door, not because it was Jewish in architecture (there was no such thing) but because it was never painted, mended or decorated. It did not belong to the landscape; it was a dry husk that contained the real treasure—the children of Israel and their memory." Sure of their divine exceptionalism, Jews think their neighbors dim-witted: "Their world is larger and more varied" than those of the poor or the princely, both of whom lack a Mercurian intellect. These non-Jews, in Slezkine's typology, are Apollonians, committed to arcane structures of nobility and caste that run according to values such as manliness and honor, but not merit and ingenuity. Jews think they are better than the Apollonians, lord and plebe, because Jews think better than both: "[Jews] would all take a justifiably dim view of Ivan," for "[i]f one values mobility, mental agility, negotiation, wealth, curiosity, one has little reason to respect either prince or peasant."

Slezkine's grand and, one can only say, facile thesis consists of the great modern victory of the Mercurians over the Apollonians. It is an account breathtaking in its reductionism: "[F]or much of human history, it seemed quite obvious who had the upper hand. … Then things began to change: Zeus was beheaded, repeatedly, or made a fool of; Apollo lost his cool; and Hermes bluffed his way to the top." Modernity emerges on the heels of the Jewish Mercury: "Modernization is about everyone becoming urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible. It is about learning how to cultivate people and symbols, not fields or herds." In a nifty syllogism, to become modern is to become Mercurian, which is to say, to become Jewish: "only the Jews—the scriptural Mercurians of Europe—came to represent Mercurianism and modernity everywhere." Indeed, it appears that Slezkine is either being modest or inexact in referring only to the 20th century as "the Jewish century."

Ultimately, the real value in The Jewish Century is that it reminds us of precisely what is so objectionable about typological thinking. There is, of course, the obvious: Slezkine's valorization of Jews relies on the very terms used by any and every anti-Semitic tract: for Slezkine and, say, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Jews are effeminate, cosmopolitan, cunning thinkers whose odd insular languages and blood ties separate them decisively from their neighbors—whom, for good measure, they see as inferior. At the very least, any scholar taking up this tired dichotomy must address how he expects his use of these terms not to validate the racism of which they are a part. Slezkine not only confirms that Jews historically have been seen as "devious, acquisitive, greedy, crafty, pushy and crude," but he, shockingly, affirms this view of Jews as rational: "This, too, is a statement of fact, in the sense that, for peasants, pastoralists, princes and priests, any trader or moneylender, or artisan is in perpetual and deliberate violation of most norms of decency and decorum." One would think that at this point doing history requires more than affirming society's most reflexive and stereotypical beliefs, even if the values they traditionally reinforce are inverted in the process.

Yet, where The Jewish Century is most instructive of the failure of typological thinking is in the way its emphasis on epic battles and the myth of historical tectonic shifts overwhelms and buries the empirical details of human life that make history a joyfully unpredictable and rich affair. Typological histories are committed to imposing unchanging value-structures on human events, and in this they become anything but historical. Typologies become systems unto themselves. Instead of analyzing history, Slezkine preoccupies the reader with typological brain teasers such as: "Modernity meant universal Mercurianism under the nationalist banner of a return to local Apollonianism." The more time spent translating abstractions such as this, the more distant become the actual circumstances of people's lives. Consider how just now wading through the abstractions of Mercury and Apollo has made remote and hazy the compelling historical narrative of Russia's Jews that I outlined at the outset. This is precisely how it feels to read this book.

Ultimately, when resisted even slightly, typological histories can be shown to be absurdly and comically inaccurate. In claiming that "good citizenship (including patriotism) is a version of the ever vigilant Jewish endeavor to preserve personal and collective identity in an unclean world," Slezkine writes as if the history of political theory does not exist; after all, Aristotle and Augustine, non-Jews both, have contributed a thing or two on citizenship. Indeed, Slezkine's own account tumbles inward. At one point he insists that "Jews epitomize Western civilization—as its original creators, best practitioners, and rightful beneficiaries." In almost the same breath—literally eight pages later—he admits that "Jews did not launch the Modern age. They jointed it late, had little to do with some of its most important episodes (such as the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions), and labored arduously to adjust to its many demands." On the text's first page, he claims that nationalism is modernity's "principal religion," which is to say that modernity is "about every nation becoming Jewish." Elsewhere he claims that "nationalism … [was] fundamentally Apollonian," which by his calculus means that nationalism is fundamentally un-Jewish. What needs to be said here is screamingly obvious: No single people epitomizes Western civilization or nationalism. People, civilizations, and political phenomena are best thought of as full of knots; responsible scholarship gives an account of their tangles.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about The Jewish Century is that it so often—even centrally—betrays its own typological thesis. Slezkine claims that of the three loci of Jewish life in modernity—the Soviet Union, Israel, and the United States—only the United States was Mercurian. Marxism, in its anti-nationalist universalism, and Zionism, in its remaking of Jews as self-sufficient farmers and manly warriors, embodied Apollo. Given that of the three, only the United States did not have Jews central to its theoretical beginnings, we might reasonably wonder how it can be that, as Slezkine says, becoming modern is about becoming Jewish. That is, if we are to take Slezkine's terms seriously for the moment, what he presents is a story of the way in which the majority of 20th-century Jews were only too ready to remake themselves as Apollonians. Typologically, the Jews, in fact, missed out on their own century.

Of course, in light of the destruction of European Judaism, the 20th century was anything but the Jews' (or anyone else's, for that matter). If the absurdity of Slezkine's typological argument is not amply revealed by the fact that the terms by which he mythologizes Jews—Jews are cunning, clannish, lacking "in dignified maleness," good with money, disproportionately represented in business and print—are the very terms by which Nazism justified the Jewish genocide, then consider this: "One reason the twentieth century became the Jewish Century is that Hitler's attempt to put his vision into practice led to the canonization of the Nazis as absolute evil and the reemergence of the Jews as universal victims." Slezkine's calculus becomes obscene when being the victim of genocide is made to affirm "Jewish values." There is no meaning to being slaughtered; it is simply to die a horrible death.

In the end, if we strip away all the typology, the motivating question of this book very well may be, how is it that Jews have been able to achieve a real measure of material and intellectual success as decided minorities? To that end, Slezkine presents innumerable lists of high Jewish demographics, from banking in Minsk to university faculties in Moscow. This is a legitimate question; there is nothing inherently wrong about trying to account for Jewish achievement. But if we are looking for generalizations, what more can be said beyond this: that under the pressure of historical circumstance, some Jews exhibit certain habits, practices, and values that make for certain types of social prominence? Further than this, what's required is to spend time in specific historic contexts, gathering and analyzing evidence of what worked and what didn't. Slezkine does not do this hard and necessary work. He gives us myth instead. And he leaves us to wonder what became of those Moscow Jews promising to return to Jerusalem.

Jonathon Kahn has a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University's Society of Fellows in the Humanities.

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