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Books > History > Russia > B005646E32
  1. The Jewish Century
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  2. The Jewish Century

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This masterwork of interpretative history begins with a bold declaration: The Modern Age is the Jewish Age--and we are all, to varying degrees, Jews.

The assertion is, of course, metaphorical. But it underscores Yuri Slezkine's provocative thesis. Not only have Jews adapted better than many other groups to living in the modern world, they have become the premiere symbol and standard of modern life everywhere.

Slezkine argues that the Jews were, in effect, among the world's first free agents. They traditionally belonged to a social and anthropological category known as "service nomads," an outsider group specializing in the delivery of goods and services. Their role, Slezkine argues, was part of a broader division of human labor between what he calls Mercurians-entrepreneurial minorities--and Apollonians--food-producing majorities.

Since the dawning of the Modern Age, Mercurians have taken center stage. In fact, Slezkine argues, modernity is all about Apollonians becoming Mercurians--urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible. Since no group has been more adept at Mercurianism than the Jews, he contends, these exemplary ancients are now model moderns.

The book concentrates on the drama of the Russian Jews, including émigrés and their offspring in America, Palestine, and the Soviet Union. But Slezkine has as much to say about the many faces of modernity--nationalism, socialism, capitalism, and liberalism--as he does about Jewry. Marxism and Freudianism, for example, sprang largely from the Jewish predicament, Slezkine notes, and both Soviet Bolshevism and American liberalism were affected in fundamental ways by the Jewish exodus from the Pale of Settlement.

Rich in its insight, sweeping in its chronology, and fearless in its analysis, this sure-to-be-controversial work is an important contribution not only to Jewish and Russian history but to the history of Europe and America as well.

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Yuri Slezkine
Kindle Edition
New Ed
Kindle eBook
Princeton University Press
Princeton University Press
Princeton University Press
Princeton University Press
Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Slezkine, a professor of history at Berkeley who came to America from the Soviet Union in 1982, restores the dignity of Jews, after decades of being portrayed solely as passive victims of history, by showing how Jews, qua Jews, were among the most dynamic actors in the central events of the 20th Century. You simply cannot understand the main events of European history of the last century without reading Slezkine' brilliant book.

Slezkine's interest is in the tragic ironies of history and he empathetically allows us to enter into the mindsets of hundreds of individuals as they made decisions that, well, seemed like a good idea at the time.

We've all read enormous amounts about two Jewish migrations -- one to America and one to the Holy Land -- but Slezkine vividly documents the forgotten third Jewish great migration, the one his grandmother made, from the towns of the Pale of Settlement in the Polish and Ukrainian lands to Moscow and the other great cities of... Read more
Of the daughters of Tevye the Milkman (the Fiddler on the Roof), Hodl married a revolutionary who would come into his own when the Bolsheviks came to power; Beilke and her husband emigrated to America; and, for symmetry's sake, Slezkine imagines that Chava emigrated to Israel. As Slezkine admits, Sholem Aleichem's book says no such thing about Chava; but then Slezkine loves this conceit, since he wants to deal in his book with their "descendants", the three strands of Jewish emigration from the Pale into the three areas whose histories they subsequently play such a disproportionate role to shape.

To this conceit he adds another one, as irritating, repetitive, and forced. It is to divide the world into Mercurians and Apollonians. Mercurians are "service nomads" like the Jews: outsiders, originally mostly traders and then professionals, who service the needs of the resident Apollonians, mostly landed folk. The Mercurians are important enough when they are serving a landed... Read more
This is a remarkable book in many ways and difficult to summarize. If the author wasn't a Russian, a professor at Berkeley, half Jewish, and the book wasn't published by a major university press, I think somebody would be yelling "anti-Semitism." It is loaded with hard-to-obtain data (about one-third of his sources are in Russian) on the very active but less well known Jewish participation in all aspects of Russian life, especially from the time of the revolutions to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, including their roles in the gulag, the NKVD and spying on the US. He even refers to Communist Jews as "Stalin's willing executioners" (p. 103).

His purpose in the book is to show the role of Jews in shaping the modern world, and especially 20th Century Russian and East European history. As he says, "The Modern Age is the Jewish Age . . ." To the extent that we are urban, mobile, literate, and occupationally flexible, we are all Jewish. "Modernization, in other words,... Read more
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