The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature
By Adam Kirsch
W.W. Norton & Company
History, we are told, is written by the conquerors. Except the Jews, who continued to write about themselves and their culture through two millennia of exile and expulsion. As Adam Kirsch tells us in The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature, from the fall of the Temple to the rise of the State of Israel, Jewish history is not primarily a history of political events; it is “a history of books.”
Kirsch is a poet, academic and critic who has written a number of books, and whose work appears in Tablet, the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and more. He is a man of letters. His book is made up of essays on classic works of Jewish literature, beginning with the biblical Deuteronomy and concluding with On the Brink: Tevye the Dairyman, the nine Tevye stories that Sholem Aleichem wrote over a 25-year period beginning in 1895.
Kirsch’s book is not an academic examination of the works treated. He states his purpose this way: “My goal in The People and the Books has been to open up these texts to the interested reader – to show what they contain, how and why they were written, and what they can tell us about Judaism and Jewishness.
He does this well. There are no footnotes. Each chapter has a short bibliography with reference to at least one English translation of the work discussed.
The opening essay, on Deuteronomy, tells us what is known about how the book came to be written, comments on its literary qualities, and discusses some of the questions and paradoxes it continues to raise. It is followed by a chapter called “In the Kingdom of Chance,” which is about The Book of Esther. God is not mentioned in the Esther Megillah, and yet the Jews survive. Kirsch takes it as a commentary on the riskiness of being a people without power, depending on an individual Jew like Mordechai or Joseph, whose power is itself an invitation for envy: “It is only in the last half-century that this double bind has loosened, thanks to the emergence of two Jewish communities that no longer conceive of themselves as being in Diaspora.”
Kirsch moves on to the immediate post-biblical period with chapters on the philosophical work of Philo of Alexandria, who tried to show that the Bible and Greek metaphysics say the same things; a history book, Josephus’ “The Jewish War,” about the end of the Jewish kingdom; and Pirkei Avot, the masterpiece of Jewish theology and ethics.
The mediaeval period is represented by chapters on books by exiles from Spain: Benjamin of Tudela, Yehuda Halevi, and Moses Maimonides. Jewish mysticism brings in The Zohar and the tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.
For Jews, the modern era struggled into existence alongside the mystics. There are essays on Spinoza, Solomon Maimon, and Moses Mendelssohn. Modernity meant that Jewish women started to be heard, so there is a chapter on the Tsenere, the Yiddish translation of the bible, intended for women, and on the memoirs of the famous balebuste, Gluckel of Hamelin.
The book closes with a chapter on the writings and work of Theodor Herzl, and finally the chapter on Tevye. In his preface, Kirsch comments on the “remarkable continuity of Jewish thought.” In his last chapter, he characterizes the Tevye stories as a “strikingly modern work” and, like a good essayist, shows the continuity by relating them back to many of the works mentioned earlier: Gluckel, Pirkei Avot, Maimon, Spinoza, Mendelssohn, Herzl, Philo, Yehuda Halevi, Josephus, and Deuteronomy.