Jewish sunset, Jewish sunrise
Is European Jewry doomed to extinction? David Goldberg predicts an upsurge of interest in the ancient faith; Vanishing Diaspora: The Jews in Europe since 1945 by Bernard Wasserstein Hamish Hamilton, pounds 20
Saturday 06 January 1996
The Biblical prophets were convinced that they were addressing generations doomed to destruction; the ancient rabbis produced their first great legal code, the Mishnah, because they feared that Jewish law would otherwise be forgotten; nearly a thousand years after them, Moses Maimonides produced his great compendium of Jewish law because he was convinced that he represented the last generation of Jewish scholarship; the 1492 exiles from Spain lamented a golden age lost for ever.
Five hundred years, several persecutions, pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust later, the Jewish people survive and fellow Jews still write their obituary notices. Recently, The Golden Chain by Norman Cantor, confidently predicted the imminent disappearance of American and European Jewry, and the State of Israel as well.
Not to be outdone, Bernard Wasserstein has produced his own melancholy lament, Vanishing Diaspora; but as befits a Brit, he is Hugh Grant diffident rather than Bruce Willis brash. Unlike Cantor's global extinction, Wasserstein merely predicts the slow but sure sunset of European Jewry.
Vanishing Diaspora is an engagingly-written survey, longer on generalisations and anecdote than on hard facts. Wasserstein's conclusions are that the demographic outlook for European Jewry is bleak, that we are witnessing the withering away of Judaism as a spiritual component in the lives of most Jews, and that there is no longer "an authentic Jewish culture in Europe". Hardly surprising, one might be inclined to retort, after two out of every three European Jews died as a result of Hitler's genocide.
There is, though, a Jewish revival of a different kind going on in eastern and central Europe today which Wasserstein overlooks. Who is a Jew? he asks, then offers in answer either the traditional rabbinic definition of a person born of a Jewish mother, which he finds too restrictive, or Jean-Paul Sartre's aphorism that a Jew is anyone whom anti-Semites take to be one, which he considers too elastic.
In fact, there is a third definition, one which accords more realistically both with the Jewish experience in Europe since the Enlightenment, and with contemporary perceptions in post-Communist societies. It is this: a Jew is someone who regards himself or herself as Jewish. That is why, in the liberal democracies of western Europe, where marriage out of the faith is as high as 50 per cent, the children of such marriages often choose to define themselves as Jewish; and why, in countries like the former Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia, where religion was banned, there has been a tremendous upsurge of interest among the young in the faith and practices of their ancestors.
In modern Europe there are other ways of being a Jew than by religion or Zionism. Wasserstein is reluctant to acknowledge this, and thereby blithely writes off the future of a people that has survived in Europe for 2,000 years by virtue of resilience and adaptability.
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