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

A characteristic of being Jewish, perhaps due to our long history of rootlessness, is that each succeeding generation tends to think, Apres moi le deluge.

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence