Randy's Corner Deli Library

07 April 2007

Book Review: The Jewish Writings by Hannah Arendt

The Jewish Writings
Hannah Arendt
Shocken Books, 2007 Hardcover, 640 pages

This is the most spectacular book on Jewish thought I've read in a very, very long time. The book is a collection of Arendt's writings beginning the 1930s in Germany, her birthplace and an identity she had to live with perhaps despite her intellectual and emotional preferences. The subject which, I suppose, attracts me so strongly to these writings is the timeliness of their publication, which I am sure was not a coincidence.

Arendt writes about what it means to be Jewish in a world that, at that time, was devolving into hell. She considers the history of assimilation, positing that to be Jewish today requires -- yes, requires -- an understanding of what happened physically and emotionally to those who for whatever reason, decided that they could escape their Jewishness.

This, Arendt states, is an impossibility as is shown by those people who tried to meld into genteel WASP society through voluntary baptisms and the like as well as those people who think, wrongly, that by avoiding attendance at synagogue and association with Jews that they can escape who they are. The fact of the inescapability of one's Jewishness has forced at the least internal emotional dissonance and at the worst (I suppose; I wouldn't know, experientially) self-hatred and suicide. Those consequences are only on an invididual level. On a macro level, it led Germany's Jews to think that because they had indeed become so assimilated into German society that Germans had actually accepted them as Germans and not Jews and that therefore a state sponsored mass murder program was impossible conceptually. In present days, this same thinking has led to laziness and ignorance toward and of Judaism and Jewishness (as a potentially distinct cultural enterprise), not to mention what the value of Israel might be to those who think "it" could never happen here.

This book, from this Jew's perspective, is absolutely the most thought provoking consideration of contemporary Jewish issues that I think I have ever read. Especially in light of growing Jew-hate throughout the world and here at home. We no longer need wonder why we are hated so much, if we ever did wonder. Arendt, agree with her perspecives or not, makes me think about my existence as a Jewish person as no other author ever has. This book belongs on the shelf of every Jewish person who has an interest in self-understanding and an understanding of their own existence in both in a larger and, in Germany in the 1930s and thereafter, forboding environment based on the vision and thought Hannah Arendt had for the future which was simultaneously and erratically developing around her after the end of WWII and the Shoah.

Castigated by proper Jewish organizations after her publication of "The Origins of Totalitarianism" for questioning the culpability of Jews themselves in their demise in the gas chambers and concentration camps of Europe, she nevertheless asked serious questions from a place in her heart and mind that truly cared for and loved who she was - a wandering Jew. And at bottom, aren't we all?

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