The Jewish Century

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Princeton University Press, 2004 - History - 438 pages
2 Reviews

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 is a professor of history at the University of California who in this book looks for the place of Jews in the modern world, or at least in the modern world of the last 100 years. His ... Read full review

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The Jewish Century
“The Modern Age is the Jewish Age, and the twentieth century, in particular, is the Jewish Century.” So begins The Jewish Century, Yuri Slezkine’s meticulously researched
study of Jews, Modernity, and Jews and Modernity. Slezkine cleverly presents his argument as a dichotomous polemic between “Appolonians” and “Mercurians.” The latter, of whom the author uses Jews as his primary example, are often transient, mercantile, and overtly organized and supportive of one another as a distinct ethnic group. The Appolonians, of course, are strongly rooted in the land and involved in stationary agrarian practices.
Slezkine divides his work into four chapters. Chapter 1, “Mercury’s Sandals,” basically provides a framework for how to read the rest of the book: Jewish participation in modern society cannot be understood without parsing the Appolonian and Mercurian distinction outlined above. Slezkine briefly strays far from the European context by invoking various species of nomad worldwide, which, while somewhat unnecessary, is at least entertaining.
Chapter 2, “Swann’s Nose: the Jew and Other Moderns,” (the author or his editor must be credited for inventive captioning), describes the emergence of the Jews from the ghettos of Europe and their successful positioning in a Europe now moving toward Modernity. “In an age of service nomadism,” Slezkine declares, “the Jews became the chosen people by becoming the model ‘moderns.’” It is here that he introduces us to two Jewish thinkers who shaped the modern world with their decidedly unreligious philosophies: Marx and Freud, each of whom provided a framework which would capture the intellectual and spiritual imagination of the Western World for much of the 20th Century.
“Babel’s First Love,” the next section of the book, gets into the nitty-gritty of Jewish participation and success in pre- and post-Revolutionary Russia (and the Soviet Union). From banking to academia, to the medical profession and the artisanal vocations, Jews enjoyed disproportionate success because, Slezkine argues, they had themselves been inhabiting an insular society where intellectual achievement was the supreme, if not the sole, acid test for marking distinction. When, in the honeymoon years of Socialism, the Jews, who by dint of their Mercurianism were urban creatures at heart, were freed of all travel restrictions, they became urban creatures in residence, too. The subsequent concentration of Jews in cities led to high visibility and participation rates in the Party and other professional and academic circles.
Finally, “Hodl’s Choice,” the last and longest chapter in this study, is a triptych of Jewish life from World War II up to recent times. Using the migration pattern of the daughters of Tevye, that most famous milkman of Yiddish literature, as a narrative device, Slezkine presents pictures of uninspired Jewish life in the United States, inspired-cum-disappointed Jewish life in the Soviet Union, and of what he terms surely the strangest nationalism the world has ever seen: secular, Appolonian life in the Jewish State of Israel.
The Jewish Century is a mostly captivating work of cultural history. Slezkine’s penchant for deep textual analysis can sometimes be a nuisance, especially because he introduces a vast litany of characters often without providing any context, but on the whole the book offers a satisfying and well-argued case for why Jews have figured so prominently in modern times without veering (too far) into the uncomfortable back-patting territory of Jewish exceptionalism. Perhaps Slezkine’s greatest feat is his lucid prose and blue-blooded (that is, elegant, not ostentatious) argumentation: Mercurian or Appolonian in predisposition, this is a work non-specialists could easily digest and learn from.


Mercurys Sandals The Jews and Other Nomads
Swanns Nose The Jews and Other Moderns
Babels First Love The Jews and the Russian Revolution
Hodls Choice The Jews and Three Promised Lands

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About the author (2004)

Yuri Slezkine is Professor of History and Director of the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North and coeditor of In the Shadow of Revolution: Life Stories of Russian Women from 1917 to the Second World War (Princeton).

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