To Make Sense of Modern Jewish Civilization, One Must First Ask “What Counts as Jewish?”

October 6, 2021 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

The sixth volume, of a projected ten, of the Posen Library of Jewish Civilization anthologizes material from the period from 1750 to 1880. In his review, Allan Arkush, considers its approach to the difficult question of what qualifies as Jewish:

In a 1902 essay on Jewish cultural revival, Ahad Ha’am reflected on the death earlier that year of the Russian Jewish sculptor Mark Antokolsky. He lamented not only the talented artist’s demise but the loss to Jewish culture that his career represented. If Antokolsky had wanted “to create the image of a temperamental and cruel ruler who committed murders every day and terrorized his surroundings,” complained Ahad Ha’am, “but who still had ‘God’ in his heart, and who sinned and repented, sinned and repented,” he could have picked Herod, one of his own people. Why did he have to sculpt a statue of Ivan the Terrible? Did art require him to desert the Jews?

Far from regarding Antokolsky’s depiction of a 16th-century tsar as a marker of what Jewish culture has lost, the editor of [the volume] spotlights it with a full-page illustration. And this is by no means the only way in which Elisheva Carlebach defines Jewish culture far more expansively than Ahad Ha’am ever did. She selects numerous excerpts from the works of Jewish writers that have nothing to do with Jews or Judaism, as well as passages from the works of Jewish-born converts to Christianity, including anti-Semitic ones.

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