Coping with Life and Death: Jewish Families in the Twentieth Century

By Peter Y. Medding | Go to book overview
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Preface

From the day they are born, all human beings cope with life and death, and to a very large extent they do so in family units. They must learn to live with themselves and with others, to be individuals and members of families, and of the other groups to which they or their families belong. Moreover, it is within these manifold family and group settings that individuals deal with the particular exigencies encountered at the various stages of the life cycle. At the same time, they constantly confront dying and the deaths of others—near and far, at all ages, due to a variety of natural and unnatural causes—illness, degeneration, suicide, disaster, accident, crime and war. However it occurs, death ruptures the individual life cycle, rends the bonds to family and sometimes destroys the family unit itself.

Just as individuals act in life and encounter death as members of family units, so, too, the family functions as a unit in taking into account the life needs, and dealing with the death, of their members. And yet, while death is always terminal for the individual, it is usually not so for the family and the other groups to which the individual belongs. These continue to function as collective units, and maintain their existence over succeeding generations. What is more, the death of an individual enters into the life of the group—in a direct personal sense in the case of the surviving members of the family, and as part of the collective memory and identity of broader groups, especially if the circumstances surrounding that death are associated with group membership, and even more so if the ultimate survival of the group is threatened.

Above and beyond the universals, the particular character of the challenges of life and death reflect broader social contexts and historical circumstances. Persons, families, groups and societies do not face the same challenges, and they react to them differently. This volume examines the role of families and of family relationships in contributing and reacting to, and in coping with, distinctive aspects of life and death among Jews in the twentieth century. The approach is multidisciplinary, offering anthropological, sociological, demographic, political, economic, cultural, literary and historical analyses of challenges to, changes in, new forms of, and alternatives to Jewish family life in a variety of different social and national contexts. Its focus is extemely broad—on family and family-type relationships among Jews rather than on “the Jewish family, actual or mythical.

Thus, it analyzes what goes on inside families and between families: how and why families are formed, how they socialize their members into the larger ethnic and national environment; how they equip their members to cope with external necessities and challenges, and protect and threaten their individual members in normal times and in extremis; how they serve as means and vehicles, and obstacles, for a variety of individual aspirations and desires, and for collective goods and needs, while being

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