The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe

The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe

The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe

The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe


"I find myself unable to praise it too highly. It is quite as if a whole culture had been rescued from the dust, and all of its inner qualities, its half-forgotten voices and passions, have been brought to hidden life.... All persons who care about the possibilities of human exaltation and suffering will find this an endlessly absorbing and endlessly tragic book". -- Irving Howe


This is a book about East European Jews in crisis, challenge, and creativity from the end of the eighteenth century until their cataclysmic destruction in the Second World War.

In the sixteenth century, the center of world Jewry moved to Eastern Europe, which until 1939 remained the region of greatest Jewish population and density. Eastern Europe was the cradle of almost every important Jewish cultural, religious, and national movement and the area where Jewish faith, thought, and culture flourished unsurpassed. Thence came the impetus and vitality that preserved the Jewish people intact in prosperity and adversity. East European Jewry became a reservoir of manpower and from the nineteenth century on provided the overwhelming bulk of migrants to the United States, to Israel, and many far-flung communities.

Enlightenment came to the relatively small communities of Western Jews before it went east, and emancipation followed shortly thereafter with the French Revolution. the enlightenment shook the foundations of traditional Judaism, unprepared for its assault; emancipation toppled that traditional Jewish society. Western Jews could not resist the lures of enlightenment, emancipation, and the opportunity to enter the larger society. They rushed to embrace it, though emancipation often turned out to be a mirage and enlightenment a dead end. in a brief span, West European Jewish communities were decimated, having paid heavily for emancipation with conversion.

Eastern Europe was different, and East European Jews responded differently to enlightenment and emancipation. They searched for ways to harmonize tradition and modernity, to preserve their Jewish identity and retain their community. This book is an attempt to show what they did and what the outcome was.

I have here assembled autobiographies, memoirs, reminiscences, and letters of some sixty persons whose lives document these East European Jewish responses to modernity. "Autobiography," Wilhelm Dilthey wrote, "is the highest and most instructive form in which the understanding of . . .

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