Lawrence Joffe’s History, overflows with images and ideas and amply fulfils its opening declaration: “The tale of Jewish survival is full of extraordinary drama — triumphs followed by… near extinction.”
A time-line, from 2000 BCE to Barack Obama’s Seder at the White House is followed by a look at Shabbat, festivals and life events and includes Hebrew, Yiddish and some Arabic references. Then come sections on the broad panoply of the Jewish contribution to history and modern society, with chapters on Jews in England, “Everywhere Else”, faith, the Shoah and Medinat Yisrael among others.
Following Maimonides’ urge to use the best whatever its source, Joffe evokes Rembrandt’s finger of God writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s Feast, Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses as muscular legislator, complete with horns, and a Caravaggian Esau at table with a turbaned Jacob. The image of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea chased by enemy soldiers, as depicted in the Dura-Europos mosaic in a Syrian synagogue, is an irresistible reminder of refugees in our own, contemporary society.
Biblical and rabbinical heroes are well covered, with a flavour of the controversies of yesteryear.
For example, some considered Maimonides heretical and sought to burn his books. Joffe explains: “He was ahead of his time… He introduced a strong seam of rational analysis, believing that pursuing truth and seeking God were essentially the same task.” Joffe then outlines the Rambam’s ennobling views on tzedakah (charity.)
Joffe deals sensitively with Jesus, emphasising his Jewish origins and influences, and Mohammed (though Joffe might have been far more explicit about the Jews he put to death).
On Spinoza, he reminds us of the Chasidic tale of a talmid (pupil) telling his rebbe (master) that the philosopher believed there was no basic difference between humans and animals. “If so,” replied the rebbe, “why have no animals produced a Spinoza?”
Joseph Millis’s Jerusalem offers a tactile reading experience containing, as it does, pouches full of little surprises — a Dead Sea Scroll, the Declaration of Independence, letters from Suleiman the Magnificent, the Emir Faisal, Arthur Balfour (yes, that letter,) the mosaic from Madaba and various maps.
This is a magnificent marsupial — a kosher kangaroo. The illustrations are sumptuous and the seeds of conflict are described with admirable conciseness.
Millis calls Jerusalem “pro-bably the most fought-over piece of real estate in the world,” enumerating two destructions, 23 sieges, and 44 captures and recaptures.
A rapturous Disraeli is quoted referring to Jerusalem as “the history of earth and heaven.” The more grounded Millis, after surveying current conflict in the city, concludes: “In Jerusalem, everything is politics.”
Though neither Pentateuch nor Quran explicitly mentions “Jerusalem” (Genesis does mention a king of Salem, who blessed Abram), is it really God’s wish that this City of Peace should, nevertheless, be a perpetual battleground?
There’s something in both of these books (which would grace any sturdy coffee table) for everyone, from innocent child to erudite know-it-all.