November 28, 2004

Funny, We Don't Look Jewish

I have recently started getting the Cal Berkeley alumni magazine; this is somewhat mysterious, since I haven't been a member of the alumni society for ten years. This month's issue features an interesting Q & A with Prof. Yuri Slezkine, occasioned by his new book, The Jewish Century. This appears to be, in part, a study of Jewish history in the 20th century, with an emphasis on the migrations to the US, to Israel, and to the Soviet Union. (The interview includes the story of how Slezkine learned he was half Jewish, a descendant of the latter migration.) The other meaning of the title, though is the claim that in that century, everyone had to "become Jewish", i.e. "urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate, physically fastidious, and occupationally flexible", traits traditionally associated with Jews because of their social niche as literate "service nomads". I can think of exceptions to some of his generalizations (e.g., the Jewish lumberjacks of the Baltic, described by Simon Schama in Landscape and Memory), and some of the points have been made before --- Ruth Laud Coser pointed out the "Jewish" character of modernity in her In Defense of Modernity, and Ernest Gellner discussed Zionism as the creation of a land-bound nationalism, and even (in the kibbutzim) a peasantry, in several of his books on nationalism. But it sounds intriguing, and worth reading in full. Chapter 1 is online, but I haven't read it yet.

(Of course, it's a simple fact of population biology that by this point most people must have at least one Jewish ancestor, because, if you pick a random person who was alive in 1 AD, with high probability either they have no living descendants, or most people are descended from them. A somewhat different question is how many people could claim maternal-line descent from Jews, which is what matters under the religious law. It would be amusing to try to calculate this, and to calculate how long it will be before everyone can claim this. As it happens, I know that my mother's mother's ... mother came from a family of Sephardic Jews who migrated from North Africa to Italy and converted to Catholicism in the 1800s.)

The Great Transformation

Posted by crshalizi at November 28, 2004 12:16 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth:   Hosted, but not endorsed, by the Center for the Study of Complex Systems