Off the Shelf: The audacity of science – Provocative avenue to history

I depend on books to sharpen my understanding of the Jewish experience. In this month’s column, I’d like to introduce three challenging new books that ask provocative questions, and that can elicit interesting if sometimes uncomfortable discussions.

It was once common to speak of a “Jewish race,” but the term feels anachronistic and inappropriate in today’s diverse Jewish world. Nor can we avoid the charged nature of identifying Jewish racial characteristics, which simultaneously recalls the Nazis’ belief in Jews’ racial inferiority and “Bell Curve” co-author Charles Murray’s assertion of Jews’ genetically determined intellectual superiority.

In “Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People,” Harry Ostrer opens up this can of worms in light of advances in genetic data collection and interpretation. While he shies away from employing the term “race,” he is emphatic that Sephardic, Middle Eastern and Ashkenazi Jews share a common genetic signature.

For Ostrer, who teaches at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and is the director of genetic and genomic testing at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, the occasion for this inquiry is the effort to address the diseases to which Jews are, as the result of a constrained gene pool, disproportionately susceptible.

However, the book ventures far outside of medicine, as Ostrer interprets genetic data to reconstruct Jews’ historical movements and interactions in the diaspora. He also supplies a history of efforts to collect genetic data on Jews, beginning in the 19th century.

Among the book’s notable findings is that the majority of the world’s Jews carry genetic markers that can be traced back to the ancient Middle East. This result contradicts the theory, popularized most recently by Shlomo Sand in “The Invention of the Jewish People,” that today’s Jews descend largely from the Khazars (a Turkic people), rather than from the Israelites. There are political stakes here, as the Khazar thesis has often been embraced as a means of undermining Jewish claims to the Land of Israel.

Ostrer also discusses findings that some Jewish communities see themselves as descendants of the ancient Israelites, although their genetic markers do not show significant variation from their non-Jewish compatriots.

The starting point of Steven Gimbel’s “Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion” is the Nazis’ opposition to theoretical physics, which they dubbed a “Jewish science.” In the early 1930s, Einstein and his ideas were rooted out of German academia, and “Jewish physics” was replaced by “German physics” (although the government would actually change course at the end of the decade with the inauguration of a secret nuclear program).

Gimbel, a professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and a veteran writer on Einstein, asks provocatively whether there wasn’t some truth behind this notion of “Jewish science,” and approaches the question from a variety of angles. For example, one line of inquiry focuses on the theory of relativity itself, while another links Einstein’s challenge to Newtonian physics to the innovations of other Jewish outsiders in the arts, politics and sciences at the turn of the 20th century.

The final book I want to mention has a personal story attached to it. In 2001, while visiting my parents in Los Angeles, I attended Passover morning services at Sinai Temple, largely to hear the synagogue’s influential rabbi, David Wolpe. I was not disappointed. In his sermon, Wolpe got everyone’s attention as he asserted forcefully that the biblical narrative of the Exodus is at odds with the archaeological record, and we should concede the possibility that the Israelites were never in Egypt.

There was audible grumbling in the congregation, and some people walked out. After all, most of these congregants had spent the previous evening teaching their descendants how they had been slaves in Egypt, and now their rabbi was telling them that it didn’t happen that way. Controversy over the sermon would eventually make the front page of the Los Angeles Times, and Wolpe would spend a great deal of energy doing damage control.

But the part of the sermon that was largely lost in the brouhaha was the assertion that it is our relationship to the Exodus, and not the historical accuracy of the biblical narrative, that is at the core of being Jewish. And Wolpe was challenging Jews to own the story regardless of its historicity.

This incident is discussed early on in Yehuda Kurtzer’s “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past” as a prime example of the conflict between memory and history — distinct ideas with different functions, and which are increasingly in collision. Kurtzer, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, seeks a balance that will preserve memory as an essential feature of Jewish life, but not at the expense of intellectual honesty. For those familiar with Hayim Yosef Yerushalmi’s seminal work “Zakhor,” “Shuva” will feel like a thoughtful continuation of the book’s concerns, but firmly embedded in the 21st century.

With sadness, I want to conclude this column by noting the passing of Kathi Kamen Goldmark last week. Kathi was a legend in the Bay Area literary world as a writer, as a source of support for other writers, and as the founder of the Rock Bottom Remainders — a rock group composed of major authors (including Amy Tan, Stephen King and Scott Turow) who would play together to raise money for worthy causes. Last year, Kathi assumed the position of program director at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. She will be missed deeply.

“Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion” by Steven Gimbel (256 pages, Johns Hopkins University Press, $24.95)

“Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People” by Harry Ostrer (288 pages, Oxford University Press, $24.95)

“Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past” by Yehuda Kurtzer (184 pages, Brandeis University Press, $29.95)

Howard Freedman is the director of the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All of the books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.