Jul 20, 2011

The Golden Age? Maybe Not.

I love it when book publishers and publicists send me books to review. Absolutely love it. Especially in the summer when I actually have time to sit down with a tome and give a little attention to a real-life, paper-style, bound book and not something on my iPad or Nook. I've revived the whole "going to the library" thing that I used and abused when I lived in Denver and Connecticut, because when I'm under the pressure of "return this in two weeks OR ELSE," I'm more likely to actually read the book.

But this is a book someone sent me, and because I do have the time to review books, I thought I should get to it. So, I sat down with The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement: The Compendium of a Culture, a People, and Their Stunning Performance by Steven Pease over Shabbat, excited to see exactly what this offer had to offer regarding the sometimes seemingly unbalanced representation of Jews in positions of achievement.

Unfortunately, I wasn't entirely jazzed with the book. The introduction made me wonder if at some point Pease said something and someone accused him of being an antiSemite so he felt like he needed to defend his position of his respect and admiration of Jews. He gives a laundry list of details about how he knows gobs of Jews, his favorite joke came from a Jewish friend, how he worked with Jews. You know, it's like that excuse, "Oh, I can tell this racist joke because my best friend is black."

Sigh.

In the wrong hands, this book could be seriously bad news. It offers a laundry list (hence "compendium" in the title) of Jews and their achievements, from champion chess players to Nobel prize winners and everything in between. The lists and details on athletics were particularly interesting, if only because Jews seem to be wired for owning teams rather than playing on them. (Insert stereotype here.)

Listen, I get what Pease was trying to do: List and explain why Jews are so darn great at just about everything -- really tipping the scales in inventions, Nobel prize-winning, Hollywood, and so on -- except for sports. But this isn't the kind of book you sit down and read. It's the kind of book you reference on occasion when someone says, "Oh come on, there's no way Jews are that good at chess!" But when I said that this could be bad news in the wrong hands, it's because I feel like this is the kind of list that an antiSemite is just looking for to prove the "Jews run the world" argument. After all, if we're so darn good at achieving in certain fields, clearly we're going at it in a sneaky, Jewish kind of way.

Should you go out and buy this book? Probably not. However, if you like stats and you like to know who the major players in various categories of Jewish public history, then this book definitely is for you. And it's only $14.95 on Amazon, so if you can get past the "oh I know lots of Jews, so it's all good" stuff, then perhaps you'll get your money's worth.

8 comments:

LeahB said...

Perhaps the antidote to this book is the one I was recently sent to review: "Bad for the Jews: Jews in the News who Embarrass the Tribe." By Scott Sherman, a staff writer for Colbert Report. Hmmm...

Amanda said...

So, I just pulled this book off the shelf at my work (the joys of working for a Jewish non-profit) and wow, do I agree with you. The introduction is soooo questionable. (Not to mention it goes on and on and on and on...) The rest of the book actually doesn't strike me as that offensive or questionable, though I make no claims to have read it beyond the music sections. I just wonder how *necessary* a book like that is.

In academia, scholars are often encouraged to maintain a scholarly distance and studying one's own culture is not without a fairly large set of challenges. Perhaps that's one reason why the author deserves a bit of praise: write about cultures you admire. But, the book is by no means scholarly. It's journalistic and a completely sensationalist.

(PS. Ohhh, I know a lot of Lutherans. Perhaps I should write about how they are really awesome.)

sheldan said...

Regarding Jews in sports...I remember owning a book many years ago (around Bar Mitzvah age) entitled The Jew in American Sports. Yes, there were plenty of Jews who were athletes in many of the major sports (and, incidentally, there were biographies of three chess masters--Emanuel Lasker, Sammy Reshevsky, and Bobby Fischer).

Chaviva said...

@LeahB I must read that!

@Amanda I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought the introduction was ... questionable. I agree with you on EVERY point.

@Sheldan I think the problem is that we get stuck in sports on Sandy Koufax types who were larger than life, you know?

Yardena said...

I love your honesty! So many bloggers are so fake and pretend-nice when they review something they were sent. I was looking at this book briefly, but now I know it's not worth my time or money. Thanks, Chaviva! I am a long-time reader and huge fan :)

Chaviva said...

@Yardena Thank you for the kind words! I pride myself on my honesty with books. I seriously tell you like it is. It's my obligation to the reader!

Frume Sarah said...

I was asked to review this book, but just could not accept. This book seems to feed on the need that some of our folks have to always be looking for people who make us proud. As if we need constant justification for our very existence.

And I too had the sense that the author was trying a bit to hard to say why we are so amazing. Just didn't sit right...

Modern Haredi said...

A better book to read regarding this is Smart Jews by Sander Gilman. Prof. Gilman has written many books about race, identity and psychology.

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