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March 06 , 2008

Links in the Chain: Shapers of the Jewish Tradition


Judaism, or that which has united the successive generations of Jews into one people, is not only a religion; it is a dynamic religious civilization. – Mordecai Menachem Kaplan, from Questions Jews Ask (1956) In assessing what their Jewish identities mean to them, Jews today sometimes describe themselves as links in a chain of tradition that stretches back to biblical times. In this collection of biographies of Jewish thinkers from ancient times to the present, the links in that chain come to life through the dramatic stories of 41 shapers of Jewish tradition. From Hillel, whose teaching more than twenty centuries ago set Judaism on its post-biblical course, to Yitzhak Rabin, the Noble Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister of Israel who helped to broker a peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, these men and women all left an indelible mark on Jewish practice, scholarship, or nationalism. In individual biographical essays, Naomi Pasachoff explores the contributions of philosophers, poets, and philanthropists; of mystics, statesmen, and scholars; of religious organizers and Zionist leaders. In so doing she uncovers surprising facts about well-known figures. For example, Theodor Herzl is widely honored as the father of the modern state of Israel, but did you know that he once dreamed of leading all the Jews of Vienna to St. Stephan Cathedral to undergo mass baptism? Readers who recognize Rashi as the most famous of all biblical commentators may be startled to learn that his concise style was a function of his tight budget. The book includes suggestions for further reading, an appendix, a glossary, and an index. Illustrations and photographs accompany the text, and a biographical fact box for each profile provides for easy reference. All these features make Links in the Chain an ideal introduction to Jewish role models for younger readers and a vital reference for all interested in Jewish history. Moreover, the book is a reminder that Jewish tradition is still evolving and that each reader has the potential to contribute to it. 41 extended essays profile the lives and contributions of Jewish heroes, including: Johanan ben Zakkai, the spiritual and intellectual leader who reshaped Jewish life after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. Dona Gracia Nasi, the outstanding 16th-century leader who led the equivalent of an underground railroad to lead fugitive Marranos to safety. Rebecca Gratz, said to have been the model for the character Rebecca in Walter Scotts Ivanhoe, who spearheaded the development of Jewish Sunday schools in the United States. Leopold Zunz, whose transformation of Jewish scholarship in the 19th century ultimately led to the existence of Judaica departments and programs in major universities. Lily Montagu, whose unsatisfying Orthodox childhood as a child of privilege in Victorian England transformed her into a 20th-century leader of British and world liberal Judaism. Isaac Mayer Wise, the early leader of Reform Judaism in the United States, who conceived of and helped bring into existence many of the institutions of contemporary American Judaism. Eliezer Ben Yehudah, the father of modern Hebrew, who nearly singlehandedly transformed Hebrew from an ancient religious language into a spoken modern one.
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