Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer have attempted a difficult task, even a provocative one, in their search for the defining characteristics of the Jewish people in JEWS: THE ESSENCE AND CHARACTER OF A PEOPLE. They pose the question: What is a Jew? The simplest answer would be a religious one: that a Jew is someone who believes in the one God of Abraham, but that is too simplistic.

In the first chapter, “The Chosen,” Hertzberg and Hirt-Manheimer propose the psychological consequences of being a chosen people. They do not believe that Jews invented the concept of chosenness, but that they have clung to it in their fierce determination to remain distinct from other peoples. They are different because they believe that God has required them to be different, to stand apart from other peoples and at the same time, serve as a moral beacon to the world.

In chapter three, “The Outsider,” the authors examine a second characteristic, that of “otherness.” The insistence of Jews in maintaining their culture and beliefs throughout the history of the Diaspora, or Jewish exile, has caused them to remain outside of the dominant culture of their geographic home. Hertzberg and Hirt- Manheimer identify another facet of the Jewish character, which causes Jews to rise up in the face of persecution. The authors use specific examples of this “wild streak” such as the martyrdom of the Jews at Masada and the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Hertzberg and Hirt-Manheimer go on to provide a detailed history of Judaism and the Jewish people. They use the biographies of individual scholars and influential Jews to illustrate how these characteristics affected the experience of all Jews as they left Israel and spread throughout the world.

Sources for Further Study

Commentary. CVI, July, 1998, p. 63.

Kirkus Reviews. LXVI, April 15, 1998, p. 552.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, August 13, 1998, p. 34.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, May 17, 1998, p. 36.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, April 27, 1998, p. 52.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, September 13, 1998, p. 8.