Monday, January 04, 2021

Book Review and a Comment, Jews, God and History


Book Review by Peter McKenzie-Brown

Max Dimont: Jews, God and History: A modern interpretation of a four-thousand year story

Published in 1962, Simon and Schuster, New York; 421 pages plus extensive bibliography and index. The book has sold some two million copies, in two editions.

My copy is a first edition, which I first read at age 15. Max Isaac Dimont (12 August 1912 – 25 March 1992) was a Finnish-American historian and a practicing Jew whose writings were virtually all about Judaism.

The book covers the history of the Jews from approximately 2,000 BCE until 1962 – roughly four millennia. It follows the story of the Jews from their beginnings as a group of Middle Eastern nomads through their development as a people and the many impacts their religious ideas had on world civilization. For example, the world’s most widely practiced religion today, Christianity, is an offshoot of a Jewish sect that began roughly 2,000 years ago.

Of particular interest to Christians today, perhaps, is that a study of the Dead Sea Scrolls shows how the world’s most widely practiced religion evolved. Before Jesus of Nazareth arrived on the scene, a Jewish sect – the Essenes – had fully developed the ideas that Jesus now represents.

I personally have no religious convictions, but because of my long-standing interest in human history I found this discussion to be of particular interest. In a comparison discussion of the Essene and Christian creeds, Dimont cites A. Dupont-Summer, a professor at the Sorbonne. These comments deserve quoting.

Everything in the Jewish New Covenant heralds and prepares the way for the Christian New Covenant. The Galilean Master, as He is presented to us in the writings of the New Testament, appears in many respects as an astonishing reincarnation of the Teacher of Righteousness. Like the latter, He preached penitence, poverty, humility, love of one’s neighbor, chastity. Like him, He prescribed observance of the law of Moses, the whole Law, but the Law finished and perfected, thanks to His own revelations. Like him, He was the Elect and the Messiah of God, the Messiah Redeemer of the World. Like Him, He was the object of the hostility of the priests, the party of the Sadducees. Like him, He was condemned and put to death. Like him, He pronounced judgment on Jerusalem, which was taken and destroyed by the Romans for having put Him to death. Like him, He founded a church whose adherents fervently awaited His glorious return. In the Christian Church, just as in the Essene Church, the essential rite is the sacred meal, whose ministers are the priests. Here and there, at the heart of each community, there is the overseer, the “bishop.” And the ideal of both Churches, is essentially that of unity, communion in love – even going so far as the sharing of common property.

All these similarities – and here I only touched upon this subject – taken together constitute a very impressive whole. The question at once arises, to which of the two sects, the Jewish or the Christian, does the priority belong? Which of the two was able to influence the other? The reply leaves no room for doubt. The teacher of righteousness died about 65 to 53 BC; Jesus the Nazarene died about 30AD. In every case in which the resemblance compels or invites us to think about borrowing, this was on the part of Christianity. But on the other hand, the appearance of the faith in Jesus – the foundation of the New Church – can scarcely be explained without the real historic activity of a new Prophet, a new Messiah, who has rekindled the flame and concentrated on himself the adoration of men. [Quoted on pages 135-6.}

Later chapters cover a mixed bag of historical events – from the esteem Jews held in many parts of the world because so much of the religion reflects basic morality, such horrors as the ghettoization of the Jews in the modern era to the atrocities carried out by the Nazis in World War II. I find the lead to that chapter, titled “The Brown-Shirted Christ Killers,” both chilling and illuminating. The chapter begins with these paragraphs:

On January 30, 1933, history played a trice on the world and made Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany. Jubilant Germans spilled into streets “heiling” the brown-shirted stormtroopers marching in triumph down Unter den Liden, little knowing that in a few short years they would drench the world in blood and go down in history as the barbarian’s barbarians; little suspecting that within one decade they would choke in the sands of the Sahara, drown in the waters of the Atlantic, die on the steppes of Russia, and be crushed in the ruins of their own cities.

From that first day in power to that April day in 1945 when, with Berlin ablaze, Hitler shot himself through the mouth, the Germans exterminated with systematized murder 12 million men, women and children, inn concentration camps, by firing squads, and in in gas chambers. Of these 12 million victims, 7 million were Christians and 5 million were Jews – 1.4 Christians for every Jew. But because the Nazis shouted “Kill the Jews,” the world blinded itself to the murder of Christians.

Hundreds of figures people these pages, many of which most readers will be familiar with. These range from Moses and Jesus of Nazareth to Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud; from the writers of the Talmud to those who wrote the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.

Dimont’s writing style and passion for his subject make it a pleasure to read (or, in my case, reread) this book. It’s hard to imagine, but the revised version – the one I haven’t read – is probably even better than the first.


When I showed this post to a friend with Jewish family, he told me a story compelling to those of us living in the COVID 19 era. The story goes back to the outbreak of WWII. At that time, when sixty thousand Jews lived in Thessaloniki, Greece. That vibrant community was dynamic, and strongly influenced by the Jewish community. For example, the port of Thessaloniki was closed on Saturday, because it was Shabbat (the sabbath) which requires “strict adherence as a day of prayer.”

It was in this glorious community that the Nazi terror brutally arose. Hitler took Greece by storm to secure his southern wing before launching Operation Barbarossa and the offensive against Russia. Out of the 60,000 Jews in Thessaloniki, about 50,000 were exterminated in Birkenau. The small number of survivors included the Bourla family who in 1961 had a son named him Israel-Abraham (Albert).

Albert studied veterinary medicine, receiving his doctorate in reproductive biotechnology from Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University. At age 34 he moved to the United States where he integrated into the medical industry. He soon joined Pfizer company, where he became head of global vaccines. In 2019, he became Pfizer’s CEO, and led the company's efforts to find a COVID 19 vaccine – the vaccine which is already saving the lives of millions around the world.

Put another way, 75 years after the Nazis murdered so many in the port that was his family’s home, Dr. Bourla is leading humankind’s race to save millions. Yet the antisemitism goes on. As Pfizer was leading the world in its pandemic response, according to a Jewish newspaper tropes about Bourla’s Jewish heritage were widespread in Greece. One Greek paper, for example, “claimed that Bourla is evil and the vaccine that Pfizer is working on is actually deadly.” According to this online trope, “Albert Bourla wants to ‘stick the needle, into Greeks, delivering what the paper described as ‘poison’ in the guise of a vaccine.”

In what must become a better world, among some madcap groups the beat goes on.



Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Dreary World of Edgar Allan Poe

The Raven:

A brief commentary, for a book club I belong to.

Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer, poet, editor, and literary critic. Poe is best known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and the macabre. He is widely regarded as a central figure of Romanticism in America, and he was one of the country's earliest short story writers. He is also generally considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre and is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction.

            As a youngster, I became obsessed with Poe, and read all his works. “The Raven,” of course, was his most famous poem, and I learned it by heart. I also read one or two biographies of the man, and those works helped me understand the particularly tragic nature of his poetry. Born Edgar Poe, he was orphaned at age two and raised by a couple named Allan, which was the source of his middle name.

            In high school, I wrote a paper titled “The sources of The Raven and a note.” I don’t remember much about the paper, but I do recall suggesting that the idea of a speaking Raven came from a British poem of the day, in which the bird in question said “Mortimer.” In retrospect, that seems funny.

            When he was in his early 20s, Poe married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, in 1836, and she died of tuberculosis in 1847 – two years after he published “The Raven” to instant success. He died in Baltimore two years later, at age 40. The cause of his death is unknown.

Without exception, his poems are tragic tales of love lost. I’m not going to read all of The Raven today. Just enough to give you a sense of how tragic life can be, and how the bird became the symbol of death.

 The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—

            Only this and nothing more.”


    Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;

And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

    Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow

    From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—

For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

            Nameless here for evermore.


    And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

    So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating

    “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—

Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—

            This it is and nothing more.”


    Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,

“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;

    But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,

    And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,

That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—

            Darkness there and nothing more.


    Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,

Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

    But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,

    And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”

This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”—

            Merely this and nothing more.


    Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,

Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.

    “Surely,” said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice;

      Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—

Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—

            ’Tis the wind and nothing more!”


    Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;

    Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;

    But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—

Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—

            Perched, and sat, and nothing more.


Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,

By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,

“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,

Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—

Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”

            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”


    Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,

Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;

    For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being

    Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door—

Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,

            With such name as “Nevermore.”


    But the Raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only

That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.

    Nothing farther then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—

    Till I scarcely more than muttered “Other friends have flown before—

On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”

            Then the bird said “Nevermore.”


    Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,

“Doubtless,” said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store

    Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster

    Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—

Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore

            Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”


    But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,

Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;

    Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking

    Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—

What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore

            Meant in croaking “Nevermore.”


    This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing

To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;

    This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining

    On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,

But whose velvet-violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,

            She shall press, ah, nevermore!


    Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.

    “Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee

    Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;

Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”

            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”


    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—

Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,

    Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—

    On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—

Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”

            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”


    “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!

By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—

    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,

    It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”

            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”


    “Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—

“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!

    Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!

    Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!

Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”

            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”


    And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting

On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;

    And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,

    And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

            Shall be lifted—nevermore!