Faith & Fate - The Story of the Jewish People In the Twentieth Century
by Rabbi Berel Wein
Reviewed by Zishe Rich
The Jerusalem Post
January 7, 2001
Berel Wein has written a popular history with a welcome twist - a narrative that includes events, issues and personalities of particular interest to traditional and Orthodox Jews.
This does not mean the book is a history of Orthodox Jewry. Indeed, Wein presents Jewish history in the context of world events. But he then adds information about the Orthodox community - the kind that is generally ignored by secular historians. For example, I was delighted by a 12-page section that describes the leading European yeshivot, including Mir, Slobodka and Ponovezh during the decade of the 1920s.
I must confess that during my school years, history was not a favorite subject. Too often, it was presented as dry, boring and lacking in Jewish relevance. Then I came upon audio tapes of lectures by a Monsey rabbi. I found the lectures captivating. Here was history brought alive.
The rabbi was Berel Wein. While he is - appropriately - more circumspect in the book than in his lectures, Wein adheres to the overall historical approach that those familiar with his lectures will appreciate. There are elements in Wein's historical approach that make this work unique. The history is of my own people - emphasizing traditional Orthodox Judaism. Wein includes anecdotes about personalities who shaped history, thus bringing drama to the unfolding events.
Moreover, he sheds light on now-forgotten theological and pedagogical issues such as a debate over the new analytic methods of Rabbi Chaim of Brisk. Says Wein: "Rabbi Chaim's way analyzed, dissected and categorized" the Talmud in a detailed and intensive fashion.
Many readers of Faith & Fate will find some of the material familiar - the miserable conditions of Jewish immigrants to America at the beginning of the 20th century, for instance. But the author takes the familiar and transforms it with vivid description. We feel the misery of life in a Lower East Side tenement; the indignity of sharing a hallway toilet with a stranger.
When the author described pogroms in Europe, my first reaction was to read quickly in order to distance myself from the pain and suffering of the victims. This became difficult because of a footnote naming the victims of a particular pogrom: the author's uncle, aunt and their children.
Two themes are central to the book: divisions within the Jewish world and external persecution and attack. To Wein, the religious, social and political disagreements between Jews today are merely a continuation of the conflicts that existed in 1900. The locale has moved from Europe to Israel, but the ideological schisms are the same.
The book is enhanced by many pictures that bring the story to life: A 1977 photo of prime minister Menachem Begin visiting the home of Torah-great Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and a 1941 group photo of the students of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Baltimore with the rosh yeshiva.
Faith & Fate has at least one glaring omission. The book does not devote sufficient space to the problem of assimilation in the Diaspora. Wein does describe emigration from Israel, giving estimates that range from 250,000 to 750,000 Jews. The number of Jews lost to assimilation - which must be much greater - is ignored.
While the bulk of the material appears to come from secondary sources, this is nevertheless an original work, in the sense that it presents secular history in harmony with a "Torah perspective" of world events. It is the only book I know of on Jewish history that calls special attention to the great rabbis and Torah scholars of the past century, and it does so in a lively and engaging manner.
(c) Jerusalem Post
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