Some Thoughts on David J. Goldberg’s “The Story of the Jews”
A year ago, I found a wonderful package in the mail. Inside the package from Sterling Books was David J. Goldberg‘s The Story of the Jews (London: Andre Deutsch, 2014). The book, itself, was enclosed within some gorgeous cover that looked like the actual cover of the book. One really cool feature of the book is that it includes 16 facsimiles of historical documents, which I had never seen before. These documents are found within four separate envelopes throughout the book for the reader to pull out and to examine, although they are in their original language (but, if you can read those languages, then they’re pretty neat to hold in one’s hand and to read).
The book covers the entirety of Jewish history, divided into 24 separate chronological periods, frequently split up by geography. These two dozen separate sections were spread out over 90 pages of historical content with pictures, paintings, and more appropriately accompanying them. These illustrations certainly aid in the reading and enjoyment of the book. In addition to the primary sections of the book, there are 33 separate inset boxes included within these chapters that focus on a person, place, or other notion of interest that would otherwise not have been covered in the overview-focussed chapters.
I greatly enjoyed reading this book, especially since one can easily pick it up and just read a chapter or two in a sitting, since they usually run 2-4 pages a piece. For my own particular enjoyment of the book, I frequently would read it while eating lunch, which was easy to digest. This also makes for an excellent coffee table book, as guests can pick it up and breezily read a chapter or two, without having to have read any previous chapters.
While I overall enjoyed this book, I do have several minor complaints about it. The first is how he handles the Biblical material in the first five chapters, especially how he values archaeological evidence over Biblical evidence (e.g. “Nor is there external evidence for the convocation at Mount Sinai…” (p. 7)), although he does state his approach in the introduction: “Schooled in the British empirical tradition, I hope that I steer a middle course between – as an example – extremist claims on the one hand that everything written in the Bible is historically accurate and, on the other, that everything written about the origins of the Jewish people is ‘invented'” (p. 3).
A second minor issue I have is that in the section on “Judaism in Islamic and Christian Spain”, Goldberg mentions disputations in which rabbis had to defend Jewish beliefs against Christians (p. 32), however, it’s shocking that he doesn’t mention the most famous of all of these – Ramban’s disputation in 1263. I’m not sure why this is done and is a glaring omission.
A broader issue I have with the book, is it’s seeming unevenness – the latter half of the book, especially sections 18-23 (pp. 60-89), seems a lot more in-depth than the rest of the book. As someone who enjoyed a certain pace of reading in the first half of the book, especially with it’s breezyness of historical overviews, Goldberg seems to get more in-depth and into particulars with these latter sections, which seems to make it a little more tedious. As a reader, I would hope for more evenness – perhaps a similar sense of overview in the more recent sections as had been earlier in the book. Or, at the very least, one would hope he would have provided a reasoning as to why he decided to make this move would have been helpful.
Curiously, despite this grater focus on details in the latter part of the book, Goldberg doesn’t mention rabbis in the last several chapters. While Goldberg does mention key rabbis earlier in the book, such as in his chapters dealing with Medieval times, the last time he mentions a rabbi is in chapter 18 (see p. 63), leaving not only the last five chapters rabbi-less, but also the entire twentieth century devoid of rabbis or any other intellectual Jewish leaders. This is strange that, inasmuch as he focusses inordinately on the last century and a half, he only briefly mentions rabbis. It’s unclear why – and what he thinks is important for his readers to understand (does he want them to think that rabbis were unimportant or played no role in the twentieth century?).
These problems aside, I, nevertheless, found it an enjoyably informational book, especially with an ease to read. I particularly enjoyed that one can pick up any particular chapter and get a sense of a particular time period and place, with out having to have read any of the preceding chapters. Also, as I mentioned, I enjoyed reading it while eating, so it serves as enjoyable reading for that, too.