On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War
By Bernard Wasserstein
Simon & Schuster
New York, 2012
The Eastern European shtetl, for which we often wax nostalgic, began its decline in the mid-nineteenth century as the combination of urbanization, Enlightenment ideas and radical political ideologies chipped away at the hold of Jewish tradition. However strong an effect these forces may have had, the real watershed event that permanently changed European Jewry was the First World War. Destroying communities and uprooting populations, the war abruptly and irrevocably severed generational continuity. In this breathtakingly broad and accessible volume, Professor Bernard Wasserstein tells the tumultuous story of interwar Jewry. Wasserstein vividly describes the lively cultural life in the cities and the increasingly modern lifestyles as Jews migrated from small towns to the big cities. The generation’s new literature, theater, music and politics reflect sensibilities that popular Jewish literature does not often ascribe to pre-World War II Jewry. Wasserstein devotes considerable space to religion, both its decline within the traditional community and its revival among secular intellectuals. The charming story of Franz Kafka’s flirtation with Chassidut reveals a conflicted generation, struggling with both the freedom and emptiness of the modern world. Unfortunately, that encounter was abruptly cut short by the frightful next war.
Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and blogs at TorahMusings.com.