M. Konner, Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews. New York, Viking Compass: 2003. Pp. 500. Hardback. $29.95.


This is a book is an anthopological perspective on Jewish history and culture. As such, it is a work of grand scope, encompassing the full range of Jewish civilization. Melvin Konner, himself an anthropologist with an MD, writes very well and so he is able to capture vividly the texture of Jewish life from agricultural life in ancient Israel to urban life in the European shtetl. Even those of us who already know Jewish history will be fascinated by this book.


The most outstanding quality of this book is the sources Konner uses: archaeology, letters, travelogues, secular and religious poetry, cemetery tombstones, Yiddish and Ladino sources, films, lists of occupations held by Jews in different periods, interviews (for the chapters on contemporary Jewish society and culture), halakhic responsa, popular medieval church documents, magic, and anthropological studies of various Jewish groups. For those accustomed to philosophical, legal, historical, and mystical texts as primary sources, this book opens our eyes to another world.  


Chapter 1 on life in biblical times is one of the best in the book. The Bible tells the stories of King David but the archaeological record, as it now stands, does not support them. Konner balances nicely the external-archaeological evidence against the internal-literary evidence. He also does not shy away from evidence for the goddess as a figure to be reckoned with. In addition, he brings strong evidence to recreate realistically the pre-Israelite Egyptian presence in Canaan.


In the chapters on Jewish life under Rome, Konner again vividly depicts life under the Romans, noting “Greece and Rome never developed sacred texts, and the Jews never developed sacred icons” (84). He includes Roman antisemitism in this chapter and, unlike most Jewish histories, includes early Christianity as a part of Jewish history.


Chapter 7 on the Jews under Islam is excellent because Konner does not shy away from the status of the Jew as dhimmi, that is, as protected but persecuted minority (140-44). In the chapter on medieval Spain, Konner uses a church document which instructs Christians on how to distinguish marranoes from true Christians (161).


Chapter 9 bears the intriguing title, “Jewish Genius” – as a matter of fact, all the chapter titles are very creative – and it traces Jewish intellectual life from medieval magic to Spinoza to Marx to Einstein and other modern Jewish intellectuals. I am familiar with all these figures Konner has grouped them together. The chapter on the shoah, “Smoke,” in addition to telling the history, cites at length responsa from the holocaust whose searing questions bring that terrible period into sharp relief. In trying to articulate the response of post-shoah Jewish culture, Konner cites secular and religious poetry as well as testimony. He concludes: “For most survivors, indeed for most Jews, there is neither transcendence nor forgiveness. There is only the image that will last till the end of memory: men, women, and children – fifteen hundred thousand children – dwarfed by hunger, bound in wire, nailed by bullets, choked with gas, martyred by the millions on a vast, twisted cross” [the swastika is a “twisted cross”] (292).


Chapter 15 on Jews in America rests much of its case on the “Bintel Brief,” letters written by immigrants to the New York Yiddish newspaper asking for advice on how to get along in the new world. What a great source! Konner also does not shy away from the role of Jews in the criminal world of America, for American Jewish history is not just the history of peddlars and religious movements. And, as a good anthropologist, Konner has devoted a chapter to Jewish women, grouping together Dona Gracia, Hannah Senesh, and Dr. Ruth.


Konner’s conclusions are not systematic as, I suppose, no anthropological survey of a culture could be. He notes that, from biblical times onward, “they had an addiction, not to oppression – certainly not that – but to surviving by the skin of their teeth” (412). For the Jews, Judaism, in all its multifacetedness, was “a portable temple”; it was, and is, a way of taking their civilization with them wherever they go, a means through which they guarantee their survival. The God Whom the Jews worship in this portable temple has, however, not always been good to them and so, since the biblical Jacob, Jews have been a nation of “Godwrestlers,” people who strive with God to bring meaning, order, justice, and love into life. Sometimes, this requires protest and Konner devotes several pages to “Godwrestling” as a mode of Jewish being (415-18). At the end, the anthropologist waxes theological, quoting Nathan Sharansky, “God would not let the Jews go” (435).


Aa chapter or two per week would make a good adult education class.


Appeared in Conservative Judaism, 56:4 (Summer 2004) 92-93.