Posted by: jbwuk | January 9, 2012

JBW interviews: Bernard Wasserstein

Bernard Wasserstein was born in London and has taught at Oxford, Sheffield, Jerusalem, Brandeis, and Glasgow Universities. He is now Ulrich and Harriet Meyer Professor of Modern European Jewish History at the University of Chicago. In 2011-12 he is a visiting fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Studies in Uppsala.

He won the “Golden Dagger” Award for Non-Fiction from the Crime Writers’ Association for The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln. His books have included Secret War in ShanghaiDivided Jerusalem, and Israel and Palestine.

His next book, On the Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War will be published by Profile in 2012. This is the portrait of a world on the eve of its destruction. Eschewing sentimentality, Bernard Wasserstein’s original and provocative book presents a new and disturbing interpretation of the collapse of European Jewish civilization even before the Nazi onslaught. Wasserstein demonstrates that, by 1939, the Jews faced an existential crisis that was as much the result of internal decay as of external attack.

From Vilna (the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’) to Salonica with its Judeo-Español-speaking stevedores and singers, and from the Soviet Jewish ‘homeland’ of Birobidzhan to Amsterdam (the ‘Jerusalem of the west’), the book explores the mindsets of wealthy bankers and far-left revolutionaries, of ultra-orthodox yeshiva bokhers and militant atheists, of cultural revivalists and radical assimilationists.

While portraying the predicament of the Jews in a continent suffused with anti-Semitism, the book’s focus is squarely on the Jews themselves rather than their persecutors. Written with compassion and empathy, based on vast research, and enlivened by dry wit, On the Eve paints a vivid and shocking picture of the European Jews in their final hour.

It will be launched at JBW on Tuesday 21 February at 7.00 pm before it’s available in print.

Even though the exercise did not appeal to him, he agreed to play the game and answered our interview brilliantly. We are most thankful to him.
“I am not, in general, a fan of these sorts of questionnaires, which seem to be all the rage now in publishing circles. Still a request from Jewish Book Week is a command. So weakly protesting, I succumb. Here are my answers and I hope you are satisfied. My only stipulation is that you use it all or not at all:
–       If you could escape to another world, what would there be that is missing here?  How do you know I have not already tunnelled my way out? What’s missing here is the realization that there is no there.
–       What is the book you “inherited” from a parent or teacher that made a profound impression on you? Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon (profound – and painful)
–       What is the book you would like to pass on to the future generation?

The Song of Songs (the most worthwhile biblical book – for the sex)

–       What is the most Jewish thing you have ever done? 
Marry a non-Jewish woman (it’s a mitzvah)
–       What is the most important Jewish book of the last 60 years?
–       When did you know you would become a writer?
In two years’ time.
–       If you were not a writer, what would you be? 
Thwarted
–       What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
Think small (from John Gross)
–       What would your superpower be?
Freedonia (President Groucho Marx)
–       Who (living or dead) would you invite to your ideal Friday night dinner?
 You, my dear
–       On the very distant day when you will make it to the other side, what would you like God (assuming there is one) to say to you?
“Your assumption was false.””
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