Unsettled': So Was It Odd of God?
By JONATHAN ROSEN
Published: December 14, 2003
Melvin Konner is neither a conventional scholar of Judaism nor a historian -- two reasons, perhaps, why his sweeping study of the Jews feels so fresh and alive. And if he isn't quite an expert, he's hardly a novice. A practicing Orthodox Jew until 17, when he lost his faith and a measure of his interest, he began working his way back to Judaism (if not belief) in the 1980's, after his first child was born. Soon he was studying, traveling to Israel and creating a course at Emory, where he is a professor of anthropology, to synthesize his findings. ''Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews'' is, he tells us, the result of a personal as well as a scholarly journey.
''Unsettled'' follows a roughly historical outline, from the earliest prebiblical days through the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the subsequent scattering of the Jews, the Holocaust, the establishment of the state of Israel and the Jewish encounter with America. It covers the golden ages in Spain and Poland and is equally zealous in tracking down Jewish communities in China, India and Afghanistan.
But while Konner is attuned to the way external events helped shape the very essence of the religion, his historical accounts are shot through with a contemporary consciousness, so that the public readings of the Torah in the marketplace by Ezra the Scribe after the exiles from Babylonia returned are not so different from today's Torah service. Perhaps this is what Konner means by ''an anthropology,'' since he is not studying a fixed point in the past but a people who, for all the cultures they have lived in and generated, maintain a far-flung cohesion -- with the past and with one another. Konner finds this true even when comparing mountain Jews of Ethiopia sitting in darkness on the Sabbath and Ashkenazic Jews with an elaborate Talmudic culture unknown to their Ethiopian cousins.