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A Short History of the Jewish People: From Legendary Times to Modern Statehood

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Where did the Jews come from? How did they retain their strong sense of community through centuries of dispersion? How have the Jews of the present, with their proud ethnic identity and thriving national home, emerged out of the downtrodden Jews of the past? Such questions arise naturally in the minds of anyone contemplating the long history of Jewish people. In one concise, authoritative volume, A Short History of the Jewish People provides insights and answers.

This sweeping and highly informative work presents the major geographical, cultural, and political forces that have determined the course of Jewish history, introducing the many individuals, both religious and secular, who have shaped the character, mindset, and prospects of the Jewish people. Organized chronologically, the narrative follows the Jewish experience from legendary times to the peace agreements currently being negotiated in the Middle East. And, to give this overview an international and timely perspective, Raymond P. Scheindlin focuses his study on the pivotal events and dominant communities within each historical period.

Written by a respected Hebrew scholar, cultural historian, noted author, and rabbi, A Short History of the Jewish People carefully describes the story of a people as varied as the many cultures in which they have lived. Including detailed maps and stirring photos, as well as timelines and sidebars, this pioneering work is a valuable resource for anyone broadly curious about the Jewish people.

288 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1998

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About the author

Raymond P. Scheindlin

22 books10 followers
Raymond P. Scheindlin is a scholar of early Hebrew literature, specializing in the Hebrew writing that emerged from contact between Jews and Arabs in the Middle Ages–the medieval Golden Age of Hebrew Literature.

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94 (26%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 35 reviews
Profile Image for Mary.
213 reviews
May 3, 2015
I picked up this book for an overview of Jewish history, and that's exactly what I got from it! The author does make a point not to delve into Judaism itself, other than to mention the various types of Judaism and when they came into existence, so this is not a book for exploring Judaic theology. In a small amount of space, the author covers over 2000 years of world history as it relates to the Jews, so there were times when I wanted more details and had to go look them up elsewhere. There were also many Jewish people mentioned with whom I was not familiar, so I had to look a lot of them up, too. But this book does a fine job of explaining where the Jews came from, their relationships with multiple political empires (e.g. the Romans, the Greeks, etc.), their history of being oppressed, and their struggles to form their own sovereign state. I found this book to be very helpful, too, with understanding the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Overall, this book does exactly what it claims to, I just wish it wasn't quite so short!
Profile Image for Eric.
73 reviews5 followers
January 9, 2022
This is highly recommended for anyone who wants an introductory-level history book on the history of the Jewish people. As similar summaries have done for me, it’s given me a number of other books to read to learn further in depth about Jewish history.
Profile Image for Shane.
425 reviews8 followers
December 25, 2021
Generally pretty good! It was a bit dry at times, but it's no mean feat trying to fit that much history into a concise book and so I feel like it did well within its restrictions. I would recommend this as a decent starting place for people, which is what I was looking for.
Profile Image for Kyra Boisseree.
407 reviews10 followers
September 30, 2019
I actually really enjoyed this! It gave me a lot of basic background information to fiction I've read, as well as filling in the large gaps in my general knowledge of Jewish history (which has previously been mostly Biblical and 20th century). I'm excited to check out some of the books listed in the bibliography in the future.
Profile Image for Masha Vorochkova.
14 reviews13 followers
May 12, 2019
"...Let me speak of my big daughter Bellet.
Thirteen she was, and shy as a bride;
Knew all the prayers and hymns from her mother-
Modest, pious, lovely, and clever.
Modeled herself, pretty girl, on her mother,
Making my bed, taking my shoes off at night.
Handy at housework was Bellet, and honest;
Served God, spun, sewed, and embroidered.
Pious, faultless, always well-meaning-
She would sit quietly, listening, as I discoursed on Torah…
She was killed with her mother and her sister on the night of the
Twentieth of Kislev.
I was sitting at peace at my table-
Two pieces of filth came, killed them as I looked on-
Wounded me, my disciples, my son.

Now let me speak of my little daughter.
She already was saying the Shema- just the first lines- every night.
At six she was spinning and sewing,
Embroidering, entertaining me with her singing.
Alas for my wife, alas for my daughters!
I mourn, I lament- how have my sins caught up with me!...
My sons and my daughters- all dead!
Woe to me for my pious wife!
Woe to me for my sons and my daughters, I mourn them…

But You, God, are just, and I am ashamed.
God is the righteous one, I am the sinner.
Whatever You grant me, I thank You,
Sing you my hymns,
Bow to You, and bend my knee."

Rabbi Eleazar of Mainz, whose wife and children were killed in the aftermath of the Third Crusade (page 110).

This book is a condensed version of a condensed history. Best suited for the individual who has little to no knowledge of Jewish history. Minimal is said of religion or spirituality apart from summarizations of Hasidic movements and the city of Tzfat. I read this book for a Judaism 101 class my first year of college, and recently reread it, six years later.
Scheindlin refrains from mainstream Ashkenazi history discourse by including the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, although minimal is said on Bukharan and Ethiopian populations. The author highlights the accomplishments of different figures, including prominent women such as Dona Gracia Nasi. I most appreciated the study of post-1948 modern Jewish history, particularly the evolution of modern Judaism and emergence of modern Orthodox in the West, and the elementary background on the State of Israel. Exile has most definitely defined Jewish history and identity, and this has been evolving over the last seventy years.

Profile Image for Gary.
86 reviews7 followers
August 29, 2020
The title of this volume identifies this as an ambitious undertaking indeed ... more than 4,000 years of history in 263 pages. It is, by its very nature, broad stroke history told densely. Viewed from 10,000 feet, the centuries, even the millenniums, fly by. Despite attempts to humanize it, this is mainly a political history and subject to the dryness that implies.

It is only when we get to the post World War II years that this history shines. In part this is because these are the years and personalities most familiar to us, and in part because the pace of the narrative slows down.

Although I found the book to be the victim of its own ambition, I was glad to have read it. While parts were a slog, I learned a good deal about changes in Jewish life and tradition over the centuries, and about Judaism today. I especially appreciated that it helped untangle for me the birth of the new state of Israel and its complex relationships with it neighbors, a complexity that is changing still.
13 reviews1 follower
July 22, 2016
Não consigo terminar o livro. Apesar do tema ser muito interessante e o autor fazer uma abordagem exaustiva à história do povo judeu, falhou na concretização da escrita. Entendo que seja um exercício complexo escrever em 400 páginas tanta história, mas a narrativa anda para a frente e para trás na linha temporal e é difícil acompanhar o raciocínio.
Por agora volta para a estante, sairá quando sentir coragem para pegar nele novamente.
Profile Image for Ryan Uyehara.
15 reviews2 followers
August 29, 2016
Clear, concise, accessible and in its brevity, it gives you an even deeper appreciation of the grand scope of Jewish history.
Profile Image for Mickey Hernandez.
32 reviews1 follower
October 16, 2017
Great introduction to Jewish history. Birds eye view of ancient Judaism to Jewish culture post-holocaust. Good read that includes recommendations for further reading.
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,402 followers
April 18, 2022
Can one distill thousands of years of a people's history down to a few hundred pages? Somehow this book by Raymond Scheindlin manages to do just that, giving a compelling and sympathetic account of the origins of the Jewish people from the classical nation of Judea to the modern global religious community that exists today. As is perhaps inevitable over such a vast span of time, Jewish history has been experienced as a cycle of rises and falls. Judeans first emerge into the historical record some time around 1200BC, when they coalesced from a number of tribes into a nation centred somewhere around what became the Roman province of Syria-Palestina. Following the destruction of their temple in Jerusalem after a failed revolt against the religiously oppressive pagan Roman Empire, the Jews were expelled from Palestine and cast into diaspora. Jews went on to form communities across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, developing into a truly cosmopolitan people speaking many languages and influenced by the ideologies and cultures of those they lived amongst.

These Jewish communities generally rose and fall along with the fortunes of the empires where they lived. Jews experienced a golden age in the Islamic world during the medieval period, which united them in one cultural sphere and at the time was a welcome respite from the Byzantines, and in Europe following the Enlightenment which liberated them at least temporarily from traditional Christian suspicion. Despite these periodic good times Jews have always been treated on some level as aliens and foreigners, whom the masses have turned on and blamed when things have gone bad. Their original religious rivalry with Christianity has always haunted Jews in the Christian West and perhaps on some level always will. The once flourishing Judeo-Islamic culture that existed has also been snuffed out in the 20th century. As Scheindlin notes, during times when Islam has been strong and confident Muslims have granted Jews a decent place in their societies, but during periods of decline such as we see today they have persecuted them with abject cruelty.

There has been much tragic irony in Jewish history. The greatest peak of Jewish prosperity in Europe came right before European Jewry was wiped off the earth by the Nazis. Today Jews survive mainly in the United States and the newly-created State of Israel. That state is seen by many Jews as the happy culmination of their history of wandering and persecution. Viewed in the full scope of their history, it is clear to see why. The common perspective among Palestinians that Israel is continuation of Western colonialism in the Middle East equally makes sense based on their own history, which is what makes the clash between the two nations particularly tragic. It seems that the Israelis have now gained a decisive upper hand and now the question is how they choose to wield state power over another people that they have not had since the classical period.

This is a very praiseworthy and accessible history. Scheindlin goes much deeper than politics, with memorable passages on the Hebrew language and poetry, the spiritual origins of Hasidism, the heroic resistance of ancient Jews to pagan oppression, and even the story of the modern Lubavitchers. It is a gifted writer who can distill so many millenia of events down to what is truly essential. Its truly an epic story of a people and religion.
Profile Image for Sarah.
230 reviews
April 15, 2021
I'm not sure I agree with some of the author's inferences, especially as stated in the Afterward chapter with its suppositions about the future of world Jewry.
Still, for a short volume that was quick to get through, this book had an amazing scope and clear writing, and gave me a great introduction to some historical Jewish communities and events to learn more about. The writing is very clear, although the organization of the chapters by topic rather than historical period makes the narrative somewhat non-linear.
It fails to answer (or really try to answer) the eternal question of if we should consider Judaism a nationality or a religion, but no one source is going to do that. The world itself may never do that.
Profile Image for Deepanshu Aggarwal.
140 reviews5 followers
March 5, 2022
A concise read on tracing the origins of Jewish religious and territorial sense of community, the religious tenets and its interaction (not always amicable) with other religious-political forces. Touches upon the almost ever-present happening of exile and persecution against the Jews. Also, touches upon the constant violence unleashed by one monotheistic religion against the other and the idea of centrality of believer, non-believer.
Profile Image for Abby.
8 reviews
December 15, 2017
This book concisely chronicles the history of the Jewish people, highlighting their unique history and outstanding stories and perseverance. It is beautifully written, highly informative, and eye opening to the reality of the global minority. A perfectly satisfying read.
Profile Image for Sarah Diner.
13 reviews
August 12, 2018
This book is a great way to be introduced to Jewish history. Although it was a little hard to follow in the beginning, overall the author did a wonderful job laying everything out in a clear way and explaining everything clearly and concisely.
10 reviews
February 11, 2023
Overall, it was a good book, with good information, giving a detailed yet succinct view of Jewish history. However, something about the way it was written made it exhausting to sludge through. It was an interesting, but rather boring read on a topic that I do not often find boring.
Profile Image for Aleksander.
57 reviews1 follower
March 23, 2017
This book was very informative, and I'm glad I read it. Still, I have two major gripes:

1) It is too short. Sure, it literally says so in the title, and I knew the number of pages when I started. Nevertheless, the format didn't work for me. There is no thread to tie together the various narratives, and not enough anecdotal hooks to help you remember what happened where. I ended up spending a lot of time on Wikipedia trying to make sense of the myriad of references to important historical episodes that were just mentioned in passing, with little or no context. If I hadn't done this, I wouldn't have learned anything; but if the book was longer (or covered less ground), I wouldn't have needed to.

2) It has a slightly nationalistic bias. The author writes from a Jewish perspective, and - simply put - glorifies Jews and Jewish history a little too much. It's not atrocious, but it spawns several historical inaccuracies and blatant errors (as far as I can tell). A few examples: The book treats the Bible's account of Exodus as semi-historical, which it isn't. It claims that ancient Judaism was completely and uniquely monotheistic, both of which are untrue. It mentions several "massacres" of Jews in which (as far as I can tell) no Jews were actually massacred (p. 104). And as we get to the creation of the modern state of Israel, it is written clearly from the Israeli perspective, largely portraying the neighboring Arab states as completely unreasonable and Israel as rational and righteous.

I don't want to exaggerate this last problem: most of the book is balanced, there are probably not many errors, and the author is fairly sympathetic towards the plight of the Palestinians. But again and again I found myself surprised at the narrative, looked up the facts, and found that the impression the book had left me with was grossly inaccurate, or just untrue (or at the very least, incredibly controversial, with no hint in the text that it is a controversial position). Such experiences makes reading the book much more unpleasant, and made me much more skeptical towards any claim the author makes at all.

If I was go back in time and choose a book about Jewish history over again, I would probably look for a longer book written by a non-Jew.
Profile Image for Joe.
45 reviews
March 2, 2012
A Short History of the Jewish People signifies its strength in the title. In about 250 pages, Scheindlin acquaints the reader enough with over 2000 years of history that he will feel he has a stronger grasp on the book's subject than most citizens. But because any single chapter could form the basis for a book in itself, any reader will crave certain additional details. For example, the author intentionally avoids discussing actual Judaic religion, viewing them throughout as a people. But he does occasionally make mention of certain changes to religious practices that different Jewish groups made. These evolutions are not as meaningful without religious context. Still, the book provides remarkable historical insight, especially for an American audience which often lacks knowledge of Jewish history between ancient times and the holocaust, and outside of central and eastern Europe. For the uninformed reader, the book even serves as an introduction to the history of the Islamic Golden Age. Scheindlin's ending in particular provides moving unification of the work's story of the antagonism between cultural identity and the safety of assimilation.
Profile Image for Hope Rozenboom.
69 reviews
April 11, 2010
This is a concise, informative history of the Jewish people from the Biblical period of the patriarchs to 1998 when it was published. As the author clarifies in the introduction, the book looks at the history of the Jewish people, rather than providing a history of the Jewish religion. It was interesting to read from a secular/historical perspective the Bible stories I grew up learning in Sunday School. What I found most beneficial was the summary of the events leading up to and since the creation of the modern nation of Israel. While a book twice the length of this one could be written on those last two chapters, a summary of the major events is most helpful to someone who doesn't know much more than the fact that the Palestinians and the Israelis don't like each other much.
Profile Image for Courtney.
125 reviews9 followers
July 29, 2011
This book offers a well organized and concise history of the Jewish people. Each chapter, and sometimes pages and paragraphs, reveal histories that some have chosen to devote a lifetime to studying. As with most well-written historical works, it leaves the reader with a greater understanding of modern politics through its multicultural review of historical motives and perceptions whose history is evident in the diplomatic challenges of today's world.
Profile Image for Reb.
106 reviews9 followers
August 19, 2007
quite a useful capsule (well 250pg capsule) history. the succinct nature of the book leads to some surreality ("and in 1011, the Jewish community of York committed mass suicide") and funny asides. but seriously, i didn't know all kinds of basic stuff about who moved where and when and why, and now i know.
Profile Image for Elise.
48 reviews
May 11, 2016
Very informative and comprehensive, although the amount of information and the sometimes confusing non-chronology of it got a bit weary. Overall, a fantastic overview for anybody beginning their study of Judaism.
Profile Image for sarah.
7 reviews
June 3, 2007
a book given to me by yonatan as a shorter, better option to 'a history of the jews' by paul johnson.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 35 reviews

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