“It’s a great irony that Israel was more secure as an idea than it’s ever been as a nation with an army.”
In AD 70, when the Second Temple was destroyed, a handful of visionaries saved Judaism by reinventing it—by taking what had been a national religion, identified with a particular place, and turning it into an idea. Jews no longer needed Jerusalem to be Jews. Whenever a Jew studied—wherever he was—he would be in the holy city. In this way, a few rabbis turned a real city into a city of the mind; in this way, they turned the Temple into a book and preserved their faith. Though you can burn a city, you cannot sack an idea or kill a book. But in our own time, Zionists have turned the book back into a temple. And unlike an idea, a temple can be destroyed. The creation of Israel has made Jews vulnerable in a way they have not been for two thousand years.
In Israel Is Real, Rich Cohen’s superb new history of the Zionist idea and the Jewish state—the history of a nation chronicled as if it were the biography of a person—he brings to life dozens of fascinating figures, each driven by the same impulse: to reach Jerusalem. From false messiahs such as David Alroy (Cohen calls him the first superhero, with his tallis as a cape) and Sabbatai Zevi, who led thousands on a mad spiritual journey, to the early Zionists (many of them failed journalists), to the iconic figures of modern Jewish Sparta, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon, Cohen shows how all these lives together form a single story, a single life. In this unique book, Cohen examines the myth of the wandering Jew, the paradox of Jewish power (how can you be both holy and nuclear?), and the triumph and tragedy of the Jewish state—how the creation of modern Israel has changed what it means to be a Jew anywhere.
RICH COHEN is the author of Sweet and Low (FSG, 2006), Tough Jews, The Avengers, The Record Men, and the memoir Lake Effect. His work has appeared in many major publications, and he is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He lives with his family in Connecticut.
I've spent a lot of time reading about the Middle East. It has haunted me for years. This is, by far, the best book I've read explaining the history and background of the case made by the nation of Israel. It is simple and succinct. It never reads like a textbook. As an ancient history major and as a student of the Old Testament (as far as it is translated correctly, of course), I found Cohen offering new light on oft-discussed ancient incidences. I learned a lot from his descriptions of history of the Jewish people. If you're going to read one book about modern Israel, this is your book!
Its witty, satirical, humorous, scandalous, tragic and euphoric account of an idea called Israel. The author captures the Jewish history from the ancient times of Romans and Pharaohs to the present day world. The story doesn't culminate into any ending because Israel is still evolving and it is still unstable but the concept of "promised land" leads to some degree of fruition wherein a Jew, in any part of the world, has a country he can call home. This country is his and like all other countries it is capable of bringing the best and the worst deeds. The most moving text that captures this sentiment goes like "When a Jew cop is chasing a Jew criminal, it means the Jews have a home of their own". Each episode in the history of Israel is written from an ancient unfinished story. Rightly the creation of the Jewish nation happened because of many such stories met at a conducive alignment: Ottoman empire collapsed, Arabs were in decay, allies had won the war, Britain went broke, cold war was on, six million jews were dead and the remaining wanted an end to oppression.
We in India admire Israel for the sense of nationalism this country teaches. The episodes of 6 day war and Yom Kipur war capture the sentiments very well. The book is highly recommended for history enthusiasts and all Indians who must know that nationalism is just not a sentiment but an action.
I don’t necessarily agree with all of Cohen’s ideas and theses, but the book is fantastic. Its a great read, and Cohen does an incredible job tying a plethora of history into a relevant and fascinating work. It could have been very boring, but Cohen's adlibs, dry humor, and thought provoking comments throughout the book kept me highly engaged in my reading. I had a tough time putting the book down. An 8.5 on a scale of 10.
While there are many more complete and precise books on the history of Israel, I doubt any of them is so much fun to read. I would imagine the breezy (and sometimes glib) prose and the metaphors relating people and places to movie characters and sets grates on the purists, but for those who want to know how things got the way they are, it gives a good outline. The general reader should come away understanding of main events in the history of Israel.
The book is written from a Jewish perspective but probably not a mainstream one. Cohen uses the first person plural in referring to the Jewish people (i.e. Now that "we" have a country, "we" can cheer for a soccer team.) Cohen relates historical personages (accents, appearances and attitudes) to people in his family. More definitively, his love for Israel comes through when he writes about the impact of the past and the magnetic pull of the country.
Cohen coins phrases, such as "Jerusalem syndrome" and the "new Jew" to describe what he feels are common emotional responses to Israel and its history. Metaphors surrounding David, "the book" and the Second/Third Temple abound.
There is a lot of great human interest material on the famous such as Theodore Herzl and Moshe Dayan and the not so famous such as Samuel Zemurray, and Moshe Levinger. The notorious such as Yitzhak Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, are described in an engaging way too.
If you are knowledgeable about Israel this will probably not suit you. If you are a Zionist, it may make you angry. If you have a bit of knowledge about Israel, you will find many books to help you that are more complete. The benefit of this one is that it will hold your attention.
I had to go back and update my rating because this book really stayed with me. Having visited Israel, I can see how it makes the case for Israel's existence and sheds light on the origins of some of my own, sometimes misinformed convictions. I don't believe Cohen meant to paint such a touching and personal picture but I felt intimately connected to his narrative by the time I finished. Having read two of his other books, I believe what he has to say has an important place in the canon of writing about Zionism and the Jewish State. Regardless of whether you agree with his assertions, the people about whom he writes existed and were, often, heroic. Without romanticizing history, Cohen succeeds at engaging the reader in a deep and unapologetic exploration of the FACT of Israel and its tributaries.
This is my second read by author Rich Cohen (after the mezmerizing "The Fish that Ate the Whale") and it did not disappoint. Cohen manages to regail us with the history (story?) of the jewish people and Zionism with clinical insight and brilliant wit. He has a gift for finding the rhyming poetry and the timeless archetypes in political and territorial turmoil that spans many centuries and a wide array of players. "Israel Is Real" is a great primer for those who have a cursory and muddled understanding of the Palestine-Israel conflict (as I did when I first picked it up). Highly recommended! My only critique is that I wish it had more maps to illustrate the region's ever shifting borders and insurmountable toponyms that mix ancient nomenclature and modern settlements.
This book reads like a chat with the author, albeit a really long involved chat. It begins with the destruction of the second temple and takes us through the history of Israel up to the present. Cohen has a way of putting archaic concepts into terms that I can understand. I particularly appreciated when he compared medieval stories of the Khazars (a colony of warrior Jews) to his boyhood book of Great Jewish Sports Heros.
Israel has a long and often bitter past, but Cohen is a gentle guide on an important journey towards understanding.
As a person who did not have much retained knowledge in biblical history, Israel, or Jewish history, I found this book to be a great comprehensive overview. I really appreciated the author's perspective and he made it clear when he was expressing his viewpoint which may not necessarily be reflective of other populations. I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about Jewish & Israeli history and attempting to understand present day Israel.
This was a very interesting book indeed. For some time now, since December 2016 when Obama failed to veto UN 2334 and American Jews were largely silent, I had been trying to figure out why. The answer came in a Tablet article by Natan Sharansky titled UN Jews. The essence of the article is that many American Jews separate their religion from their Peoplehood / Land of Israel, which helps them achieve things like being silent at Obama’s actions, continuing to support FDR and a host of other current day virtue signaling. This book addressed that very issue - the separation of the religion from its Peoplehood / Land of Israel.
The author Rich Cohen took the middle road and presented the points of view of each Jew in this debate. The time frame for the author’s ark began at the destruction of the Second Temple and carried through to the current day. It was a fascinating read through major events in Jewish history with a much different perspective then I had read in the past. His base line premise or thesis is that when the Jews were exiled from Jerusalem in 70AD, the Temple became a Book (the Book being a religion) which the Jews carried with them during their 2,000 year exile, wherein the founding of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 turned the Book back into a Temple - the Temple being Israel.
My opinion is that there are better arguments for the State of Israel than against, which makes me a proud Zionist. The most important, I believe, is to preserve Judaism. The diaspora is in decline in American. American Jews have become more secular with the Reform movement growing and Conservatives in decline. Inter faith marriage is increasing, which could cause American Jewry to disappear in just a few short generations. In Israel, there are more than 1 million Orthodox Jews who devote their lives to their faith. They are also exempt from serving in IDF. Judaism is thriving in Israel, it’s home and birthplace. Israel, in my opinion, is what will protect and keep Judaism alive.
I visited Israel in the spring of 2022 and it was a joy. The one thing that I enjoyed seeing was young adults dancing In the streets, singing Jewish songs and carrying the Jewish flag. They don’t do that in America.
In preparation for a trip to Israel, I realized I needed to learn more about the country and its history. Based on Goodreads reviews, I read "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn" by Daniel Gordis and based on a personal reference, I also read "Israel is Real" by Rich Cohen. I'm rating these two books the same (4 stars) but they have pretty different styles.
"Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn" is an awesome chronicle of the history of Israel, more factual than "Israel is Real" but does a great job highlighting artists of the region and their takes on certain historical events to soften the fact-based approach. My only wish for this book is that it would have spent more time in the deep, biblical-era history of the region.
"Israel is Real" is a lighter read based on Cohen's writing style but still has a lot of the facts you will need to pass basic to moderate Israel history. He interjects his personal experiences and opinions into the book more so than Gordis does, but it never comes across as trying to persuade you to take any sides.
In general, I'd say Cohen provided a more pleasurable, leisure read and actually touches on the ancient history of the region more than Gordis, but Gordis provides more details overall. Which one you choose to read will be depend on your preferred writing style and/or what you hope to get out of the book. Or you can do what I did, read "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn" and then "Israel is Real" (this is the order I'd recommend).
Of note -- both books are written from the Jewish/Israeli perspective. If you'd like to hear more from the Muslim/Arab side of things, you will need a different book. I think hearing accounts from the other side would be a great compliment these books and that might be my next step in learning about the region...time for some more book research.
This is a very weird book. It's not quite history as it is a highlighting of certain interpretations of Jewish history. Zionism, according to Cohen, is rooted in ancient Israel and is best portrayed by the Zealots - a group of religiously fanatic warrior Jews who went the way of the dodo along with the Second Temple. The other type of Jew, the Yavne Jew, is one that survives the Romans through submission and abstracting his religion. Cohen seems to paint Jewish history as a struggle between these types of archetypes, with the Yavne Jew being Jewish history's dominant mode, and the creation of Israel being a re-kindling of the Zealot way. It's a weird paradox, but makes for an interesting read. Overall the book is entertaining, but not very academic. There are typos and some technical mistakes (like how Yavne is north of Tel-Aviv when it's actually south). It does elucidate some troubling points worth considering about Israeli and Jewish history, but overall is quite positive about the journey. To be honest, I'm not quite sure who this book is for. There are more precise and well written histories on both the Jews and Israel out there for those interested in learning the facts. I found Israel is Real most useful in its emphasis on pre-political Zionism. Cohen's scope of history emphasizes the Jewish yearning for nationhood and a return to the land of Israel throughout all of Jewish history. This is an often overlooked narrative. In this, Cohen's writing makes for a great book that focuses on the historical sources of Zionism from the beginning of Jewish history to Herzl.
Lent to me by a friend, I found this an invaluable read. A secular Jew outlines the mystery, the history and the eternality of the nation. He describes the miracle of the 6 day war where "even atheists felt the press of God". He marches through the centuries, outlining the mission of the Jews, the failed messiahs, the issue of Jewish self-esteem, the political rise of Zionism, and provides the best description of anti-semitism I've ever understood, admitting that Jews themselves are guilty: "some wanted a state so that they could be Jews, some wanted a state so that they could stop being Jews." p.159. He develops the struggle so well, speaking of how the old 20th c. warriors were gloomy, "the fact that you could win and win and still not win" Then on p271: "The creation of Israel in 1948 and its conquest of Jerusalem in 1967 are not ordinary history. For those inclined to hear them, they are divine proclamation that the hour is near."
This book was so fascinating I didn’t want it to end. Cohen is a writer for Rolling Stone and has a very smooth, conversational style of writing with lots of anecdotes to keep the narrative from getting too dry. The book discusses the nation of Israel in real or imagined forms from ancient times until now, covering good and bad points. The style makes it easier to retain what is learned about this place that has been so foundational to the development of western civilization.
This book is sad, funny, frustrating, sarcastic, angering and a lot of other things. I felt many emotions reading this book, but came away mostly with a sadness for a situation that utterly illustrates the complexities & contradictions of the human condition. Oh, the pain we love to inflict upon one another...
With 42 reviews, what can I add that hasn't been already said?
Let me, then, extract a few sentences from other reviews that resonate with me.
Jeremy wrote "I've spent a lot of time reading about the Middle East. It has haunted me for years. This is, by far, the best book I've read explaining the history and background of the case made by the nation of Israel. It is simple and succinct. It never reads like a textbook. As an ancient history major and as a student of the Old Testament (as far as it is translated correctly, of course), I found Cohen offering new light on oft-discussed ancient incidences. I learned a lot from his descriptions of history of the Jewish people. If you're going to read one book about modern Israel, this is your book!"
Rupin Chaudhry wrote "...witty, satirical, humorous, scandalous, tragic and euphoric account of an idea called Israel. The author captures the Jewish history from the ancient times of Romans and Pharaohs to the present day world."
Avi wrote "I don’t necessarily agree with all of Cohen’s ideas and theses, but the book is fantastic. Its a great read, and Cohen does an incredible job tying a plethora of history into a relevant and fascinating work. It could have been very boring, but Cohen's adlibs, dry humor, and thought provoking comments throughout the book kept me highly engaged in my reading. I had a tough time putting the book down."
Blake wrote "This book was so fascinating I didn’t want it to end. Cohen is a writer for Rolling Stone and has a very smooth, conversational style of writing with lots of anecdotes to keep the narrative from getting too dry. The book discusses the nation of Israel in real or imagined forms from ancient times until now, covering good and bad points. The style makes it easier to retain what is learned about this place that has been so foundational to the development of western civilization."
Nigel wrote "Impartial. Fast paced. And SUPER witty. Can't remember the last time non fic was THIS enjoyably captivating."
I could go on and on but we get the idea. The only thing I'd add is that the book is now on my Deserted Island Books list. And that we don't have to be Jewish to love this book, but it doesn't hurt. Until we perceive the author loving the idea of Israel more than its messy, sometimes tragic reality.
One thing I don't understand. When we go to the author's website and click on the BOOKS link, we see 13 books he wrote. "Israel is Real" is not among them.
I wasn't really looking to buy a book on Israel, but I went to this bookstore where books were organized by country. An odd experience, and the title drew me in and this book kinda followed me home.
For such an impulse purchase, it was a good first foray outside of Hebrew School for me. It gives is a good overview of the history of Israel, from the destruction of the second temple to modern times. It's from a Jewish perspective, and is in some ways a history of the Jewish people (let's be honest, the two are intertwined).
It doesn't pull its punches, instead diving into the complexities of returning (damnit) to a land where other people live now, including the naive initial hopes of a binational country and concluding with the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
If your opinion on Israel is that you like the idea of it, feel it is legitimate and necessary, but every time it makes the news your first thought is "Oh, G-d, what have those idiots done now?", then this book is for you.
This book definitely gives insights about Jewish past and present. Although not in detail but rather succinctly. However, it's really amazing how a nation which came into existence by 1949 fought its forthcoming battles with such splendor furor. Definitely, it had tremendous financial backing alongside favorable political stance of being the victims of the holocaust. But would jew stop it ?
I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t think I really understand Israel, even after reading this book. I did, however, walk away from this thinking about the insanity that is history, religion, and politics. There is no doubt about it: the Hebrews/Jews have a pretty damn depressing history.
What I liked about this book is that it wasn’t a propaganda filled Zionist love-fest. What it accomplishes, is providing a rich story around the key figures and events that brought Israel to where it is now. The history of a nation is never a short story, but this one in particular is fraught with chaos and struggle, triumph and fervor.
Based on a review I'd read, I expected this to be a solid history book, even-handed yet with a highly individual voice. I did find it interesting at first, but after close to 100 pages Cohen still seemed to be focussing on individuals-- not so much on Israel as a whole. Contrary to the title, he continually presented his thesis that Israel is NOT real, but a set of shared illusions. Deeply felt-- but illusory. As others have noted, the author's style is occasionally self-indulgent, with asides and jests that interrupt rather than enhance.
This book is a very personal statement, which makes it endearing--even gripping--but ultimately limits its value as either a history of the Jews or a political assessment. I enjoyed his history quite a bit, but I know many better history books exist. I think Cohen is too concerned with finding metaphors and signs, so he has to circle around certain themes over and over, more than I find helpful. But I appreciate that he sees nuance in everything, and is trying less to persuade the reader of a particular viewpoint than to make is look more closely at our own assumptions.
I loved this book! Rich Cohen is an excellent author, and in fact, the only reason why I searched this book out was because he wrote it. I loved his two previous books, The Avengers and Tough Jews. His style is very funny and smart. I laughed out loud on a few occasions. The book is an interesting history of Israel and its place in Judaism. But I would not recommend this book if you are very right-wing towards Israel because he does have his critiques.
I guess you could call this a history book, since it is a loosely chronological account full of actual history, but it doesn't quite fit that mold. It's hard for me to describe, but I will say it raised a lot of interesting questions and taught me a lot about Jewish history. Cohen manages to take a very unwieldy topic and do about as good a job as one can do condensing it into so few pages. If you're trying to make some sense of Israel, this is a good place to start.