The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jewish History and Culture

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jewish History and CultureI just finished The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jewish History and Culture by Rabbi Benjamin Blech. I did not find it to be as comprehensive as I would have liked. For instance, the only holidays he really explains are Purim, Hanukkah, and Yom Ha-Shoah. He mentions Yom Kippur only in passing; considering it is the most important Jewish holiday, I think merited much more explanation. There was no mention of Rosh Hashanah. I did find the coincidences of tragedy falling on Tisha B’Av interesting — I definitely did not know that so many devastating events, from the destruction of both Temples to the expulsion of Jews from Spain all occurred on the same day. Rabbi Blech’s notion that it is a message from God certainly seems plausible.

I was struck by the rather biased tone of the book. There are several instances in which Rabbi Blech infers he believes the Jews to be a superior people. He states twice that Jews have higher IQ’s than other ethnic groups. While I’m not saying he doesn’t have a point, I think it is dangerous to proclaim any group superior to another, even a group that has fought adversity (and won) since its beginnings and survived despite several attempts to exterminate them. He seems to have a somewhat anti-Christian bias, which is not something I have encountered with my co-workers or students. To be fair, most of that comes out in the chapters in which he recalls the worst acts carried out by Christians against Jews — the Crusades, the Inquisition, expulsion from various countries. I did find some of his remarks about Jesus interesting. I wonder if it is widely accepted, for instance, that Jesus was an Essene? It wasn’t something I knew.

I felt that the book was not as comprehensive as it might have been, but it is understandably hard to define the history and culture of an entire people who have survived over 5700 years. I realize the “Complete Idiot’s” series is designed to be an introduction, but I can’t help but feel like I ate what I thought would be a fairly decent meal that left me still hungry.