[From the newly-released The Veterans of History by Mitchell Silver] The historian Simon Dubnow called Jews “the veterans of history.” What could he have meant? He might have just meant that Jews have ancestors that go way back. But so does everybody else. Everyone has gotten here through ancestors who stretch through all of human history. So in that sense all people are veterans of history.
But we might also call someone a veteran who has long experience in doing something. A veteran doctor is someone who has lots of experience being a doctor. But that doctor doesn’t have meaningful experience if he or she forgets everything she or he has done as a doctor in the past. Genuine long experience means you remember what you did and what happened to you. Veterans of history have long experience of history. For that you must record history and remember it. Unrecorded and unremembered, the past doesn’t even become history.
From nearly the beginning of recorded history Jews have remembered and carried their story from generation to generation. Their story includes great sadness and great happiness, great accomplishments and great failures. There were times that Jews treated other peoples badly, and many times when Jews were treated horribly by other peoples. There are ways in which Jews cared for each other and ways in which they were unfair to each other. It is a story that was centered in Europe and the Middle East but had important scenes throughout the world. Today the United States is one of its main settings.
The Jewish story is also one that has affected the whole human story. Only one out of five hundred human beings today is Jewish, but more than half of humanity are Christian and Muslim, and both those religions evolved from the religion of the Jews. And something about Jewish history seems to have led to new ideas that have helped shape the world and how we think of the world. St. Paul, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein were Jews or the descendants of Jews. Jewish history is dramatic and Jews have added drama to world history.
Jews are veterans of history because they carry all this with them. In fact, Dubnow thought that that is what makes Jews Jews. If you think the Jewish story is your story, if you want it to be your story, if you want to help continue that story, then you are a member of the Jewish people.
Assimilation, blending in with the non-Jewish population, just requires forgetting. Being Jewish requires remembering. You must tell the story of the Jews to your children and you must say “this is what happened to us.”
The above is the Prologue of the just-released book The Veterans of History: A Young Person’s History of the Jews, by Mitchell Silver, published by the Boston Workmen’s Circle. Written for young adults, this 336-page work covers a broad sweep of Jewish history from Biblical times to today, providing the historical basis for an exploration of Jewish identity rooted in Jewish cultural literacy and traditions of social justice. For more on The Veterans of History, click here.
Mitchell Silver was educational director of the I.L. Peretz School of the Boston Workmen’s Circle from 1992-2009 and has taught philosophy at the University of Massachusetts/Boston since 1982. He writes and speaks regularly on issues relating to health care ethics, Jewish secularism, and Middle East politics. Author of A Plausible God (2006) and Respecting the Wicked Child: A Philosophy of Secular Jewish Identity and Education (1998), this is Silver’s first work for young adults.
Launch party for the The Veterans of History, Saturday April 12 – 7:30 pm (Boston Workmen’s Circle, 1762 Beacon Street, Brookline)
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