[Paleopsych] Jerusalem Report: (Slezkine) Some of My Best Friends Are Mercurians
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Some of My Best Friends Are Mercurians http://jrep.com/Info/10thAnniversary/
Noah Efron The Jerusalem Report
Twenty-five years ago, I met an old American expatriate in Moscow. I was a
college kid, sent by the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry to bring prayer
books and blue jeans (to be sold or bartered) to Jews denied emigration visas
In 10 days, I met dozens of these refuseniks, but the man I'll call Josef stood
out. His parents had lived in Flatbush, my grandparents' old neighborhood. They
had followed news of the Russian Revolution with excitement, Josef told me, and
by the time he was 5 years old, in 1920, America to them had become a soulless
Babylon, where money and trivial comforts were all that mattered. To raise a
boy there, his parents felt, was to sentence him to the life of a petty
shopkeeper. But to raise a boy in revolutionary Russia, that was to give him a
future with meaning and honor.
Eventually Josef's parents sold their books and furniture, and boarded a
steamer bound for Libau, in Latvia. From there, they made their way to Moscow,
where they took up residence in a tiny third-floor apartment they shared with
two other families. It was there, 60 years later, that he gratefully accepted
the Levis I brought, and told me tearfully, in Brooklyn-accented English, that
his well-meaning parents had thrown away his life before it had ever begun.
I took this personally. Josef was born 12 years before my father, just a few
blocks over, and it seemed a mere accident that it was his parents, and not my
father's, who quit America for the revolution. It could, after all, have been
me in a dismal Moscow flat, pathetically taking jeans from some rich,
self-important American kid. And it was personal in another way as well.
My grandparents had come to America from eastern Europe before the revolution,
and while I was thankful that I had avoided Soviet life, I did not find the
results of their decision altogether satisfactory. In fact, I too had come to
see America as soulless and materialistic, banal and debauched. Which is why I,
too, had decided to quit America. I would finish college as I promised my
mother and father, but then I would move to Israel to join a desert kibbutz.
There I planned to become a wholly different man. I would be ruddy and sinewy;
my hands would be rough. I'd farm. I'd serve in the army. I would stop reading
the New York Review of Books. (The diploma that cost my parents $150,000 would
hang in the bathroom.) I would be earnest and "authentic."
And so it came to pass that three years after I'd met Josef, I was a kibbutznik
on an army transit nervously accompanying my infantry unit into Sidon, Lebanon.
A Jew reinventing himself is by now so familiar a notion that it is easy to
overlook the oddity of the expatriate's story, and my own. The experience of
Jews in the 20th century was one of grand movements, in both senses of the
word. Millions of Jews moved from one place to another, often liquidating
possessions, crossing seas, shattering families, learning new languages, and
acquiring new passports (and, of course, in wartime Europe, riding the rails to
their deaths). And, in the same period, millions of Jews joined movements -
communist, socialist, bundist, Zionist and more, in every imaginable
combination. Many of my heroes growing up - Rosa Luxembourg, Samuel Gompers,
Leon Trotsky, Albert Einstein, David Ben-Gurion - were movement Jews in both
Each ended up an ocean away from where he or she began. And each tried to
remake the world he or she lived in, along the lines of some creed or ideology.
Why were Jews in the 20th century such visible peripatetics, such visible
radicals and, in particular, such visible peripatetic radicals? Pick any
standard you wish, and Western Jews have excelled by it; first in Europe
before the rise of the Nazis, and then in the United States, and then (though
less so) in Israel. Why?
These are huge questions, of course. Over the years a great number of answers
have been given: Jews succeed because they're so damn smart (as Raphael Patai
suggested); because generations of Talmudic casuistry sharpened minds and
encouraged Jews to question tradition and authority (as Warner Sombart
suggested); because the long history of pariahdom forced upon Jews by
unaccepting surroundings gave them a kind of detached wisdom (as Thorsten
Veblen suggested); or, because their late emancipation left them with fewer
restraints of "conservative and traditional thinking," allowing them to ignore
or attack existing institutions (as Nathan Glazer suggested). A few of these
explanations probably have no validity at all; but even the ones that have
something to them are dwarfed by the most recent effort to make sense of this
history, Yuri Slezkine's eccentric and brilliant "The Jewish Century."
Slezkine, a Russian émigré history professor at Berkeley, who learned to his
surprise at age 11 that his father's mother was Jewish, begins by challenging
the "Jews, God & History" dogma drilled ceaselessly into the mind of every kid
who ever attended Hebrew school, the dogma that Jewish history is unique
because Jews are unique. "There was nothing particularly unusual about the
social and economic position of the Jews in medieval and early Modern Europe,"
Slezkine writes. Jews belong to a class of ethnic tribes (along with gypsies,
Armenians, Nestorians, overseas Chinese, East African Indians and many more)
who, for centuries and throughout the world, have assumed certain occupations
and dispatched them in a certain way.
Slezkine calls these tribes "mercurian," after Mercury, "the god of all those
who did not herd animals, till the soil, or live by the sword": messengers,
craftsmen, merchants, healers and other intermediaries. Mercurians set down
their stakes among "apollonians," after Apollo, the god of agriculture and
livestock. Apollonian societies are dominated by farmers, along with soldiers
and priests. There was a symbiosis between mercurians and their apollonian
hosts, but it was an uneasy one. Mercurians were also susceptible to the charge
that they were disloyal parasites who compensate for their weakness (they do no
physical labor) with scheming craftiness.
Though apollonian societies needed mercurians for their goods and services,
they also disparaged and despised them, expressing their disdain in "sporadic
grassroots pogroms. and periodic confiscations, conversions, expulsions, and
executions." This pattern has repeated itself, Slezkine writes, over centuries
and continents. Much of what we rather parochially think of as "anti-Semitism,"
then, is only a private instance of the far more general phenomenon of
But this is only the beginning. In recent generations, the West has quickly, if
fitfully, abandoned its apollonian heritage. In Europe and America, fewer and
fewer people spend their days on farms, in churches or barracks. Populations
have steadily seeped from countryside to city or suburb. Most citizens now work
in professions and service industries. In other words, the West has quickly
become mercurian. Pick at random a Russian or German or Virginian on the
street, and it is far more likely that he earns his living in a manner similar
to my (Jewish) great-grandfather than to his own (say, Protestant)
great-grandfather; he is more likely to work in Walmart than he is to drive a
In that sense, the past century has been the mercurian century and, since Jews
have long been the most visible, literate and successful mercurians in the
West, the Jewish century. This, in and of itself, partly explains recent Jewish
economic and cultural success, because success in the newly mercurian West
demands precisely the sorts of skills that Jews have honed for many
generations. Essentially, Jews excelled in the 20th century because they had
the home-field advantage.
But Slezkine's story gets more complicated still. Pastoral, romantic
apollonianism was never completely extinguished. It retained a powerful appeal
among people dismayed by the rootless and restless rationality of modern life.
Nazism was, to some degree, a revolt against mercurianism, a fact that may shed
some light on the passion with which Nazis exterminated Jews (and Roma-gypsies
and others). But there were benign rejections of mercurianism as well, one of
the most successful being agrarian and labor Zionism. Jews themselves could be
found among the most strident critics of their own mercurian past. The Jewish
century saw the first great revolt against Jewish mercurianism.
Having set out this grand scheme of modern Western history, Slezkine devotes
the largest portion of his book to describing the three great migrations of
20th-century Jews, from the Russian Pale to three very different "paradises."
The first was to the United States, the most mercurian of all societies. The
second was to Palestine, to establish an apollonian, organic Jewish peasant
society. And the third was to Moscow and Leningrad, after a revolution that
promised to dissolve the age-old dichotomy between the apollonian and
It is not surprising that, being a Russian historian, Slezkine devotes most of
his effort to the fascinating, untold story of Jewish migration from the Pale
to the revolution, and their extraordinary success when they arrived. We all
tend to see the history of Soviet Jews through the prism of their last
generation as a disaffected and persecuted minority. Slezkine describes the
stunning integration of Jews in the early Soviet bureaucracy and government,
and the influence they achieved in science, academia, arts, administration,
army and police, as well as the sincerity of their commitment to the revolution
(and to Pushkin).
"The Jewish Century" is history on a majestic scale. It explains the great
successes of Jews in the liberal West (as well as why Jews tended toward some
professions and not others). It explains the radical recoil of many Jews
against liberal modernity, in favor of more romantic movements. It explains
modern anti-Semitism, and especially the great resonance of romantic
anti-Semitism, including Nazism. It explains the central place of Jews in the
Soviet Union, and also the eventual deterioration of both their position and
their commitment to the state and its revolution, in the century's second half.
And it explains all these things in a way that is fresh, compelling and
frequently startling. Of course, like any theory that explains so much, it is
schematic, relying perhaps too much on archetypes. There is much complexity
that Slezkine overlooks, as when he presents American Jews as wholeheartedly
liberal mercurians and Israelis as unmitigated apollonians, thereby ignoring,
say, the American Jewish back-to-the-land agriculturalist movement (now
forgotten, but dynamic in the first third of the 20th century) and the
unrepentantly bourgeois Tel Aviv Jews. In fact, of the three great Jewish
experiments of the 20th century - the liberal United States, Zionist/statist
Israel and Communist Soviet Union - Slezkine explores only the last in
satisfying detail (a reasonable choice, since this is the only one of the three
that has never been well explored in the past).
Still, the schematic nature of Slezkine's analysis is an unavoidable cost of
writing on such a capacious scale, and it's a price well worth paying. The
clarity of analysis is extraordinary, and the relatively simple conceptual
tools Slezkine provides are unexpectedly powerful. After reading Darwin for the
first time, Thomas Henry Huxley registered shock that so clear and simple an
explanation could explain so much, and that it had been overlooked for so long.
I could be Slezkine's Huxley.
It's now 22 years since I moved to Israel to remake myself as an apollonian,
and I find myself a fat university professor in a room lined with books,
waiting for the next issue of the New York Review to arrive. The Soviet Union
is gone, of course, and the great-grandchildren of Jewish revolutionaries are
mostly trying to make a living in Brooklyn and Bat Yam. We are all mercurians
now, but as Slezkine has shown, it may be that my personal failure to remold
myself ultimately owes to the Jews' great success remolding the world we all
Noah Efron is a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and
teaches history & philosophy of science at Bar-Ilan University. His book "Real
Jews" was published by Basic Books in 2003.
The Jewish Century / by Yuri Slezkine. Princeton University Press: 438 pp.:
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