Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Despite flaws, ‘Prodigal Sons’ well worth reading

September 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Prodigal Sons by Sheldon Greene; self-published; 340 pages; no price listed.

By Norman Manson

Norman Manson

SAN DIEGO — This is a fascinating, suspenseful novel, replete with violence, intrigue and romance, but is flawed in several significant ways.

The main protagonist, Jan Goldberg, alias Horst Vogle, plays a variety of roles as this saga unfolds. Ostensibly an art historian and assistant curator at a major museum, he’s also a cold-blooded killer and nazi hunter, a guerrilla fighter during World War II, a soldier in the Haganah during Israel’s War for Independence and an accomplaished athlete, especially in tennis and soccer.
His family having been wiped out in nazi Germany’s onslaught in Poland,  Jan joins the Jewish Partisan forces as they try to sabotage German efforts on the Russian front. Surviving the war, he arrives in the future state of Israel aboard a ship that runs the British blockade. After fighting in some desperate battles defending a kibbutz against the invading Arabs in 1948, he settles briefly on the kibbutz, but finds this life not to his liking so accepts a chance to again fight nazis in Germany as a member of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence force. This means a new identity as Horst Vogle and a cover job as assistant curator of Munich’s Alte Pinakothek Museum   He had studied art history in Germany before the war. Read more…

‘Tanya’ provides insight into Chassidic thought

September 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Tanya, the Masterpiece of Hasidic Wisdom: Sections Annotated and Explained by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Skylight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, NY (Forward by Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi); ISBN 978-1-59473-275-1, ©2010, $16.99, p. 165, plus appendices,  Available in Kindle edition

By Fred Reiss, Ed.D.

Fred Reiss

WINCHESTER, California — Jews were the middlemen between the gentry and the underclass in seventeenth century Poland. On behalf of the noblemen, Jews, for example, administered estates, collected fees at the grist mills and fishing ponds, and ran the inns that sold liquor. It was only natural that any populist revolt would be directed against the Jews as well as the nobility. Cossack Bogdan Chmielnicki led such a revolt. He defeated the Polish army in 1648. As a result, serfs rose up against the nobility and their Jewish stewards.

With the defeat of the army, Chmielnicki and his rebels continued their ravenous attack on the Jews, massacring thousands in cities like Nemirov, Tulchin, Polonnoe, Zaslov and Ostrog and Pildava. The aggression did not end until the defeat of Chmielnicki in 1651, and the transfer of his allegiance to Russia. Three years later, the Russians invaded eastern Poland, White Russia, and Lithuania, which resulted in a substantial number of deaths as well as expulsion for the Jews. According to historians Margolis and Marx, the lowest estimate of Jewish deaths from these attacks between 1648 and 1658 is one hundred thousand.

The Chmielnicki revolt and its aftermath devastated the Jewish population of southeastern Poland and northwestern Ukraine. The uprisings destroyed Jewish institutions, decimated its intelligencia, and left Jews with only menial jobs and in a constant state of impoverishment.
Read more…

San Diego author tells the rest of the story of ‘The Odyssey’

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Penelope’s Daughter by Laurel Corona, Berkeley Publishing Group, 2010, 358 pages including glossary, afterword and reader’s guide, $15.  

By Donald H. Harrison  

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—Readers may be charmed by this story and yet find it controversial.  Prize-winning author Laurel Corona, who often writes book reviews for San Diego Jewish World, has written another novel, Penelope’s Daughter, in which she makes a major amendment to Homer’s Odyssey. 

Corona conjures up a daughter, born to Penelope and Odysseus after the latter has sailed off to war to bring Helen home from Troy.  The daughter, Xanthe, growing up without knowing her father, is very much in danger as suitors press their attentions on Penelope (true to Homer’s version).  Would one of these avaricious men seeking Odysseus’ throne rape Xanthe to force her into a marriage?

Fearing that one of these louts indeed might use rape as a political weapon, Penelope decides to fake Xanthe’s death and to send her away secretly to Sparta, where her old friend Helen (of Trojan war fame) rules as Menelaus’ queen.In such a way, Corona weaves for us a tale of a young girl growing to womanhood, and eventually falling in love, in two different cities of ancient Greece, while at the same time providing voices for the women who are otherwise silent in Homer’s enduring classic.  Read more…

Yale Strom authors a book on Dave Tarras, “klezmer king”

September 18, 2010 Leave a comment

SAN DIEGO (Press Release)–San Diegan Yale Strom, himself a well known klezmer musician and musicologist, spent months interviewing people who knew Dave Taras, whom some have called the  “The Benny Goodman of klezmer.”

Tarras is considered the most influential klezmer musician of the Twentieth Century. Scion of a musical family in Ternovke, Ukraine, Tarras played at weddings for Jews and non-Jews − even playing in the Czarist army − up to World War One.  He immigrated to America and after a brief stint as a furrier, began to make a living with his clarinet. From 1925 until his death in 1989, Dave Tarras set the standard for klezmer musicianship and virtuosity.  Even the great be-bop artists Charlie Parker and Miles Davis travelled to the Catskills to study the technique of this complex and compelling virtuoso. Read more…

‘Penelope’s Daughter’ makes debut at San Diego City College

September 7, 2010 Leave a comment

Laurel Corona

SAN DIEGO (Press Release)–San Diego Community College Chancellor Dr. Constance Carroll joins a cast of City College faculty and students on Friday, September 24, 2010 at the Saville Theatre on the City College campus for the launch of faculty member Laurel Corona’s novel, Penelope’s Daughter.

Published by Berkley Books, a division of Penguin USA, Penelope’s Daughter retells the story of Homer’s Odyssey from the point of view of the women, as narrated by a daughter born to Odysseus after he left for Troy.

“An Evening with the Women of the Odyssey,” begins with a talk on “Homer’s Women” by Chancellor Carroll, a classics scholar (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh), followed by dance and dramatic performances by City College students, based on readings from the novel by Laurel Corona, who also writes for San Diego Jewish World.

The free event begins at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 24, at the Saville Theatre, located on the City campus at 15th and C Streets downtown. It kicks off the International Book Fair, which runs September 24 to October 2, and is co-sponsored by the City College World Cultures Program and Penguin USA.

Publishers Weekly calls Penelope’s Daughter a “variant and dreamy confection of Greek mythology and romance [that] achieves, thanks to Xanthe’s first-person account, a great deal of intimacy. Booklist says that “women who once wept for their lost men are given the voice and power they deserve. In Corona’s tale, women turn a tragedy into opportunity, finding a way to thrive in a world full of men. Penelope’s Daughter provides new insight into the lives of Homer’s women while giving voice to the inventiveness, creativity, and ingenuity of all those left behind.”

Preceding provided by Laurel Corona

Was the Holocaust the legacy of the Church’s teachings?

August 28, 2010 2 comments

Six Million Crucifixions: How Christians Teachings About Jews Paved the Road to the Holocaust by Gabriel Wilensky, Qwerty Publishers, San Diego, CA. ISBN 978-0-984-33467-4, ©2010, $27.95, p. 309, plus appendices. Available in Kindle edition

 By Fred Reiss, Ed.D.

Fred Reiss

WINCHESTER, California–Twenty-two of the highest ranking Nazi Party officials were tried from November 20, 1945 to October 1, 1946 in Nuremburg, Germany for crimes against humanity. In the Palace of Justice, the site of the trials, a large wooden cross looks down over the four judge’s chairs. Why a cross? Did it represent right’s triumph over might? The victory of good over evil? Did it symbolize the truth that God was on the side of the allies? Gabriel Wilensky, a life-long student of why the Holocaust happened, and author of Six Million Crucifixions, might reply that the cross deflects the truth that the teachings and preachings of Catholicism built the path to the Holocaust.

In part one of his four-part book, Wilensky begins building his case through descriptions of the actions of the early church, the time when Christianity separated itself early from Judaism. The time when early Christians accepted Jesus as the Messiah, whereas mainstream Judaism did not. To make Christianity acceptable to pagans, Saul of Tarsus, who changed his name to Paul, abolished the Jewish dietary laws and male converts no longer needed to be circumcised. In the fourth century, Constantine forbade Jews from seeking converts. The Council of Nicea replaced resurrection, which stood at the heart of Christianity, with crucifixion. As such, the council focused responsibility on the Jews, and from this point forward sermons excoriated Jews, which often led to violent actions against them.

In the second part Wilensky focuses on Christian anti-Semitism.  Now that crucifixion is Christianity’s centerpiece, the words in Matthew (27:25), “His blood be on us and on our children,” form the basis of the church’s systematic effort to denounce the Jewish people. The church attacked the Jews through sermons, through discriminatory laws, and with symbols. As examples, a belief emerged in the mid-fifteenth century, that the intermixing of blood (Jews marrying Christians) defiles “old” Christians. Two statues stand at the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral. The first, Ecclesia, the church, wears a crown and holds a scepter and the Challis of Christ. The second, Synagoga, is blindfolded. Blind to the knowledge that Jesus is God. A crown lies at her feet. The Jews have been dethroned as God’s people. According to Wilensky, there are over four hundred and fifty anti-Semitic verses in just the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. As often happened, these verses became ground for priests to sermonize and stir Christian against Jewish neighbor.

In Part III, Wilensky notes the similarities between the anti-Jewish actions of the Church and Nazism. The Catholic Church prohibited intermarriage between Jew and Christian (4th century). So did the Nazis. The Church did not allow Jews to hold public office (6th century). So did the Nazis. The Church burned the Talmud and other sacred books (7th century). So did the Nazis. Christians could not patronize Jewish doctors (7th century). So did the Nazis. Jews were distinguished from their Christian neighbors by markings on their clothing (13th century). So did the Nazis. Jews were compelled to live in segregated ghettos (13th century). So did the Nazis. Jews could not obtain academic degrees (15th century). So did the Nazis.

The final part focuses on the actions of the Pope and the Catholic Church during World War II. Wilensky notes the Eugenio Pacelli, first as the Vatican Secretary of State, and later as Pope Pius XII intervened on behalf of Jews who converted to Christianity, but not the Jews. He neither denounced the persecution nor the extermination of the Jews by the Nazi government. He spoke out against the treatment of Polish Christians, but not Polish Jews. He sought clemency for the convicted war criminals. He did not recognize the State of Israel.

Six Million Crucifixions brilliantly explains the anti-Semitic attitude of the Catholic Church and how, over the centuries, its repeated railings against the Jewish people created brutal waves of anger, which led to repeated mass murders of Jews in various locals throughout Europe. More importantly, Wilensky meticulously leads the reader down the Road to Hell, which he unmistakably shows was built by the Catholic Church. If nothing else, Six Million Crucifixions clearly demonstrates that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth!


Dr. Fred Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. He is the author of The Standard Guide to the Jewish and Civil CalendarsAncient Secrets of Creation: Sepher Yetzira, the Book that Started Kabbalah, Revealed; and Reclaiming the Messiah. The author can be reached through his website,

Missed a turn in the latest Kafka controversy? Here’s a primer

August 26, 2010 Leave a comment

By Kathi Diamant

Kathi Diamant

SAN DIEGO — Franz Kafka has gotten quite a bit of play lately. His photo has accompanied headlines in any number of newspapers, magazines, and network news websites in the past couple of months, most of which include one or more of the following words: treasure, trial, nightmare, snarled, tangled, vaults, masterpieces, secret, lost—and, lest we forget—Kafkaesque.  

In the past few weeks, CBS News, Time Magazine, Salon, The New York Times,  Washington Post, the Guardian, and Haaretz as well as dozens of other news outlets weighed in on the acrimonious fight over Franz Kafka’s papers in the Brod Collection. One of the most thoughtful was by Rodger Kamenetz in the Huffington Post. Coverage on the trial over the Brod Collection in Tel Aviv extends to The National, published daily in Abu Dhabi.  Franz Kafka is the Arab world’s favorite Jewish writer. Who knew?

Most of the news reports have been correct, more or less. The AP story by Aaron Heller stated, “Aside from previously unknown versions of Kafka’s work, the trove could give more insight on Kafka’s personal life, including his relationship with his lover, Dora Diamant. It may include papers that Kafka gave to Diamant but were stolen by the German Gestapo from her Berlin apartment in 1933, later obtained by Brod after World War II.”  

I am sad to report that the papers stolen by the Gestapo were not recovered by Max Brod after World War II.  Since 1996, the Kafka Project at SDSU has led the international search for these papers, 20 notebooks and 35 letters written by Kafka in the last year of his life, which most Kafka experts agree, represent the real missing treasure, not whatever remains in the Brod Collection.  

As the Director of the Kafka Project and someone who has followed the story of the Brod Collection closely since 2001, I am happy to share the straight scoop, with links to the best sources, as well as a quick cast list to the Kafkaesque drama unfolding in Tel Aviv:  

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka (whose literary leavings in the Brod collection are trapped in litigation) was a Jewish-Czech writer who died at the age of 40 in 1924, largely unpublished and unknown. After his death in 1924, with the posthumous publication of his novels, letters and diaries, Kafka rose to international fame as a literary genius, one of the founding fathers of magical realism and the modern novel. He is considered the most influential, profoundly misunderstood writers of our time. His most famous works are two unfinished novels, The Trial and The Castle and the short story, The Metamorphosis

Kafka’s strange stories have earned their own adjective, Kafkaesque, to describe a world where mindless bureaucracy destroys the mind and body and numbs the soul. 

Max Brod

Max Brod, Franz Kafka’s boyhood friend who became his literary executor, was also, like Kafka, a Jewish Czech lawyer and writer. Brod famously defied Kafka’s requests to burn his unpublished work, and instead gathered as much of it as he could and arranged for its publication. “As far as my memory and my strength permit, nothing of all this shall be lost,” he vowed shortly after Kafka’s death.

Brod fled Prague in 1939 for Tel Aviv, where he died in 1968. He escaped on the last train as the German army rolled into Czechoslovakia, taking with him two suitcases, one  filled with Kafka’s manuscripts, letters and diaries. During the Six Day War, Brod, concerned for the safety of Kafka’s manuscripts, transferred the most valuable to Switzerland for safekeeping in bank vaults. The Brod Collection is believed to be mostly in ten different safety deposits in Geneva and Tel Aviv, as well as in Ester Hoffe’s humid, cat infested apartment on Spinoza Street.

Without Max Brod, we would know nothing of Franz Kafka.  Brod saved Kafka’s writings for humanity, only to leave what he had so carefully collected and saved not to the centers of Kafka scholarship in England and Germany, where his other manuscripts are scrupulously kept, but to his longtime secretary and (most certain) lover, Ester Hoffe, who hoarded them for forty years after Brod’s death, selling off single pages of letters, diaries and whole manuscripts, at random, to the highest bidder. At one point she accepted a very large sum from a German publisher, and then never sent the manuscripts she contractually promised. She never returned the money.

Ester Hoffe, a Holocaust refugee who died two years ago in Tel Aviv at the age of 101, was generally reviled by Kafka scholars and researchers, her name an anathema. Given Brod’s lifelong dedication to establishing and maintaining Kafka’s legacy, his gift of the Kafka papers to his secretary was an unfortunate choice. When she died in 2008, her two daughters, Eva and Ruth, now in their 70s, inherited the collection and decided to sell it to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Germany, sight unseen, for one million Euros. Headlines rang out around the world: Secret Kafka Treasure to be Revealed!

Kafka aficionados, academics and researchers were thrilled. Priceless, possibly unpublished writings by Kafka would finally be available to shed new light to understanding this most misinterpreted and beloved writer. But then, in classic Kafka fashion, the plot twisted, with no path made easy. The National Library of Israel stepped in, claiming the Brod Collection as state cultural assets, a national treasure, which should not leave the country. The legal wrangling and academic outcry has been ably covered in dozens of articles by Ofer Aderat for Haaretz, which has a financial interest in the case. (Haaretz and many Kafka copyrights are owned by Schocken Books.)

So, for more than two years, the Brod Collection trial has dragged on in a Tel Aviv family courtroom, with drama aplenty, court-ordered openings of secret bank vaults, tales of theft and deception, a nightmare for Hoffe’s daughters, as if straight from Kafka’s own imagination.

When the Brod Collection first made international headlines in the summer of 2008, I was in Poland, on a six-week Kafka Project research project for the 20 notebooks and 35 love letters confiscated from Kafka’s last love, Dora Diamant, by the Gestapo in 1933. Before I embarked on the 2008 Eastern European Research Project, I wrote an article for San Diego Jewish World, “My Quest to Find a Literary Treasure,” explaining what we are searching for, and why it’s so important.

For almost a decade, I have been waiting to see the contents of the Brod Collection. In 2001, in Germany researching the biography of Dora Diamant, I first learned about the Brod Collection, and within it, the existence of 70 letters Dora Diamant wrote to Max Brod between 1924-1952. This was information vital not only for the book I was writing, but also for the Kafka Project. In one letter, written in Berlin in April 1933, Dora described to Brod the theft of Kafka’s writings by the Gestapo. Among the list of 70 letters, a stunning, four-page letter is catalogued, with the date, the return address, and a few lines describing what was taken. But, besides the Swiss lawyer who catalogued the Brod Collection in the early 1980s, no one else has seen that letter or any of Dora Diamant’s letters, telegrams and postcards written over a twenty-five year period.

I am only one of many who are holding a collective breath. The next headline you see on Kafka’s papers in the Brod Collection might announce a happy resolution. But knowing Kafka’s dark sense of humor, I doubt it.

In the meanwhile, Kafka Project isn’t waiting. Plans are afoot to follow up the 2008 Eastern European research, collaborating with the University of Silesia, Jagiellonian University, the National Library of Silesia, and the Polish National Archives in 2012. The Kafka Project is working not only to recover a lost treasure and open a new chapter in literary history, but to repair at least one of the crimes of the Third Reich. If you want to learn more about Kafka, I am presenting a six-week survey, Kafka in Context, for the Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning at SDSU, starting Monday, September 13. To register, contact Here’s a link for more information on the SDSU Kafka Project.

Stay tuned for the next headline!  

Diamant is director of SDSU’s Kafka Project,  a journalist, and author.


For further reading on this case, here are a few of the best articles covering the Brod Collection’s many twists and turns:

Huffington Post: “Kafka Manuscripts: The Fight Over Kafka”

Time Magazine: “Were Lost Kafka Masterpices Stuffed in a Swiss Bank Vault?

Washington Post: “In Israel, a tangled battle over the papers of Franz Kafka

CBS: “Lost Kafka Papers Resurface, Trapped in Trial” CBS News (AP)

Ha’aretz: story on safety boxes being opened, another on estate executor receiving boxes.

The Guardian: “Lawyers Open Cache of Unpublished Manuscripts”;   “The Kafka Legacy: Who owns Jewish Culture?”


‘Psalms,’ set in Belgium, is unusual Holocaust memoir

August 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Psalms, A Memoir by Hirsch Grunstein; Create Space; 403 pages; no price listed.

By Norman Manson

Norman Manson

SAN DIEGO–This is, in a number of ways, a very unusual memoir of Holocaust survival. It is not a story of survival in death camps, nor of life on the run deep in the fields and woods of eastern Europe.

Rather, it portrays the recollections of a boy’s life under four years of Nazi occupation in Belgium – a life fraught with stress and anxiety, yet almost devoid of physical harm, at least for young Hirsch (or Henri as he was know in those years) Grunstein.

In some ways the most amazing part of this story is Grunstein’s phenomenal memory, his vivid descriptions of his growing-up years, 65 to 70 years ago. And a section that highlights this phenomenon is his recall of reading the entire biblical book of Psalms, which made a sufficient impression on him that he made it his book’s title.

While Belgium’s Jews certainly suffered under Nazi rule – 25,000 of the 60,00 who lived there were deported to Auschwitz and other death camps and few if any returned – the impression left by this book is that they underwent fewer of the horrors than their East European counterparts did and that, with the help of a few compassionate gentiles, a larger percentage were able to survive.

Grunstein suffered only one really excruciating moment in the course of his wartime odyssey, and what seemed to be a portent of utter foreboding quickly turned into a time of renewed hope. And, in the end, the immediate Grunstein family all survived and were reunited.

Originally from Poland, the Grunsteins immigrated to Belgium in 1930, and were quite well established in Antwerp’s flourishing diamond industry by the time the Wehrmacht invaded in May 1940. They first fled to France, but there was no haven there and they soon returned home, oddly enough with the encouragement of the conquering Nazis. At first, all seemed almost normal, but the Nazis gradually tightened their stranglehold, barring Jews from businesses, schools and much of the city.
In 1942, raids on the Jewish neighborhood were followed by deportations, ostensibly for work.

Finally, in September 1942, it was decided to place young Henri (he was 14) and his younger brother Sylvain with a gentile family in a small village between Antwerp and Brussels. Their hosts, Adrienne and Gaston, put Henri in a small upsteairs bedroom. And, for the next year and  a half, Grunstein spent most of his days in hiding, peering out the window or reading from the small book of Psalms that his father had made him take along.

This segment is the most fascinating and provocative of the story – one can see why he titled the book “Psalms.” Amazingly, he recalls, in minute, precise detail, the impact the psalms had on him, bring back memories of his childhood in synagogue and school, and inspiring visions of various aspects of Judaism.  The family was Orthodox, quite observant, and Henri tries to retain at least some semblance of Orthodoxy in this totally gentile environment. He even managed to fast on one Yom Kippur. And, when not reading the Psalms, he spends much of his time fanstsizing, gazing out the window and describing the scenes, and his fantasies.

This relatively placid existence came to a sudden, jolting end in the spring of 1944, when he (and others) were apprehended by the SS -his description of his capture is also very detailed and suspense-filled. And, for no more than a day, he appears to be doomed. However, he is rescued by the Belgian Judenrat (Jewish council) and spends the last months of the war in a home for children.

Not to minimize the fate of the 25,000 Belgian Jews sent to Auschwitz and other death camps, but this book seems to indicate that at least a significant number of Belgian gentiles hid and otherwise helped their country’s Jews. Relatively little has been written about the Holocaust in Belgium, and his story spotlights the Belgians’ role during that horrendous era. And Grunstein’s recollections of his wartime experiences are truly amazing in their precise, minute detail after almost 70 years.

For someone whose first language is not English, this memoir is quite well written, and the editing also is first-rate.  For a somewhat unusual take on the Holocaust, this is a book well worth reading.

Manson is a freelance writer based in San Diego

Book review: Combatting jealousy, the monster within us

August 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Benny The Big Shot by Tehilla Deutsch, illustrations by Vitaliy Romanenko, Nanuet, N.Y.: Feldheim Publishers, 2010, 25 pages including glossary, ISBN 978-1-59826-468-5, $12.99.

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO — With school soon to go back into session, this is an enjoyable, cautionary, tale about how students must struggle against becoming jealous of each other.  Although set in a Orthodox Jewish day school, the moral applies to students no matter what kind of school they attend—parochial, private or public.

This rhymed tale is about Benny, the new kid in school, who has no trouble answering the questions posed by the rabbi that stump the rest of the all-boys class.  Although he is quiet, and not a braggart, his constant academic successes are especially irksome to the narrator, his classmate Tzvi.

So while Benny was giving an answer one day,
I whispered to my neighbor, Avraham Kay.
“Take a look at who’s showing off once again,
It’s the one and the only Big Shot Ben!”
Then Kay passed the joke on the Aryeh Leib Pretter,
And that made me feel just a little bit better.

The story goes on to explain the concepts of lashan ha-ra (evil speech, gossip) and kin’ah (jealousy).  It races toward a conclusion when the rabbi announces that whoever does best on a certain test would win a prize—two admission tickets to a local amusement park.   Tzvi decides he will study harder than ever before just to do better than Benny.

Benny, unaware of Tzvi’s feelings, does his normal best and triumphs in a competition he didn’t even know he was in.   But, then he does something else: he asks Tzvi if he would please accompany him to the amusement park, explaining that he admires Tzvi for how easily he makes friends and hopes to be his friend too.

The positive gesture turns the relationship around. And Tzvi learns a valuable lesson.  Everyone in the class has a special talent, or unique feature of his personality, that makes him special.  One boy is funny, another is a good baseball player, another is quite strong. 

It’s important for children, as well as for some adults, to learn that we are not diminished by other people’s successes.  We ought not feel jealous if someone else wins a scholarship, or the lead role in a play, or a job promotion. Our own opportunity to make a positive contribution to society may be just up there ahead.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

Book Review: The Roman Wars-Was Josephus a Jewish hero or traitor?

August 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Jerusalem’s Traitor: Josephus, Masada, and the Fall of Judea by Desmond Seward, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA; ISBN 978-0-306-81807-3, ©2009, $28.00, p. 275, plus maps, endnotes, and selected bibliography

By Fred Reiss, Ed.D.

Fred Reiss

WINCHESTER, California — Desmond Seward, noted historian and author, in his newest book, Jerusalem’s Traitor provides us with a biography of Joseph Ben Matityahu, known to the world as Josephus. A biography of Josephus is equivalent to an eye-witness history of the First Jewish War against Rome (66-70 CE).

During much of the first century of the Common Era, the land that we call Israel today, Judea, Samaria, and the Galilee, was a place of religious infighting as well as political and military turmoil with Rome. In 4 BCE, as Herod lay dying, two Jewish nationalists led their followers to the Temple where they tore down the Roman eagle from its gate. Herod ended the revolt and burned the ringleaders alive. Soon after Herod’s death, the people demanded a reckoning for this deed. One of Herod’s sons, Archelaus, now king, refused. A revolt broke out, which ended only after much bloodshed on both sides.

Archelaus died in 6 CE. Consequently, Rome ended Judea’s semi-autonomous status and it became part of the greater Roman Empire, as a sub-province of Syria.  The Syrian authorities conducted a national census on behalf of the Roman government for the purpose of taxation. This created immediate hostility as the head count brought home the people’s humiliating subjugation by Rome. In the Galilee, Judah the son of Hezekiah gathered an armed band of patriots from among the Pharisees, and began a campaign of terror against the Romans stationed there. They called themselves the Zealots.

Most Roman rulers had little regard for Jews and their sensitivities. Emperor Tiberius (14-37 CE) placed Pilate in charge of Judea. The ruthless Pontius Pilate ruled there from 26-36 CE. During his administration Zealots were summarily executed. He also attempted to expropriate the Temple treasure for secular construction projects, and he allowed Roman troops to bring imperial images into Jerusalem. The Jerusalemites fought back. Though they were brave in their efforts, they were no match for the well-trained Roman soldiers.

The new emperor, Caligula (37-41 CE), appointed a Jew, Agrippa, to be a king, On his arrival in Alexandria, a city of about one million Jews, the Alexandrian Greeks mocked him and demanded that the Jews place imperial statues in their synagogues. Flaccus Avillius, the Roman Perfect of Alexandria, supported the Greeks. When the Jews resisted, he issued an edict declaring the Jews to be aliens, and turned mobs of Greeks loose in the Jewish quarters.

The next emperor, Claudius, in 52 CE named Antonius Felix (52-60 CE), a former slave, to be procurator of Judea. Felix demonstrated extreme wantonness. As a result of his debauchery the Zealots gained more and more adherents. Even the devoutly religious joined. Whenever he captured Zealots, Felix would crucify them, which only added to the turmoil and the people’s hatred of Rome.

Nero appointed Porcius Festus (60-62 CE) as the new procurator. Although just in his actions, he was unable to reverse the passions stirred up against all that was Roman. On the death of Festus, Nero appointed Claudius Albinus (62-64 CE), who likewise offended the Jewish people with his unsavory actions and tactlessness. The final procurator, Gessius Florus (64-66 CE), was the worst. He robbed whole cities and annihilated entire communities. When he attempted to appropriate seventeen talents of gold from the Temple treasury, the Jerusalemites rebelled. Florus retaliated by letting loose a detachment of soldiers. Once again, the Jews fought bravely, capturing the Temple mount, and eventually, the citadel known as Antonia. In the meantime, a group of Zealots seized Masada. The Jewish war against Rome had begun.

Seward begins his narrative with the birth of Josephus, about 36 CE. Josephus, a scion of a notable Jewish priestly family, could trace his family roots back to the Maccabees.  Family members recognized his impressive intellect and provided him with a first-rate education.  As a young adult, he travelled to Rome to secure release of Jewish prisoners. While in Rome, he gained the favor of many important Romans, with the result that he lived there for many years, and traveled in the rarified air represented by the coterie to Emperor Nero and his wife, Poppaea. On his return, the Sanhedrin first appointed him the Governor of the Galilee, and as the storm clouds of rebellion appeared on the horizon, subsequently appointed him General of the Galilee.

When the rebellion first broke out, the rag-tag Jewish army held out against the Romans and their general, Vespasian. Vespasian and his soldiers advanced from Antioch, in Turkey, to the Galilee. There, he assembled between 45,000 and 60,000 troops. Josephus, on the other hand, depended on a rag-tag army and the citizens of each city to make a defense.

Vespasian began his conquest of northern Israel with the city of Gadara. As he marched, the Roman fifth, tenth, and fifteenth legions destroyed much of the countryside and killed thousands of defenders. Josephus and the rebels withstood the assault on the city of Jotapata for six weeks before being forced to surrender due to lack of food and water. Josephus hid in a cistern, but was eventually captured. He saved his life by telling Vespasian that he was a prophet, and predicted that one day in the not too distant future Vespasian would become the Emperor of Rome. Vespasian, who believed that Jews did have the power of prophecy, spared Josephus’ life and Josephus became an advisor to Vespasian.  Later, after the Roman Senate named Vespasian the Emperor, he advised the newly chosen general, Titus, who was Vespasian’s son.  That Flavius Josephus is a traitor to the Jewish people is well-established belief. Yet, belief is not fact, nor is it truth. Through Seward’s account, the reader comes to understand the fear with which Josephus lived in the Roman camp. Were it not for the protection of the future emperors, Josephus would have been killed by the chiefs-of-staff.

To present Jerusalem’s Traitor, Seward synthesizes the major works of Josephus—The Jewish War (in five volumes), Jewish Antiquities, and Vita. He also draws on The Histories and the Annals by the Roman historian Tacitus. Josephus is considered the Benedict Arnold of the First Jewish War by first ill preparing the defense of the Galilee and second, at the brink of defeat at the Battle of Jotapata, offering his services to the Romans. Yet, because so much of Jerusalem’s Traitor is from the perspective of Josephus, one gets the impression that it is not Josephus who is the traitor. Indeed, Josephus portrays himself as an oracle and prophet who predicts the defeat of the Jews. On more than one occasion Seward quotes Josephus pleading with the Zealots to abandon the rebellion.

Josephus writes about the mercy that both Vespasian and Titus were willing to offer the rebels even up to the last moment—the capture of Jerusalem. Seward argues that since the Emperor funded the publication of The Jewish Wars, and surely read the manuscript, it is quite likely that Josephus placed the two generals in a flattering light. Seward also notes on numerous occasions when he suspects that Josephus is exaggerating his claims.

The real enemies, according to Josephus, are the Zealots, whom he calls sicarii, meaning assassins who kill by knife because they killed wealthy Jews and dissenters that way, and their leader John of Gischala (Jonathan of Gish-halab). Josephus tells of the brutal civil war taking place among the Zealots in Jerusalem even as the Romans were literally at the gates. There, murder and starvation at Jewish hands were the handmaidens of the Romans. Sward relies on Josephus who wrote proudly of the unrequited bravery of the Jews throughout the war, but especially in Jerusalem.

Seward recounts the tale told by Josephus of the awe and shock of the Romans soldiers at the courageousness of the Zealots at Masada. Historians did not accept Josephus’ story of the events at Masada, until the completed excavation of the sight in 1966. Now that we know the truth, it is no wonder that Rome celebrated the final defeat of the Jewish nation.

Jerusalem’s Traitor is a compelling read, and if one can get through the gore of the battles and the brutality of Jew against Jew, then what remains is a feeling of pride at the heroism and resourcefulness of the Judeans. What other tiny nation took on the mightiest army in the western world at the time, and held them at bay for more than five years.

Jerusalem’s Traitor is an excellent account of the First Jewish War as seen through the eyes of Josephus. Whether or not he is a traitor or a hero remains for the reader to decide.  One wonders how first century Jewry might have acted had they known the two thousand year consequences of their ill-conceived rebellion. What is certain is that the Jews contributed mightily to their own defeat and the destruction of the Temple. At the conclusion, there is the gut-wrenching feeling that King Solomon was quite astute when he wrote in his Book of Proverbs that one who troubles his own house inherits the wind.


Dr. Fred Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. He is the author of The Standard Guide to the Jewish and Civil CalendarsAncient Secrets of Creation: Sepher Yetzira, the Book that Started Kabbalah, Revealed; and Reclaiming the Messiah. The author can be reached through his website,