November 10, 2003

Mel Konner writes an Unsettled history of Jews

By Michael Terrazas

In the introduction to his new book, Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews , Mel Konner writes: "Other people have suffered greatly; others have survived. But the Jews seem to garner a kind of attention focused on no other people ... Why? That is the mystery at the heart of this book, and it took me, and will take us, through the grand sweep of Jewish cultures in time and space."

So begins a 450-page narrative (Viking Compass, 2003) that aspires to nothing less than a yawning canvas that encompasses the entire history of the Jewish people, from their earliest beginnings in the second millennium B.C. up to and through the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel. As its title suggests, Unsettled is not a political history--its author freely admits that readers in search of precise, exhaustive information on events, leaders and standard historical facts may leave the book wanting more--but instead is an anthropology that seeks to describe the daily lives of ordinary Jews, in all their far-flung and often unexpected locales.

"I decided to write this book because of a passion for the subject, really, mostly as an avocation," said Konner, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology. "I've always known a lot about Jewish culture and experience, and being an anthropologist I decided to teach a course called 'Anthropology of the Jews' beginning in the mid-'80s. It was much harder than I thought it would be to put the two streams of my life together, and after teaching the course long enough I decided to write a book. It was trying to come out for a long time."

Konner likes to say he's "been working on the book for 57 years," but his actual research for Unsettled involved seven trips to Israel (including four in the last five years) during which he visited archaeological sites, kibbitzum and settlements and talked with a range of people across the political spectrum. He also visited the Dachau concentration camp and other sites of Jewish interest around Europe. Finally, Konner cites his own life growing up "inside the American Jewish experience" as rich material from which he drew.

As for the need for such a work at this time, Konner identified three types of readers he had in mind: First, those familiar with Jewish culture who want to learn even more; second, the "nominally Jewish" who want an efficient way to learn a lot.

"Most importantly," he said, "[I thought of] the non-Jewish person who may be curious about this people and wants some background to the news about anti-Semitism, Israel and the Holocaust."

Unsettled's 18 chapters begin with the origins of the Hebrews in ancient Egypt and slowly reach out through the Jewish diaspora to Europe, Russia and America, as well as less well-known Jewish communities in places like China, India and medieval Spain. Kirkus Reviews called it "a lucid exposition, informed by science and poetry alike ... with some new revelation and novel interpretation at every turn." Other reviewers such as scholars Sander Gilman and Harold Bloom, along with Publishers Weekly, have given the book similarly high marks.

But in the end, Konner said the most important critic of Unsettled is himself, and now that the book is done, he finds himself fulfilled in a way he had never before experienced.

"I can now leave this world smiling," he said. "In the end, writers have to write for themselves. It sounds pompous, and

I used to think it was ridiculous, but the older I get the more I realize how true it is. I loved the process and I like the product, and I don't see how I can really ask for more."

As for whether he feels he achieved his ambitious goal of chronicling the 3,000-year history of an entire people, Konner quoted Cervantes' thoughts on Don Quixote. "I would have this 'child of my brain to be the most beautiful, the happiest, the most brilliant imaginable. But I could not contravene that law of nature according to which like begets like,'" he said. "If true for [Cervantes], how much more true for me?"

In celebration of Jewish Book Month and the Carlos Museum's "Jewish Life in Ancient Egypt" exhibit, Konner will lecture on Unsettled and hold a book signing on Thursday, Nov. 13, at 7 p.m. in the Carlos reception hall. For more information, call 404-727-4291.