Measuring the passage of time in human affairs is done by arbitrary means. There are numerous
calendars that exist in human society, and the units of time measured by them --
years, centuries, millennia -- all have different points of departure and ending.
Today, one measure of time has come to dominate world civilization. That measure, Christian in origin but today secular in practice,
records that we have recently ended the twentieth century and are now embarking
on our journey of life in the twenty-first century. For convenience and historical
understanding therefore, our time is measured in the one-hundred-year spans that
mark the passage of centuries according to that general secular calendar. This book
will deal with the events and occurrences of the recently completed twentieth century
with a specific focus on to how those events and occurrences impacted on the Jewish
people. But since the Jewish people do not live in a vacuum of time or space, the
general story of mankind during this century will necessarily serve as the backdrop
and frame for the particular Jewish story.
Perhaps no century in human existence has witnessed the terrible contrasts of
the twentieth century. War, plague and organized governmental
murder during that century snuffed out the lives of at least 150 million people:
equivalent to the entire population of the world at the time of Julius Caesar.
The terrible technology of war created fiendish new ways to maim and kill. But
as a counterpart, the medical technology of war saved millions of wounded and
pioneered breakthroughs in the use of new drugs, surgical procedures and
breathtaking diagnostic and therapeutic technology. Agriculture became ever more
productive as the world’s population tripled in the century and therefore, in
theory, there was enough food for all. But the reality was that a third of the
world suffered from problems of obesity while the rest of mankind teetered on
the brink of malnutrition. Monarchies and empires disappeared from the political
scene but totalitarian regimes and cruel dictators persisted in the Balkans, the
Middle East, South America and Asia. Humans walked on the moon and airplanes
linked the world’s countries, but ancient quarrels and ethnic tensions remained
seemingly as strong as ever.
It was a century of enormous human progress in knowledge and communication. Scientific
discovery and research helped to unravel many of the mysteries of nature and of
the human body. Physicists discovered new ways of seeing the unseen and understanding
the previously unknown. At the end of the century, the computer had revolutionized
world commerce as well as individual behavior and work habits. Television became
the most influential social tool in the world, for better or for worse. Psychology
and psychiatry began to unravel the workings of the human mind, and the stresses
causing imperfect mental health were revealed and categorized. It is no wonder then
that the great advances in all these areas began to force a reassessment of long-held
verities, beliefs and societal norms. But the basic nature of human beings had not
changed and it is that basic nature, more than anything else, which is the determining
catalyst of human history -- certainly of the history of the twentieth century.
No nation or religious community in the world was more affected by the events
of the twentieth century than was world Jewry. The bitter conflict between the forces
of secularism and modernism on one hand and tradition and ritual observance on the
other hand -- a struggle that began in the eighteenth century and shows no sign
of abatement even now in the twenty-first century -- would govern much of the twentieth
century Jewish story. But this internal struggle, persistent and important as it
may be, was dwarfed by the external events that shaped the Jewish people in the
1900’s. Every period of that century -- pre-World War I Europe and America, the
Great War, the time between the wars, the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler and
Stalin, World War II, the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel, the Cold
War, the continuing Arab-Israeli wars,
the social revolutions of the 1960’s, ’70’s and ’80’s, the globalization of commerce,
the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War -- all intimately involved the Jewish
It is no exaggeration to state that the twentieth century changed the makeup,
direction and face of world Jewry as no other century had done for nineteen hundred
years. It must also be said that no century in world civilization changed the way
that civilizations and societies viewed themselves. All of the verities and long-held
beliefs of all world societies and beliefs were called into question by the events
of the twentieth century. It is for these reasons that it deserves the attention
and study of all human beings and especially of contemporary Jews living at the
cusp of the next century. For there is no substitute for knowing the past: it serves
the vital purpose of assessing the present intelligently and accurately.
Most of the events revolved about the major wars -- hot and cold --that bloodied
these past hundred years. Though war is a constant in all human history, no century
saw war conducted on such a global and ferocious scale as did the twentieth century.
Though Jews were involved in all of the wars, it would not be wrong to state, as
did the historian Lucy Davidowicz, that the Second World War in Europe, initiated
by Germany, was a war against the Jews. That such a war could and did take
place in the heartland of twentieth century Christian Europe came as a major and
surprising shock to world Jewry, which was completely unprepared for even the possibility
of such an eventuality. The shadow of the Holocaust hovers over all other events
of the last five decades of the century, and not only as far as Jews are concerned.
Because of the “success” of the Holocaust, mass murder and genocide became publicly
acceptable methods of settling ancient scores -- real or imagined -- and yet so
reprehensible that war criminals were apprehended and actually subjected to prosecution
The twentieth century, therefore, was a century of ambivalence and mixed messages.
Terrorism on a global scale was clandestinely justified by governments and religious
groups while at the same time it was officially and piously condemned by almost
all world leaders. Nationalism remained strong, virulent and dangerous, and yet
for the first time an effective supra-nationalist international organization was
created and operated with some effectiveness and influence. Formal religion weakened
in much of the developed world while making great strides among the masses of the
less developed areas of the globe. Women, racial and ethnic minorities and workers
the world over gained rights and opportunities denied them in previous centuries,
and yet bigotry, chauvinism and economic exploitation continued to ravage much
of the world. The twentieth century was heroic and terrible, progressive and
reactionary, forward-looking and frighteningly regressive. It is this confusion
and contradiction, both in general and Jewish world terms, that more than
anything else defines this century.
In a dramatic, almost tragic way, the twentieth century would serve to unite
the two main societal streams of the Jewish people -- the Sephardim and the Ashkenazim.
By 1900, the Ashkenazim far outnumbered the Sephardim in population by a ratio
of at least three to one. The Ashkenazim had undergone great changes, even revolutions,
in the preceding centuries: These changes, and the ideas and ideals they represented,
were both internal and external to the Ashkenazic Jewish world. That world was rocked
by the movements of Chasidus, Haskalah, Reform, Emancipation, Zionism, Marxism,
secularism and mass emigration. All of the events of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries in Europe had little influence on the Sephardim who lived around the Mediterranean
basin and in the Middle East. In the main, the Sephardim escaped these seismic events
and thus entered the twentieth century with a completely different culture and worldview
than their Ashkenzic brothers.
Ultimately, the horrific and sometimes heroic events of Jewish life in the twentieth
century would smash the old Sephardic world order just as it had destroyed the European
Jewish world forever. The Sephardim would be forced to confront the challenges
of modernity, rapid change, societal dislocation, violence and rebirth.
I have chosen to record the events of this century in a loosely chronological
order, approximately decade by decade. Though I have not followed any general theme
of categorization by geography, economic theory, political, social and religious
movements, or theory of history in the book, an overlapping of the dates and decades
in the book will necessarily have occurred in order to render the story in a clearer
and more logical fashion (even though history always defies logic). I have concentrated
on describing in some detail Orthodox Jewish life in this century as part of the
overall story. This is due to my personal bias that Orthodoxy remains the most vital
and creative element in the Jewish world and also because of my belief in the divinity
of Torah, the authenticity of the Orthodox tradition and its unique role in ensuring
the survival of the Jewish people throughout the ages. Nevertheless, I have attempted
not to ignore other movements and groupings in the Jewish story of this last century
and to accord them their fair due. This work is meant as a history book and not
as a religious polemic.
My sincerest appreciation is extended to the executives and staff
of Shaar Press who have published this book, as they have
my previous books. I treasure their personal friendship and professional advice.
Rabbi Nosson Scherman has contributed greatly to this book by reading the entire
draft and commenting upon it. His insights, knowledge and good sense have saved
me from many an error in fact and judgment in this writing. I am grateful for his
interest, time and effort in this book, as well as being rewarded by his good cheer
and warm friendship. I especially wish to thank Charlotte Friedland for her superb
editing skills and her devotion to improving the original draft of this book. I
am indebted to her for her insights, comments and tenacity in persuading a recalcitrant
author to review his work, clarify his opinions and refine his language and style.
Many thanks are due to the talented people who have assisted me in this project
and contributed their outstanding skills to its success. My appreciation goes to
Art Director Eli Kroen, Hershy Feuerwerker, the designer of the book and its cover,
Avrohom Kay for his work on maps and pictures, as well as to Tzini Hanover and Frady
Vorhand for their work. Shmuel Blitz is thanked for his expertise and for his help
in procuring photographs in Israel. Proofreader Tova Ovits labored with dedication
and admirable precision over the entire book.
My wife and family have extended me their vital support and understanding during
the long years of research and months of writing. May they be blessed for their
kindness and patience. I have no words to truly express my love and gratitude to
them. And above all, I am thankful to the God of Israel who has preserved me in
life and health and allowed me to be a participant in the story of my people over
the last century.