Unusual Stories in Jewish History
By Jack Cooper
Gefen Publishing House, 2010, 242 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - August 17, 2010
Imagine getting hold of a well-written history book where all the fluff has been removed and you are left with fascinating and thought-provoking stories with just the right amount of information, only the delightful facts, information that prompts you to say when you meet your friends, "This may surprise you, but did you know that …?"
Jack Cooper's book does just that. He filled it with over two hundred true startling facts of Jewish history, about people and events. Each tale is generally told in a single page. They address ancient times to life in Western, Eastern, and Central Europe, to the Holocaust, America, and Israel.
Cooper, for example, tells his readers how what they may consider the braided Sabbath challah bread that is eaten after a blessing at the start of the Sabbath meals as a near sacramental item, but it is a carryover from a pagan custom associated with a pagan idol; the fast day of Yom Kippur, that many think is the most sacred day of the year, was practiced as one of the two greatest days of joy each year during the talmudic period, in the middle of the first millennium, as a day when young Jews danced and sought spouses; ritual murders that numerous people associate with Christian persecution is a pre-Christian concept; a pagan Roman emperor allowed Jews to build a third Temple after the second Temple was destroyed, but the building project was interrupted by an earthquake.
Cooper tells that while Jews suffered greatly after a host of them were exiled from Israel in 70 CE, there were good times as well. A Jew commanded a Muslim army. King Henry IV defied the Catholic pope, the head of his religion, to help Jews. But there were unreasonable crimes against Jews as well. During the Black Plague, killing Jews cancelled Christian debts. Chaucer's classical Canterbury Tales would be considered an anti-Semitic hate document and outlawed today. There were times when Jews were prohibited from eating kosher food.
There are also remarkable tales. A Jewish astronomer's chart made it possible for Christopher Columbus to discover America, and it may be possible that Columbus was a Jew. Albert Einstein was a poor student. Yale University has as its seal a motto in Hebrew and Latin.
Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, had a nurse for his children who was an anti-Semite and who treated his children badly. The Israeli Mosad heard about a plot to assassinate Anwar Sadat, they warned him, and saved his life.
In short, this is a fascinating book, filled with true sometimes startling always interesting facts.