Field of Science

A Foray into Jewish History and Judaism

I have always found the similarities between Hinduism and Judaism (and between Hindu Brahmins in particular and Jews) very striking. In order of increasing importance:

1. Both religions are very old, extending back unbroken between 2500 and 3000 years with equally old holy books and rituals.

2. Both religions place a premium on rituals and laws like dietary restrictions etc.

3. Hindus and Jews have both endured for a very long time in spite of repeated persecution, exile, oppression etc. although this is far more true for Jews than Hindus. Of course, the ancestors of Brahmins have the burden of caste while Jews have no such thing, but both Hindus and Jews have been persecuted for centuries by Muslims and Christians. At the same time, people of both faiths have also lived in harmony and productive intercourse with these other faiths for almost as long.

4. Both religions place a premium on the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge and learning. Even today, higher education is a priority in Jewish and Hindu families. As a corollary, both religions also place a premium on fierce and incessant argumentation and are often made fun of for this reason.

5. Both religions are unusually pluralistic, secular and open to a variety of interpretations and lifestyles without losing the core of their faith. You can be a secular Jew or an observant one, a zealous supporter or harsh critic of Israel, a Jew who eats pork and still calls himself a Jew. You can even be a Godless Jewish atheist (as Freud called himself). Most importantly, as is prevalent especially in the United States, you can be a “cultural Jew” who enjoys the customs not because of deep faith but because it fosters a sense of community and tradition. Similarly, you can be a highly observant Hindu, a flaming Hindu nationalist, an atheist Hindu who was raised in the tradition but who is now a “cultural Hindu” (like myself), a Hindu who commits all kinds of blasphemies like eating steak and a Hindu who believes that Hinduism can encompass all other faiths and beliefs.

I think that it’s this highly pluralistic and flexible belief and tradition system that has made both Judaism and Hinduism what Nassim Taleb calls “anti-fragile”, not just resilient but being able to be actively energized in the face of bad events. Not surprisingly, Judaism has always been a minor but constant interest of mine, and there is no single group of people I admire more. The interest has always manifested itself previously in my study of Jewish scientists like Einstein, Bethe, von Neumann, Chargaff and Ulam, many of whom fled persecution and founded great schools of science and learning. More broadly though, although I am familiar with the general history, I am planning to do a deeper dive into Jewish history this year. Here is a list of books that I have either read (*), am reading ($) or planning to read (+). I would be interested in recommendations.

1. Paul Johnson’s “The History of the Jews”. (*)

2. Simon Schama’s “The Story of the Jews”. (*)

3. Jane Gerber’s “The Jews of Spain”. ($)

4. Nathan Katz’s “The Jews of India”. (*)

5. Amos Elon’s “The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish experience, 1743-1933”. ($)

6. Norman Lebrecht’s “Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World: 1847-1947”. ($)

7. Erwin Chargaff’s “Heraclitean Fire”. (*)

8. Stanislaw Ulam’s “Adventures of a Mathematician”. (*)

9. Stefan Zweig’s “The World of Yesterday”. (*)

10. Primo Levi’s “Survival in Auschwitz” and “The Periodic Table”. (*)

11. Robert Wistrich’s “A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad”. (*)

12. Jonathan Kaufman’s “The Last Kings of Shanghai”. (This seems quite wild) (+)

13. Istvan Hargittai’s “The Martians of Science”. (*)

14. Bari Weiss’s “How to Fight Anti-Semitism”. (+)

15. Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land”. (+)

16. Norman Cohn’s “Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (*)

17. Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made“ (+)

18. Edward Kritzler’s “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” (another book that sounds wild) (+)

19. Alfred Kolatch’s “The Jewish Book of Why” (+)

20. Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s “Jerusalem” ($)


  1. Don't you think that the use of the $ sign in this context is going to leave you open to charges of antisemitism? ;-)

    To be honest, I believe that all religions, when practiced in a non-coercive environment, are as flexible as Judaism and Hinduism in the decoupling of cultural identification with religious observance. Everything you say about those two religions also holds for Christianity in America, for example. There are adamantly self-identified Christians who go to church or don't; believe or don't; are true believers or atheists; are on the left or right (even far L and R) politically.

    In the Jewish shtetls of the 19th century in Europe, it was very difficult to be anything but observant; "free-thinkers" were allowed to express philosophic disbelief, but as long as they kept kosher and observed the sabbath and other traditions they were tolerated. Otherwise they were a threat to the community and left, voluntarily or not.

    What allowed the Jews flexibility to live a secular life and outwardly display a variety of life styles and beliefs was living in a secular society where they were respected, at least compared to the shtetl world. America provided this, but so did the countries of Western Europe, including not least Germany before the rise of Hitler.

    I would guess that the same is true of Hindus, Christians and Moslems. The upper reaches of economic and intellectual tend to be more tolerant and constitute new-world islands within old worlds.

    -Peter S. Shenkin

  2. Ash, I think you'll appreciate this collection of posts at riowang:

    These are mostly about central europe, culture and almost forgotten stories (like the whole blog). There are a couple of book recommendations in these posts as well.

    If nothing else, please check out this post, it's almost poetic:


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