11 Oct 2021

Sometime earlier this year the YouTube algorithm plied me with an item from a channel devoted (mostly) to a two-years-running series of short presentations stepping through Jewish history, survey-style, by Sam Aronow, a youngish American-Israeli. I got hooked with the middle ages (Muslim Iberia particularly) and have since listened to all the entries added so far, just jumping around in the timeline a bit according to whim. The pieces get better (which is partly to say longer, the longest at nearly half an hour now) as he’s built the series.

Aronow’s merely whetted my appetite, I guess. Waiting for his next to drop, not long ago, I got to looking for something else in similar vein and was happy to find a channel maintained by an historian at what looks like the top of the arc of a very productive career, Henry Abramson, featuring (alongside other series and a lot of one-offs) a series he names ‘Jewish History Lab,’ covering much the same ground Aronow’s does. In this case, I’ve started at number one and am working through them in order.

Differences between the two men’s perspectives are good for some reflection. Aronow is non-religious and regards Israel, his adopted home, with some ambivalence; he’s moved evidently by fascination with the breadth and peculiar connective-tissue tenacity in a collective Jewish experience diversely realized across centuries and continents. He’s an advocate speaking from strong sense of ethnic identity, certainly, but one conscious, at the same time, of inviting viewers along on a personal journey without clear destination. I find that appealing. Abramson is more straightforwardly a believer, it seems fair to say, as both a religious person and someone committed, from the position of North-American-diaspora and academic-profession security, to an idea of the importance of a somewhat linearly unfolding story of Jewish culture and thought. For me this feels familiar and accessible, which reflects perhaps my relative closeness to Abramson generationally as much as the conservatism of my background.

Both combine passionateness for their subject with caution, a pluralist sensitivity to the difficulties taking it up in public dialogue in our era of shaky Western-Christian world dominance entails.

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