Asked about a book that had inspired my life and my work as a scholar, one volume that immediately came to mind was Arthur Hertzberg’s The French Enlightenment and the Jews, published in 1968. In this book, Hertzberg argues that the 18th-century Enlightenment that brought with it the social and political emancipation of the Jews also contained within it the origins of modern, secular anti-Semitism.
For me, the impact of Hertzberg’s book came not so much from its specific content, but rather from the way it brought home how much one could learn about the modern Jewish experience by studying the way French history and Jewish history were intertwined. In other words, Hertzberg’s book confirmed for me that my developing interest in French history and my long-standing interest in Jewish history were not only compatible, but were actually extremely complementary.
When my wife (Sharon) and I moved to Massachusetts for graduate school in the fall of 1969, one of the first lectures we attended was a presentation by Arthur Hertzberg at Brandeis University in which he spoke about his then recently-published book.
It was, of course, a treat to hear the author speak about his work, but Hertzberg’s talk had the added dimension of serving as something of an inspiration for me just as I was beginning my graduate training as a historian. Hertzberg spoke eloquently and behaved graciously, and this only reinforced my desire to become a professor of history.
At the time he wrote his book on the Enlightenment and the Jews, Hertzberg was the rabbi of a Conservative congregation in Englewood, NJ, and also a lecturer in history at Columbia University. A social activist involved in many progressive causes, Hertzberg would later go on to teach at Rutgers, Dartmouth, and the Hebrew University, among other schools.
The more I learned of Hertzberg’s work over the years, the more my admiration for him grew. Here, some 45 years later, I recall with pleasure my first reading of The French Enlightenment and the Jews and my attendance at its author’s lecture on that topic so early in my career.
Editor’s Note: Lee Shai Weissbach is professor of history at the University of Louisville, where he has also served as chair of his department and as associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. He has received both the college’s career achievement award for distinguished service and its career achievement award for outstanding scholarship. His publications include Child Labor Reform in Nineteenth-Century France, The Synagogues of Kentucky: Architecture and History, Jewish Life in Small-Town America: A History, and his edited and annotated translation of his grandfather’s memoir, A Jewish Life on Three Continents.