The Family Heretic

What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home

by Mark Mazower

Other Press, 400 pp., $25.95

Once a familiar political type, the Jewish revolutionary has long since disappeared from the historical stage. Celebrated on the left, exploited as a bogeyman by the right, he (and often she) flourished from the early 19th century to the middle of the 20th. A precursor was the Polish-born Zalkind Hourwitz, who played a walk-on role in the French Revolution. A late epigone was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, aka “Danny the Red,” a leader of the student tumults in Paris in 1968 (today he is a Green member of the European Parliament). In between these opera buffa characters were such major historical actors as Ferdinand Lassalle, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky.

The prominence of Jews among radical leaders and thinkers led the historian Isaac Deutscher to maintain that “[t]he Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry belongs to a Jewish tradition.” A Trotskyist, Deutscher disclaimed belief “in the exclusive genius of any race.” Yet he suggested that Jewish revolutionaries were “in some ways . . .  very Jewish indeed. They had in themselves something of the quintessence of Jewish life and of the Jewish intellect.” The conception of Judaism as inherently revolutionary is, of course, nonsense. The same claim has often been made of Christianity, and today we frequently hear it of Islam. The reality is that all three spiritual traditions contain both passive and aggressive streams—sometimes intermingled. 

Photo of Israel “Eppy” Epstein and his two Chinese children

Israel “Eppy” Epstein and his two Chinese children, daughter Ai Songya and son Ai Songping, in an undated photo.

This article is locked

Subscribe now for immediate and unlimited access to Web + Print + App + Archive
  • Already a subscriber? Log in to continue reading.
  • Not quite ready to subscribe? Register now for your choice of 3 FREE articles per quarter.
  • Already a registered user? Log in here.

About the Author

Bernard Wasserstein, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Chicago, is the author of On the Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War. He lives in Amsterdam.


Harvey Klehr on January 16, 2018 at 1:18 pm
Bernard Wasserstein's interesting remarks about Israel Epstein brought back memories of my visit to speak with him when I was in Beijing as a visiting scholar in 1984. What Wasserstein does not mention, but has been revealed by the Vassiliev Notebooks (copies of documents from KGB archives) is that Epstein worked as a KGB source under the code name Minayev. He had been recruited in China in 1937, but spent 1945-1951 living in the United States. Like some of the revolutionaries Wasserstein mentions, his own persecution by his erstwhile comrades never shook his faith. He claimed that his imprisonment during the Cultural Revolution had "helped improve him by shrinking his ego."

Want to post a comment? Please register or log in.
Copyright © 2018 Jewish Review of Books. All Rights Reserved. | Site by W&B