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Megilat Sefer: The Autobiography of Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) Hardcover – 27 Jan 2016
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As depressing as Emden's litany of woe was, I did learn a little something here and there from this book For example:
*A real sense of the precariousness of 18th-century life, even in times without significant religious persecution. Emden constantly mentions the premature death not only of his children and wives but of many others; in the absence of modern medicine, even mild problems such as a broken leg could lead to death. Life was as precarious financially as it was physically; most Jews were merchants whose prosperity was dependent on others paying their debts. So one tradesman's misfortune could create losses to that person's creditors. Were people happier? Emden sure wasn't; he wrote of his attacks of "melancholia" (which I assume means something roughly akin to depression today).
*The ability of premodern people to believe things that would strike most people today as superstitious or irrational. For example, Emden wrote that his great-grandfather could create a Golem (a kind of cross between a robot, a human, and a monster) and "sat all his days fasting, except for Sabbaths and Festivals." He also wrote that "no one could make disrespectful remarks to my father without avoiding punishment. For the Holy One, Blessed be He, demanded a heavy price (for such conduct)." Evidently, Emden lived in a mental world where vice was instantly punished. Of course, in a world where most people suffered devastating personal losses quite frequently, it was easier to believe this: everyone (not just the wicked) suffered more visible losses than today.
*The level of petty cruelty in close-knit communities. Jews were essentially self-governing, and were governed by communal councils that had the ability to do all kinds of things as long as gentiles weren't hurt. Emden supplies numerous examples of abuse of such authority- for example, censorship of books based on personal rivalries, excommunications for the most trivial of reasons, and decisions based on bribery rather than Jewish law. And when no faction gained a permanent majority, things were also bad: in one situation where rival factions fought for control of a synagogue, people "threw or pushed lecterns at one another."
*The weakness of extended families in an age without much travel or communication. For example, Emden could not attend his own daughters' weddings in Poland, and writes about his nephews, nieces, and in-laws: "since I am not acquainted with them or their names, I won't say anything more about them."
Lesson: the good old days weren't so good.
This book, despite the reviews, became a best seller in 2011, and is rapidly running out. Anyone interested in Jewish history and life should buy one quickly.