In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Modern Jewish History

  • Introduction
  • General Histories
  • Document Collections
  • Jewish Historiography
  • Biographies of Jewish Historians
  • Emancipation
  • Jewish Enlightenment
  • Women and Gender
  • Language
  • Encounters
  • World War I
  • New Jews
  • Jewish Political History
  • Jewish Economic History
  • The Postwar Era

Jewish Studies Modern Jewish History
John Efron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0052


Just when the modern period in Jewish history begins has long been a point of contention among historians. As is true for general history, not every Jewish community experienced the onset of modernity at the same time. It was a long and uneven process. Dating the onset of the modern period depends on the criteria used, which in turn reflect the cultural and ideological biases and predilections of the historian doing the dating. While a cogent argument can be made for the middle of the 17th century, a more convincing one can be made for the middle of the 18th century. Beginning then and extending until today, the modern period is the time in the Jewish historical experience when Jews were more widely dispersed, more religiously variegated, more secular, more multilingual, more politicized, more assimilated, more institutionally organized, more conscious of the Jewish past, and more economically and socially secure that at any time in their long history. This same period has also seen more Jews than ever before divorced from the Jewish community, more undergo conversion, more intermarry, and, most tragic of all, more Jews murdered for the sheer fact of their being Jewish that at any other time in Jewish history. The establishment of the State of Israel a mere three years after the Holocaust illustrates most vividly the wild fluctuations of Jewish experience at this time. The modern era, then, is one of extremes in Jewish history, a period in which the Jews met with both greater acceptance and greater rejection than at any other time in history.

General Histories

The first texts to address the history of the Jews in the modern period appeared in the context of the great single-authored, multivolume histories of the Jews that first appeared in 19th-century Germany and, later, eastern Europe and the United States. However, the explosion of knowledge together with the trend toward specialization has seen the demise of that genre. Since the 1960s a number of modern Jewish history texts have appeared, all written by specialists. These include the valuable though politically tendentious Ettinger 1976 (original Hebrew edition, 1969); Seltzer 1980, which emphasizes intellectual history; Vital 1999, a political history of the Jews; and Gartner 2001, a fine study that stresses the sociological features of Jewish life. Biale 2002 is an ambitious approach to Jewish cultural history that, in addition to taking account of the contributions of the intellectual classes, includes vernacular Jewish culture as part of the whole, seeing it as intertwined with both elite Jewish culture and that of the surrounding environment. By contrast, Sachar 2005 provides us with a long and dense history from above. Efron, et al. 2013 is the most up-to-date telling of the story through a transnational and comparative lens.

  • Biale, David, ed. Cultures of the Jews: A New History. New York: Schocken, 2002.

    See Part 3: “Modern Encounters.” The essays cover eastern and western European Jewry, Sephardic Jews, and those in the lands of Islam, Israel, and the United States. Seeks to demonstrate the diversity of Jewish cultures, their mutability over time, and the extent of interaction with the larger environment in the making of those disparate Jewish cultures.

  • Efron, John M., Steven Weitzman, and Matthias Lehmann. The Jews: A History. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2013.

    The most recent history of the modern Jewish experience, this study emphasizes social and cultural history, paying particular attention to ethnography, popular secular culture, lived religious lives, economic history, and the subject of language choice for modern Jews.

  • Ettinger, Shmuel. “The Modern Period.” In A History of the Jewish People. Edited by H. H. Ben-Sasson, et al. 727–1096. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

    A learned work, but one that is severely compromised due to the ideologically driven quality of the narrative that sees the Jewish past through the prism of Zionism.

  • Gartner, Lloyd P. History of the Jews in Modern Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    A fine study that begins in the 17th century and takes the story through to 1980. It is especially strong in the dealing with demography, migration, and the structure of Jewish communities worldwide.

  • Sachar, Howard M. A History of the Jews in the Modern World. New York: Knopf, 2005.

    A massive tome with copious detail and written in an engaging style. It is strongest when discussing governments’ policies toward Jews and how those policies impacted upon them by concentrating on Jewish elites. German Jewry seems to be the model used here for modernization, largely because the author equates modernity with secularization. As such, his descriptions of religion, especially Hasidism, recall some of the excesses of Heinrich Graetz.

  • Seltzer, Robert M. Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience in History. New York: Macmillan, 1980.

    A work that, while not as strong on the life of the Jewish people as the title promises, nonetheless successfully explicates Jewish thought. A fine intellectual history of the Jews.

  • Vital, David. A People Apart: The Jews in Europe, 1789–1933. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    While it offers little in the way of intellectual, cultural or social history, this is far and away the fullest general political history of modern Jewry. However, it adopts a Zionist-inspired lachrymose conception of the post-emancipation Jewish experience that somewhat teleologically portrays the course of European Jewish history and its catastrophic end.

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