In 1962, Max I. Dimont published the book Jews, God and History, which would go on to become a bestselling popular work of history. The revised edition brings together 4,000 years of Jewish history, encompassing the early days of ancient Israel and its prophets all the way through the tragic events of the Holocaust and the triumphant establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Dimont’s recounting of Jewish history includes vivid portraits of great Jewish men and women throughout the ages: sages, doctors, scientists, entertainers, and political figures among them. Many of these personalities have achieved renown throughout the non-Jewish world as well, as examples of leadership, genius, and dedication to their ideals.
Here are brief glimpses into the lives of five very different Jewish individuals Dimont profiled in Jews, God and History:
1. Rabbi Akiva: Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, who lived from about the year 50 of the Common Era to about the year 135, has become legendary for his wisdom, humanity, and moral courage. He only learned to read at about age 40, after having spent his youth as a poor shepherd. His life includes a moving love story that is also an example of the value of education: He married the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Jerusalem, and she believed so much in his ability to become a successful scholar that she insisted he go to school alongside their son.
Akiva achieved such renown for his learning and teaching that he became known as the de facto spiritual head of the Jewish community. His explications of Torah continue to guide Jews throughout the world. Rabbi Akiva is also among the greatest martyrs to give his life for his faith. Because of his support for the rebellion of the military leader Simon bar Kokhba against the Jews’ Roman conquerors, Akiva was punished with a particularly cruel and torturous death. Generations of Jews have listened with pride to how Akiva defied his Roman tormentors, with the words of the Shema, the Jewish declaration of faith in one God, on his lips.
2. Moses Maimonides: Moses ben Maimon, known most widely as “Maimonides,” was the Medieval Spanish Jewish physician and philosopher who wrote the Guide for the Perplexed, as well as numerous other texts that retain the respect of scholars, rabbis, and lay readers for their clarity and cogency. Maimonides was born in 1135 in Cordova, Spain, then under Muslim dominion.
Maimonides’ family immigrated to North Africa during the time of Almohad rule, when Jews and Christians lost the freedom they had enjoyed under previous enlightened rulers. While still a young man, Maimonides wrote a commentary on the Talmud, including his list of Thirteen Attributes of Faith. His Mishneh Torah continues to be a fountain of wisdom for students of Jewish law. In the Guide for the Perplexed, his claim that Judaism was valid both rationally and spiritually prefigured the 18th century Jewish enlightenment.
3. Moses Mendelssohn: Born in Germany in the early 18th century, scholar and philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was the leading figure of the haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment. In his early years, Mendelssohn acquired the traditional Torah learning expected of the son of a Torah scribe, but went on to study Greek, secular German literature, and philosophy. European Jews at that time were often confined to ghettos, forbidden to pursue careers in certain professions, and limited socially and politically.
Mendelssohn’s writings helped to bridge the great divide that existed between Jewish and non-Jewish scholars and students. His support for Jewish civil emancipation and full participation in society had long-lasting effects. In his major work, Jerusalem, or On Religious Power and Judaism, he strove to show Judaism’s compatibility with rational thought and with the positive values of citizenship in a modern society. Moses Mendelssohn is also widely known as the grandfather of classical composer Felix Mendelssohn.
4. Sholem Aleichem: Under the pen name Sholem Aleichem (which means, in Hebrew, “Peace be with you,” and is a common expression), Ukrainian-born author Sholem Rabinovitz wrote some of the most enduring characters and stories in world literature. The author, born in 1859, created Tevye the Dairyman in a series of pieces that later transformed into the beloved late-20th century musical Fiddler on the Roof. His choice of the Yiddish vernacular as the language for telling his stories ensured him fame among the common people at a time when “serious” writers largely chose to publish in Hebrew.
In addition to Tevye, Sholem Aleichem gave readers stories about the unlucky entrepreneur Menachem-Mendel, and the publication Di Yidishe Folksbibliotek, through which he offered the work of other writers he admired. Late in life, Sholem Aleichem lived in New York City, where residents honored him with a party at Carnegie Hall in 1914. He died in 1916, mourned by legions of fans.
5. Albert Einstein: Physicist Albert Einstein revolutionized humankind’s way of looking at the world. In 1921, he delivered his great paper on the general theory of relativity, having won a Nobel Prize in physics the previous year for his study on the photoelectric effect, which describes the way in which electrons behave when bounced off a light-saturated surface.
Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879. He became a clerk in a patent office, and while still in his twenties began to produce groundbreaking works, which included a paper that called into question Isaac Newton’s constructs of the classical physics of motion and time. Einstein later immigrated to the U.S. to avoid Nazi persecution, and accepted a position with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. His later years were focused on developing his ideas about a unified field theory and the possibility of time travel, as well as on his advocacy for civil rights.