Max I. Dimont: Why did the Jews survive (old interview)

Historians in the News

In any field, distinction comes to very few. It is a rare gift, one that requires total service and dedication. This is especially true of the historian, for the study of the human journey upon earth is an unremitting struggle to exact the fullness of human experience from the voluminous records that have been left behind. To gain distinction as a historian one must have a deep and sympathetic understanding of humankind. Thus, the writer must be a full human being, for his greatness as a historian and his greatness as a human cannot be separated. This happy and noble combination was found in Mr. Max I. Dimont (1912-1992).

I am sure that many of you are familiar with his book Jews, God and History:  A Modern Interpretation of a 4,000 Year Old Story [1st ed., Simon & Schuster, 1962; 2nd ed., New American Library pbk, 2002], . But what about the man behind the pen – the human being? I have thus some years ago interviewed Mr. Dimont to find out about the man behind the book.

BERKOWITZ: Tell me a little about your background.

DIMONT: There is not much to tell. My parents were born in Russia and they settled in Helsinki, Finland where I was born. We were one of 1,200 Jewish families in Helsinki. In 1929 we arrived in the United States along with the stock market crash, though we had nothing to do with it. During World War II, I served in the Army Intelligence Service with the 18th Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne Division, and saw service in England, France and Germany, all the way to the Russian border.

BERKOWITZ: You have selected as your contribution to the world of scholarship the field of Jewish history. Would you comment on your interest in history in general and, more particularly, the development of your interest in Jewish history?

DIMONT: Ever since I was a little boy, I have been reading history–mostly Finnish and Swedish history. When I got to the United States, I found out that Sweden and Finland were not the centers of world history, and I was quite disappointed. Until then I thought the Finns had the most important history in the world. But since then I have continued reading the history of every civilization, every people. I have found it most fascinating and, of course, Jewish history was always a main interest. I always try to correlate into the history of other peoples and other civilizations.

BERKOWITZ: I am sure that in your study of Jewish history, you have read certain classic authorities in the field. When you read Jewish history, did you find something that presented a special problem to you? More specifically, did you, in your own teaching and lecturing experience, find an event that directed your attention and your thinking toward the kind of book that you wrote?

DIMONT: As a matter of fact, yes. The idea for this book grew out of a very curious incident. Hadassah in St. Louis had asked me to give a series of six lectures on a new Jewish history book that had appeared then, The Great Ages and Ideas of Jewish History. Twenty hardy Hadassah ladies showed up at my first lecture, and I lunged into what I call the “Oy, Oy, Oy” history of the Jews, modeled after the “Oy, Oy, Oy” school of Jewish historians. By this I mean those historians who present Jewish history as nothing but a 4,000 year tragedy, a travail, a sorrowful burden.

I was so accustomed to reading this kind of history that I unconsciously presented the same thing. In five minutes, my audience of twenty ladies was asleep, and my ego could not take it. So I threw away my prepared script and launched into a different kind of Jewish history, an off-the-cuff kind of psychoanalytic, psychological, sociological, economic interpretation of Jewish events. That woke them, and after the lecture, they kept asking questions for an hour.  

They asked why. Why did it happen that way? Why did the Jews survive? Why is Jewish history different? Why did Jewish culture last longer than anyone else’s? I did not know the answers, but I promised to give the answers for the next lecture. For the subsequent lectures we had a full house. Over a hundred ladies showed up, and the questions they asked kept me on my toes.

I kept a list of these questions, and I thought that it would be a good idea to write a book that would present these questions and their answers. That was the genesis, the idea for this book. I did not know, of course, that it would take me seven years to do it. ...
Read entire article at Rabbi William Berkowitz in the Algemeiner Journal (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

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