It is rare to find a multi-authored volume of essays (twenty-four writers in all) that reads like a single-author book; this useful, well-conceived volume achieves just that. Much has been written on the history and culture of modern Middle Eastern and North African Jewry, but until now, there has been no comprehensive survey that pays attention to social and cultural history and takes into account the Ottoman Empire's Balkan and Anatolian provinces, the Arabic-speaking lands, and the Iranian cultural sphere. The two-fold division of this volume into "Themes" and "Country-by-Country Survey" is particularly useful for teaching purposes, despite some minor repetitions. The suggested reading lists are excellent for classroom use.
Two pithy background chapters offer a survey of Jewish history in the Middle East and North Africa from the rise of Islam to 1700 (by Jane Gerber) and of Europe's impact on the region (by Reeva Simon). Eleven thematic essays cover the economic, religious, and intellectual life, the communal structure, education, folkways, material culture, music, Zionism, and the world of women. Zvi Zohar's essay, "Religion: Rabbinic Tradition and the Response to Modernity," is particularly satisfying and well crafted. Mark Kligman's tantalizingly brief chapter on music is supplemented by an accompanying CD and an appendix of texts. The chapter on Jewish languages written in part by David Bunis (Ladino), Joseph Chetrit (Judeo-Arabic), and Haideh Sahim (Judeo-Persian) is extremely useful but leaves the reader wanting more. (Also, there is regrettably no coverage of the Jewish Kurds' neo-Aramaic vernacular.) Ammiel Alcalay's packed survey of intellectual life in only a few instances slips into that author's penchant for Third Worldist polemic.
The thirteen chapters of the country survey successfully balance political and social history within limited confines. Most are written by leading specialists (e.g., Harvey Goldberg for Libya) and distill their own research. Most conclude their story in the 1960s or 1970s, by which time most Jews had emigrated, but the chapter on Morocco by Michael Laskier and Eliezer Bashan contains a valuable postscript on the contemporary scene.