Let’s get this part out of the way first: Antiquities is, by my count, Cynthia Ozick’s 24th book, and she is publishing it at the age of 92.
Little known in English, Aguinis has been a Latin American literary powerhouse for 50 years, turning out elegant, prize-winning bestsellers that have explored everything from Argentine history to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the life of Maimonides, all to the praise of his largely non-Jewish audience.
Iosef’s version of a “safe space” is a filthy, unheated Jewish dorm where students occasionally die of tuberculosis, or a lecture on a random topic in a hall where he can duck in and hide while running from his attackers—for a full five minutes, until they find him and drag him out. As Iosef puts it one afternoon, “I received two punches during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches.” Microaggressions, indeed.
The great Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, who died in 2009, famously declared that history was “the faith of fallen Jews.” Yerushalmi had trained under the preeminent 20th-century Jewish historian Salo Baron, whose epic (and unfinished) 18-volume A Social and Religious History of the Jews was celebrated for its paradigm-shifting rejection of the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history. Despite a life lived in the shadow of Jewish history’s most lachrymose moment—both his parents were murdered in the Holocaust—Baron insisted that Jewish history was defined not by dying but by living, by the astonishing creativity and vitality of an ever-changing Jewish culture.