Ben Moser, "New Books," Harper's Magazine, October 2009, p. 68.


  In 1938, as the Jews were being battered by the latest calamity in their calamitous history, another Jewish writer of continental fame returned to the question of Moses, this time not as a pious rabbi but as a great psychologist, producing a daunting work that ever since has alternately annoyed and puzzled scholars. In RACIAL FEVER: FREUD AND THE JEWISH QUESTION (Fordham, $28), Eliza Slavet examines Sigmund Freud's final book, Moses and Monotheism, and its baffling contention that an unconscious historical memory as deeply rooted as any genetic inheritance explains the dogged persistence of the Jewish people.

  With its claim that the living are always, necessarily, and inescapably governed by the dead, Moses and Monotheism might usefully be read as a Jewish contribution to the Buddhist Jataka genre, and perhaps would have been better understood in India than it was in the West, where it has been frequently dismissed as the polemical ravings of a cancerous lunatic whose mental powers had declined along with his body. It is true that Freud's suggestion that the memory of the Jews is a trait as indelible as eye color can seem as far-fetched as Rashi's statement that Adam had previously mated with beasts; but Slavet shows that the topic of inherited memory and the origin of the Jewish people was as delicate for Freud as it has been for his readers, and that his text is peppered with uncharacteristic hesitations. He originally conceived of it as an historical novel and then felt "particular anxiety about establishing its status as history," though his insistence on the literal truth of his fanciful Moses story was not as thorny as "the idea that the memory-traces of these events were biologically transmitted."

  In a post-Nazi world, in which few ideas are more socially toxic than the notion that the Jews, in particular, might constitute a "race," Slavet's sympathetic approach to Freud's exploration of the origins of race is audacious, and she asks questions that are still relevant despite, or because of, their very toxicity. Is it enough to dismiss the concept of race as meaningless when it determines so much about how people see others, and how people see themselves? Who is a Jew? To what extent are the Jews a "race"? How is individual identity shaped by events of which the individual may not be conscious? Slavet concludes by formulating another problem that is as difficult in our day as it was in Freud's, wondering whether one can talk about the biologically invalid notion of race "without being complicit in its perpetuation."