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Vobecka, Jana

Demographic Avant-Garde: Jews in Bohemia between the Enlightenment and the Shoah

Vobecka, Jana. 2013. Demographic Avant-Garde: Jews in Bohemia between the Enlightenment and the Shoah. Budapest - New York: Central European University Press. 250 s. ISBN 978-615-5225-33-8.

This book studies the unique demographic behavior of Jews in Bohemia, starting from a moment in history when industrialization in Central Europe was far away in the future and when Jews were still living legally restricted lives in ghettos. Under conditions not stipulated by conventional demographic theories, Bohemian Jews started recording marked decreases in mortality and fertility that signaled an early onset of their demographic transition.

Demographic Avant-Garde examines what made Jews in Bohemia true forerunners of the demographic transition in Europe and why this occurred when it did. The book proposes (1) a critical evaluation of the reliability and completeness of available historical data sources, (2) an analysis of the main demographic processes and their interpretation in a larger social-historical and international context (3) an analysis of the social and economic position of Jews within Czech society and of their contribution to the domestic economy, (4) a summary and publication of the primary data sources used. Demographic Avant-Garde scrutinizes demographic statistics from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century, and examines what made Bohemian Jews distinct from gentiles and from Jews in other lands.

From the book reviews:

“Vobecka not only succeeds in inviting scholars from other disciplines into ‘our’ demographic world, but also clearly sets out just why her history of Bohemian Jews is so important to our own understanding of the demographic transition(s). … This is clearly a very important book … a seminal, foundation text within both the canon of Central European historical demography, and that of Jewish populations as a whole. … Basically, historical demography needs more work like Vobecka’s book. More work which, through a careful reconstruction of past times, can help us to better understand how we have got where we are today. More work which informs a theoretical understanding of demographic change. More work which is brave in both temporal and spatial scope. More work that tries to explicitly speaks to contemporary demography. I wonder if, ultimately, this could be the biggest contribution of this book.”—Stuart Basten, University of Oxford, UK, (European Journal of Population)

"... a very important contribution not only to demographic history and historical sociology but also to the study of the history of Jews in Bohemia.
… Vobecka brings masses of quantitative data in the book in the form of tables and statistical appendices. It is difficult to imagine any future research on Jewish society in Bohemia that does not make intensive use of these materials and it is doubtful that there is much more to add in this area. However, one of the best indications of first class research is that it raises as many questions as it answers – and this fine study is no exception. … Demographic Avant-Garde… is an extremely stimulating contribution (that) illuminates a key demographic transition in an original and very well documented manner and simultaneously redraws the history of Bohemian Jewry with a finely delineated description of the manifold changes it underwent.”—Shaul Stampfer, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem (Czech Sociological Review)

“This is an ambitious study, covering a longer time span than many other works in historical demography, and it brings into the discussion a broader social and cultural context." – by Gary B. Cohen for The American Historical Review

“The book is written clearly and should be easily understood even by those who find a large number of figures, tables, and graphs challenging to absorb. It is an important study that should be of interest to historians, demographers, and other social scientists." – by Helena Heitlinger for Slavic Review


historical sociology

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