In 1999, the historian Peter Novick published a valuable contrarian book called The Holocaust in American Life (Houghton Mifflin). It seeks to answer "why in 1990s America—fifty years after the fact and thousands of miles from its site—the Holocaust has come to loom so large in our culture." Asking questions that few others have raised in print, Novick brings his skeptical intelligence to bear on a subject that is too often obscured by unctuous pontification and self-serving myths. His account of the evolution of discourse about the Holocaust, from the immediate postwar years to the present, is particularly helpful and frequently surprising.

Still, when all is said and done, Novick misses something vital. He argues against the notion that there are "'lessons of the Holocaust,'" asserting that "lessons for dealing with the sorts of issues that confront us in ordinary life, whether public or private, are not likely to be found in this most extraordinary of events." But by that argument, we would have no "lessons" to learn from much of the great literature of the world, so often concerned precisely with extraordinary situations that highlight the drama of human freedom to choose good or evil.

Above all, Novick the resolute secularist is scornful of those who, like Elie Wiesel, Irving Greenberg, and many others, both inside and outside the Jewish community, see a profound religious significance to the Holocaust, a metaphysical dimension. "Even many observant Jews are often willing to discuss the founding myths of Judaism naturalistically," Novick writes. "But they're unwilling to adopt this mode of thought when it comes to the 'inexplicable mystery' of the Holocaust." He just doesn't get it.

Another hardheaded secularist who nevertheless ...

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