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LBI Book Club, Vol. IX: The Spirit Returneth by Selma Stern

With Professor Mark Koyama


Join LBI for our ninth book club, in which we'll read and discuss The Spirit Returneth by Selma Stern.

The Spirit Returneth tells the story of a Jewish family living in Jewish communities along the Rhine in the fateful years of 1348 and 1349. Through following the children of one family, who leave home to marry and start families of their own or to study, we follow the progression of the Black Death as it spreads across Germany, bringing with it horrific pogroms and massacres of Jews. As the disease and accompanying violence spreads, we watch the characters, Jews but also Christians sympathetic to them, struggle for survival and/or accept death. The book was published immediately after the Holocaust in 1946, and both at the time and today reviewers have noted that the novel deals with the Holocaust in actuality, but the author chose to distance herself from the immediate event and purposely set her novel in an "earlier Holocaust" of the Jewish people in Germany.


Selma Stern (1890 - 1981) was one of the first women to become a professional historian in Germany. Her writings in history dealt with Jewish history, and included the history of Jewish emancipation, the Court Jews of the Early Modern period, She is best-remembered for her seven-volume work The Prussian State and the Jews. A research fellow at the Akademie für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, she received her doctorate and married the director and founder of the academy, Eugen Täubler. In 1941 they fled to the United States, some of the last Jews able to flee Germany. Settling in New York at first, they then went to the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where she worked as an archivist. Eugen died in 1953. Selma Stern retired in 1955, quickly becoming one of the founders of the Leo Baeck Institute. In 1960 she moved to Switzerland to live near her sister, where she continued to write as well. She died in Basel in 1981.


Mark Koyama is an economic historian at George Mason University. He is also a senior scholar at the Mercatus Center and a Research Fellow at the Center for Economic Research and Policy (CEPR). He received both his PhD and his undergraduate degrees from the University of Oxford. Dr Koyama has worked on the emergence of religious freedom, comparative state development and on many other topics in historical political economy. His recent book (coauthored with Noel Johnson) is Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2019). He has written extensively about the economic role of Jews in the Holy Roman Empire at the time of the Black Death, and we look forward to him providing a historical background to the subject before our conversation.

Where to Get the Book

The Leo Baeck Institute has received permission from the publisher to copy and share the book with members of the book club, as the book is out of print. Once you register for the event, you will receive a link to a copy of the book in our Dropbox account in your order confirmation email. You can download the book and read it online, or if you have access to a printer you can print it out and read the hard copy. You will also find a copy here and there using Ebay, Amazon, and other book selling websites, but they are rare to find and often expensive. That said, you can sometimes find a cheap copy as well.