Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Beyond French Jews

Modern European Jewish history is German Jewish history, it seems, and to a lesser extent, given books available in New York, at least, American, but for whatever reason, I'm only now catching up where non-French Jewish histories are concerned. While I'm fairly confident that my professors have done their best to make sure I know about Frenchmen other than Jews (and I'm getting there, although I'm still shaky on the Protestants), learning about Jews other than the French sort is something I'm piecing together more on my own - with the help of professors, of course, but for a change this time I get to tell myself not to be so parochial. The problem with fighting the parochialism within is that it could go all over the place. Everything's really interesting, particularly things that deal with populations neither French nor Jewish. The Uighurs, for instance, what's their story? And indigenous Scandinavians? Aren't nearly all Scandinavians supposed to be indigenous to Scandinavia? I am so confused.

Anyhow, for the time being, I need to know who the 19th century German and American Jews were, in order to figure out what did, or didn't, make the French ones unique. What makes figuring out the specificities of each case all the more confusing is that scholars of each group - often, not always - begin their books by explaining how French/German/American Jews were the most assimilated/integrated/fascinating/ahead-of-their-time of all Jews the world over. I tended to believe the French case 'won' when reading almost exclusively about that community, and there's a point to be made - the French Revolution emancipated French Jews and shook things up for Jews worldwide. But there were like five French Jews, ever, with the exception of the present day. German Jewish culture was obviously somewhat more influential - reading about German Jewry I'm often struck by how much the German-Jewish 'way' influenced my own upbringing, amongst indirectly-German-influenced New York Jews of Eastern European origin. And beyond the personal, there's Freud, Marx, Einstein, and so on, and so on. But then there are American Jews, who never had to go through the whole emancipation process in quite the same way, and who, because they were never the U.S.'s favorite minority group to oppress, had a chance to be a whole lot closer to 'just a religion' than in other countries (ahem, France) that are in fact less historically friendly to multiculturalism. (I just spent the day reading about slave-owning Southern Jews, which really drives the point home.)

So I still don't know what made Bildung (education; or, the ideology embraced by, among others, German Jews, that through cultivation, learning, and self-improvement, anyone of any birth could become a real German) any different from regeneration (rebirth; or, the ideology embraced by, among others, French Jews, that through cultivation, learning, and self-improvement, anyone of any birth could become a real Frenchman), or what made either of these, in the Jewish context, so terribly different from American liberalism or anti-nativism.

Long story short, I need to read a bit more comparative Jewish history, beyond the few books I've read in the last couple weeks, and the few others I'd read before starting grad school. Recommendations? (I'd also love to read something that settled the Bildung-regeneration question once and for all, or else I'll have to go and write that myself, and I doubt if my German reading skills are up to the task.)


Matt said...

One interesting 19th Century non-French, non-American Jew is Hermann Cohen, neo-Kantian philosopher and one of the fathers of reform Judaism. See here:

(One of my friends from grad school writes on 19th and early 20th century neo-Kantian philosophy- a topic designed to not get you a philosophy job, but fairly interesting in some ways, which is why I know a bit about Cohen.) Several others of the important neo-Kantians were Jewish as well, though for various reasons (many of them as much sociological as philosophical) the movement sputtered out in the early 20th century.

Withywindle said...

I once mentioned Yuri Slezkine's The Jewish Century; I still think it's worth reading. Carl Schorske's Fin de Siecle Vienna. As MSI will tell you, Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism - and, by reputation, her biography of Rachel Varnhagen. Benzion Netanyahu, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain; as a companion, David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence. Norman Cantor's The Sacred Chain, for irreverent, unreliable, but interesting survey. Some biography of Disraeli. Something on Budapest. Some biography of Judah Philip Benjamin, the Confederacy's first attorney general. Fritz Stern's Gold and Iron, about Bismarck and Bleichroder. Isaac Bashevis Singer, In My Father's Court. Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry

PG said...

Does anyone know to what extent the German-Jewish population in the U.S. was affected by the WWI era distaste for all things German? I'm wondering if there was a Jewish school equivalent of the Society of Sisters from Pierce v. Society of Sisters, i.e. one that instructed students in German as a way to keep them in touch with their cultural background. Or is the appropriate keep-in-touch-with-your-culture language for Jews always going to be Hebrew, regardless of whether it's the language actually spoken at home?

Matt said...

Does anyone know to what extent the German-Jewish population in the U.S. was affected by the WWI era distaste for all things German?

I don't know about the general public, but I know it became a big problem for academics, people like Franz Boas certainly had this problem, where his "Germanness" was made even more suspiscious to the WASP elite because he was Jewish (though not religious at all, it seems.) This also made him more suspect as a "bolshivik", of course, since he was left-wing as well. As he was soon to be denounced in German for promoting "Jew science", he really got it from all sides- a tragic affair for a truly brilliant scientist and important anti-racist activist. I suspect that this sort of thing was common.

Jacob T. Levy said...

I would think that any German-Jewish-Americans who were so German-assimilated as to prefer German to Yiddish (not Hebrew) for cultural roots would also be too German-assimilated to worry about setting up a Jewish school.

Also: Pierce v Society of Sisters isn't the German-language case; it's Oregon banning all private schools. You're thinking of Meyer v Nebraska.

Phoebe said...




Schorske, Arendt, and Singer I've read, to varying degrees. I guess what I want to know is, do Slezkine or any of the others you mention compare/contrast the major Jewish communities, and if so, which one of these books will contain the Bildung-regeneration answer I seek?


No clue re: the US, but French Jews, who were typically of German origin at that point, did try to emphasize their Frenchness, particularly after the Franco-Prussian War but I'm thinking after WWI as well. Jews were seen as too French in Germany (because they were seen as sympathetic to the French Revolution, which had emancipated French and at the time some German Jews) and too German in France (because most came from German-speaking lands).

"Or is the appropriate keep-in-touch-with-your-culture language for Jews always going to be Hebrew, regardless of whether it's the language actually spoken at home?"

There's also Yiddish, whose popularity as a vehicle for nostalgia waxes and wanes. Not to mention other Diasporic Jewish languages. Then there's the newer movement to reject Zionism and embrace the Diaspora, which could allow Jews to study anything from Yiddish to Ladino to German to Arabic in order to embrace their roots. And even us Zionists understand that our ancestors, for as long as we can trace, were not speaking a whole lot of Hebrew.

Phoebe said...


Re: German Jews in post-WWI America and Jewish schools, what you write makes sense intuitively, but after some Googling, I found an article by a legit scholar of German-Jewish history explaining that "Weimar Germany witnessed a revival of Jewish school education," which leads me to wonder if perhaps some of that revival spilled over to the US. Jewish education historically has been as much about distinctiveness as assimilation, the best example being the Alliance Israelite Universelle schools that taught 'Oriental' coreligionists to be good Jews and good Frenchmen, even when the latter was, for all kinds of geographical and cultural reasons, somewhat ridiculous.

PG said...


Good point -- I always muddle Pierce (Catholics) and Meyer (Lutherans).

Isn't Yiddish written in Hebrew characters?

Phoebe said...


It is written in Hebrew characters, and shares some words with Hebrew, but is enough like German that my father, who grew up knowing Yiddish, picked up German quite easily, and my boyfriend, who knows German, understands many Yiddish words. I use these outside examples because I don't know Yiddish or (much) German. Yet!

Withywindle said...

Phoebe: of bildung, comparabildung, and wildbildung, I knoweth not.

PG: My great-grandmother and her family (brothers, parents) were German Jewish immigrants whose love of Germany was such that it helped make them socialists/pacifists during WWI, because they couldn't bear the thought of their new country being at war with their old country. The only effect I heard about from the war, was that their German (-Jewish?) landlord in the Bronx deliberately disobeyed wartime orders to save coal, and kept their apartment building especially toasty in the winter of 1917-18, as his contribution against the American war effort.

Anonymous said...

Jewish American (Southern)/ German Jew factoid: Bernard Baruch's father, Dr. Simon Baruch (1840 - 1921) was a German Jew who came to the U.S. in 1855 and was a surgeon on the staff of Gen. Robert E. Lee's during the Civil War and a pioneer in physical therapy. --JM

Mark Cohen said...

I imagine you know it already, but a good history of "regeneration" in a Jewish cross-cultural context is French Jews, Turkish Jews, by Rodrigue at Stanford. He's excellent.

I've published a little on Jewish historical/cultural topics and I like your blog.

best, Mark