Meditations on Jewish Creative Identity: Representations of the Jewish Artist in the Works of German-Jewish Writers from Heine to Feuchtwanger

By Bahr, Ehrhard | Shofar, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Meditations on Jewish Creative Identity: Representations of the Jewish Artist in the Works of German-Jewish Writers from Heine to Feuchtwanger


Bahr, Ehrhard, Shofar


Meditations on Jewish Creative Identity: Representations of the Jewish Artist in the Works of German-Jewish Writers from Heine to Feuchtwanger, by Helen Ferstenberg. North American Studies in 19th-century German Literature, vol. 34. Oxford, Berne: Peter Lang, 2004. 229 pp. $49.95.

In recent years, German-Jewish literature and culture has been one of the fields of intense scholarship in German Studies in the United States and Britain. Outstanding examples are the Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and Thought in German Culture, 1096-1996, edited by Sander L. Gilman and Jack Zipes, and Ritchie Robertson's The 'Jewish Question' in German Literature 1749-1939: Emancipation and Its Discontents (Oxford 1999). Ferstenberg's study, based on a Yale dissertation, is an important contribution to this field, since it deals with a topic that has not been treated: the Jewish artist in the fiction of German-Jewish writers before 1933.

Ferstenberg discovered that the question of Jewish creative identity was one that most writers were hesitant to broach because of the prejudice that Jews were "fundamentally uncreative" and "the issue of a dual German-Jewish identity" (p. 12). But in spite of the trend toward assimilation among German Jews, many "were anxious to retain a Jewish identity of some form, and many literary texts by German-Jewish authors bear witness" to this dilemma (p. 12). The author rejects Sander Gilman's assessment of Jewish self-hatred as "oversimplification" in the case of most German-Jewish writers and follows Ritchie Robertson's approach of avoiding both the symbiosis model as well as the model of a failed dialogue between Germans and Jews (Gershom Scholem) for her interpretation. She rather goes back to "the period when the Holocaust was still unimaginable," trying to understand "the age of assimilation as contemporaries did" (Robertson, The "Jewish Question," pp. 2-3). This approach enables her to show that German-Jewish writers were remarkably successful in their portrayal of Jewish artists to raise the question of German and Jewish allegiance and the issues of Jewish distinctiveness as well as the viability of Jewish participation in German culture.

The authors discussed include Heinrich Heine (1798-1856), Berthold Auerbach (1812-1882), Karl Emil Franzos (1848-1904), Karl Kraus (1874-1936), Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), Jakob Wassermann (1873-1934), Max Brod (1884-1968), Franz Kafka (1883-1924), and Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958). Heine is the most important figure ar the beginning of German-Jewish literature, because he is the first of his generarion to enter German cultural life, and his status as German writer of Jewish origin overshadowed the careers of subsequent generations of German-Jewish writers. Yet, he is not the best example for the author's thesis, because of his baptism and his regret in retrospect. Ferstenberg is right to detect a "sense of the precariousness of his position as a writer of Jewish origin attempting to establish himself in German culture" (p. 24). He shows a "deep ambivalence" towards Jewishness and its connection to artistic creativity. Only with his assumption of the"Marrano pose," that is, identification with the historical Sephardic elite during the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, is Heine able to achieve a reconciliation of his Jewishness and creativity, as his poems "Jehuda ben Halevy" and "Der Apollogott" show. But it is an exotic gesture that offers, as the author concludes, "no practical models for assuming a Jewish creative identity in contemporary German culture" (p. 58).

While Auerbach and Franzos present more realistic portrayals of Jewish artists, their protagonists end in failure, suggesting that artistic survival depends on successful Jewish integration into German culture. Both writers are shown to avoid a firmly Jewish creative identity, and their successful careers attest to the relevance of this model, although they are not oblivious to the dangers of political antisemitism. …

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