From Acculturation to Interaction: A New Perspective on the History of the Jews in Fin-De-Siècle Vienna

By Hödl, Klaus | Shofar, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

From Acculturation to Interaction: A New Perspective on the History of the Jews in Fin-De-Siècle Vienna


Hödl, Klaus, Shofar


The article focuses on the question of Jewish identity in Vienna around the turn of the twentieth century. It departs from the thesis that the relationship between Jews and non-Jews cannot be described adequately by terms such as acculturation. Instead, attention should be paid to interactive processes between them. It will be shown that this can be done by replacing the model of "culture as text," which is a static concept, by a more dynamic notion of culture, such as "culture as performance." In applying the new perspective to the history of the Jewish-non-Jewish relationship, it is possible to reach new insights. This approach will be outlined by references to the Viennese Jewish museum, the Yiddish theatre in the Habsburg capital, and two well-known Jewish figures in late nineteenth-century Vienna, Joseph Samuel Bloch and Theodor Herzl.

In the last decades acculturation has become one of the key terms in Jewish Studies. Most publications on the history and culture of the Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries deal with the Jews' acculturation to the mainstream society, a perspective which views Jews and non-Jews as two distinct social and cultural entities, where the Jews gradually become similar to their non-Jewish environment.1 This cultural model, known as "culture as text," posits a static character that does not allow for processes of exchange between groups or the interrelatedness of cultural configurations.2

Beginning in the 1990s, "culture as text" is being replaced by a more open concept of culture, known as "culture as translation"3 or "culture as performance."4 This model, in contrast to the "culture as text," views cultures as dynamic and in constant flux and provides an explanatory matrix for the constant de- and re-construction of cultural meaning.5 This shift in paradigm as it relates to Jewish Studies is only beginning to be undertaken, at least among German/Austrian scholars.6

Post-colonial theorists, such as Homi Bhabha7 and Edward Said,8 have shown that cultures are not isolated, homogeneous spheres separated by boundary lines; they cannot be defined in an esssentialist way because each sphere is the product of a constant process of change as it relates to other spheres. Therefore culture, along with identity, is never static.9 A study of Jewish culture cannot be done by looking at Jews in isolation, because Jews and non-Jews interact with each other, not by passively absorbing or resisting "infiltrations," but rather by constituting active forces within each others' culture.10

Studies on cultural transfer-the adoption of a cultural unit by a different culture11-show that in the course of this process the element, separated from its original sphere and adapted to the new context, undergoes a change in meaning.12 The new elements intertwine with other elements that have made up the cultural context so far and thus constantly influence each other, so that any new cultural unit leads to the reconfiguration of the whole cultural sphere.13 The more elements that are transferred, the stronger the changes will be, but the adoptive culture will never become a copy of the realm the cultural units stem from. And since each cultural sphere furnishes as well as receives elements, it is thus always in flux. One can infer from this assertion that there is simply no normative culture towards which acculturation may take place or from which deviation may be assessed.

The purpose of this article is to show that the "culture as performance" model leads to new perspectives on Jewish history, raises new questions, and arrives at new results. Viewing certain aspects of the history of Jews from a performative aspect will stress the interactive relationship and cultural exchange between Jews and non-Jews, resulting in an entanglement of Jewish and non-Jewish narratives. The meaning of the terms "performance"14 and "performative," as they are used in this article, is twofold. The first is related to the field of theatre, in which performative theatre is contrasted to traditional, mainstream, literary theatre. …

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