German-Jewish History in Modern Times

By Levenson, Alan | Shofar, April 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

German-Jewish History in Modern Times


Levenson, Alan, Shofar


German-Jewish History in Modern Times

This monumental effort by several leading scholars of German Judaica to capture the intricacies of an endlessly fascinating community succeeds brilliantly on all fronts. Any teacher of modern Jewish history, any teacher of modern German history interested in the role of German Jewry, and, in addition, any serious student of German Jewry, undergraduate, graduate, or adult, simply cannot afford to pass this work over. The range of subjects is unsurpassed; the bibliographical essays are extraordinarily up-to-date yet judiciously include the best older scholarship; the accuracy is impeccable; the writing is always graceful. Overall, these volumes relate the story of German Jewry at a highly sophisticated, but still generally accessible level. All of the contributors display admirable command of the scholarship in English, German and, where relevant, Hebrew.

While the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, each of the four volumes stands on its own. Nevertheless, whichever time period interests the reader most, he/she would be well-advised to read Michael Meyer's series preface in Volume One to discern the interpretive gist of the work. While the series offers no new thesis, it certainly encapsulates the last couple of decades of research to present a convincing synthesis: German Jews were not living on the edge of destruction, though antisemitism was a constant challenge. The overwhelming majority retained their fundamental Jewish identity even into the modern period and showed themselves capable of inventing new venues of Jewish identity. The Jews of Germany immersed themselves fully in the gentile environment, but nevertheless created an identifiable and authentic German Jewish subculture.

German-Jewish History in Modern Times adopts a consistently sympathetic tone. Implicitly, this takes aim at both antisemitic critics of German Jewry and also Jewish ones such as Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem, two German Jews, who, though they disagreed on many issues, both considered the modern experience in Germany a protracted tragedy. In the cursory treatments accorded the psychodynamics of the escape from Judaism/Jewishness and in the near-apologetic discussions of the Reichsvertretung (organized Jewry's official voice in the Nazi years) this neo-Whig tendency is most pronounced. On the other hand, given the merciless treatment of German Jews by the Nazis, their precursors, and, in print and casual conversation ("more German than Jewish"), by the rest of the Jewish world, I am glad that the authors erred on the side of empathy rather than disdain.

Although Meyer cites geography and periodization as problems, most readers will be gratified that the editors employed a Grossdeutsch understanding of the Deutsches Kulturbereich, leaving Prague and Vienna part of the picture. Nor will any but the most persnickety quarrel with 1780, 1871, and 1918 as natural and logical, if, of course, artificial, termini for the various periods under consideration. For those wanting to know what happened before 1600, Mordechai Breuer's "Prologue" in volume one handles the Jewish Middle Ages adroitly. Any teacher looking for a concise, intelligently written summary of medieval Ashkenaz need look no further than these pages.

The balancing of internal and external developments, again acknowledged by Meyer as a difficulty, should also please most readers. There are times when this reviewer would have liked a little more background on the internal German developments, as for instance, in Michael Meyer's discussion of Judaism and Christianity in II:5 or in Michael Graetz's picture of developments in Christian thought that inform the Haskalah I:9. But this is so obviously a slippery slope that one feels churlish even broaching it -- to give full play to the gentile environment would necessarily obfuscate internal Jewish developments, witness the later volumes of Salo Baron's synthetic Social and Religious History of the Jews.

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