Middlebrow Literature and the Making of German-Jewish Identity

Middlebrow Literature and the Making of German-Jewish Identity

Middlebrow Literature and the Making of German-Jewish Identity

Middlebrow Literature and the Making of German-Jewish Identity

Synopsis

For generations of German-speaking Jews, the works of Goethe and Schiller epitomized the world of European high culture, a realm that Jews actively participated in as both readers and consumers. Yet from the 1830s on, Jews writing in German also produced a vast corpus of popular fiction that was explicitly Jewish in content, audience, and function. Middlebrow Literature and the Making of German-Jewish Identity offers the first comprehensive investigation in English of this literature, which sought to navigate between tradition and modernity, between Jewish history and the German present, and between the fading walls of the ghetto and the promise of a new identity as members of a German bourgeoisie. This study examines the ways in which popular fiction assumed an unprecedented role in shaping Jewish identity during this period. It locates in nineteenth-century Germany a defining moment of the modern Jewish experience and the beginnings of a tradition of Jewish belles lettres that is in many ways still with us today.

Excerpt

For many in the academy today, defining what Jewish literature is rep- resents a difficult if not impossible undertaking. Does this term refer simply to literature written by Jews? Or does it include literature writ- ten about Jews? Is it limited to literature that is produced for a Jewish readership, or can it be literature that is read primarily by non-Jews? Does literature need to be written in a Jewish language such as Yid- dish, Hebrew, or Ladino to qualify as Jewish literature, or can literature in English, French, or Arabic also be considered Jewish literature? If we consider that the terms “Jewish” and “literature” each mean differ- ent things to different groups of people at different times, determining what Jewish literature is may become even more a case of “defining the indefinable.” To be sure, many people would classify Sholem Aleichem, Philip Roth, and S. Y. Agnon as classic Jewish writers. What, though, about Franz Kafka? What about Marcel Proust? And perhaps most im- portantly, why do we need this category at all? What do we stand to gain from grouping disparate texts together under a rubric of Jewish literature that few of their authors would have used to categorize their works?

By beginning with these reflections, I want to underscore a dif- ference between the academic world we inhabit today and a pivotal moment in the nineteenth century when something new called “Jew- ish literature” began to appear on the scene. Jews in Europe enjoyed reading fictional texts long before the ideals of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and internal Jewish reform efforts helped unleash those dramatic transformations in the structures of traditional Jewish life that Jewish historians typically identify with modernity. From the . . .

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