Erwählung Erinnern: Literatur Als Medium Jüdischen Selbstverständnisses

Article excerpt

Erwählung erinnern: Literatur als Medium jüdischen Selbstverständnisses, by Almuth Hammer: Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004. 229 pp. euro49.60.

Hammer's study of literature as a medium of Jewish identity was written at the research center "Erinnerungskulturen" (Cultures of Memory) at the University of Giessen, where the author serves as coordinator and editor of the series "Formen der Erinnerung" (Forms of Memory).

Her book is divided into two parts of equal length. The first deals with Jewish identity and how enlightenment and secularization led to estrangement from Jewish tradition. Acculturation as well as antisemitism undermined Jewish identity. Hammer gives a concise summary of Jewish reactions to this development, from Zionism to the so-called Jewish self-hatred, with an intelligent rebuttal of Sander Gilman's book on the latter. Around 1900, Judaism had become accepted as one of several religious denominations. Jewish identity was less a collective experience than a private one. At the same time, however, renewed interest in this tradition manifested itself in the works of writers and intellectuals.

In a "close reading" of three biblical "court stories," Hammer shows Daniel, Esther, and Joseph as forerunners of Jews living in the modern diaspora. They were accepted but also endangered and finally saved, i.e., chosen not only for their own sake but for that of their people.

Hammer chose two writers who turned to Jewish tradition in this era. They could not be more different. Joseph Roth (1894-1939) grew up in a Galician shtetl. Else Lasker-Schuler (1869-1945) came from an assimilated family in the Rhineland. Roth produced a great number of stories and novels such as "Radetzky March," one of the best in 20th-century German literature, as well as a vast amount of journalistic writing. Lasker-Schüler left a comparatively slender work. She is best known for her poems, among them her "Hebrew Ballads."

In "Der Leviathan" Roth tells the story of Nissen Piczenik, a dealer in corals who lives in a small Russian town. Nissen feels a deep relationship to his corals and an irrepressible desire to go to the ocean where the Leviathan guards them. The story of Nissen's "estrangement" from Jewish ways, his buying and selling plastic corals, his trip to Odessa where he finally sees the ocean, his renounciation of the false corals, and his death on the high seas on his way to Canada has been read in different ways: as parable of assimilation gone wrong, as example of Roth's pessimism, and as shretl nostalgia. Hammer demonstrates that, in his "Leviathan," Roth renews tradition with tradition. Nissen overcomes his dissatisfaction-he follows the law rather automatically-by creating a new tradition. He sees the positive aspects of Leviathan, who is usually depicted as a monster. Nissen believes him to be the guardian of the corals, and he identifies with him. Nissen finally turns from his bad ways and in the end of the story jumps from the ship before it goes down, to be united with the Leviathan.

Compared to the lucid and equally simple language of the "Leviathan," which has been compared to that of a legend, Lasker-Schüler's story "Der Wunderrabbiner von Barcelona" (The Miraculous Rabbi of Barcelona) contains highly poetic passages and others whose language is wracked by pain. …

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