Academic journal article German Quarterly

How Jews Became Germans: The History of Conversion and Assimilation in Berlin

Academic journal article German Quarterly

How Jews Became Germans: The History of Conversion and Assimilation in Berlin

Article excerpt

Hertz, Deborah. How Jews Became Germans: The History of Conversion and Assimilation in Berlin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. 288 pp. $38.00 cloth.

This cultural and social history by Deborah Hertz investigates the motivations, incentives, and difficulties encountered by the Berlin Jewish social elite from 16451833, focusing on the Napoleonic era. It is an outgrowth of her first book-Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin, in which she portrayed salon life and intermarriages, relying on the evidence provided by the Judenkartei compiled during the Third Reich. This book also made use of the Judenkartei, as well as numerous published resources. Hertz consciously avoids reading the history of this period through the lens of the Holocaust. Her narrative explains why individuals and families decided to convert to Protestantism or to remain Jewish. The biographical portraits show sympathy, pity, and compassion for the difficult situation of the social elite in Berlin before legal emancipation. Hertz, however, does not equate conversion with emancipation, but through her examination of individuals' lives and choices, she explains how complicated these decisions were, rather than just relying on pat assertions of conversion in order to marry or to secure a job. Her analysis centers on the desire to integrate culturally and nationally into an emerging German identity that was itself defined in terms of ethnicity rather than geography. Hertz also considers how some who remained Jewish tried to reform religious practice and were thwarted by the Prussian authorities, devoting considerable space to the reform synagogue at the home of Amalie Beer.

The book is organized chronologically and uses the life of Rahel Varnhagen as a narrative thread. The stories of prominent Berlin Jewish families and their most famous members are told: the Mendelssohns (from Moses to Felix), Liebmanns, Itzigs, Ephraims, Isaacs, Friedländers, and Beers. The later chapters include famous figures such as Ascher, Börne, Gans, and Heine. Larger historical developments are framed by their personal histories, sometimes at the expense of a more detailed historical analysis. This is true of her presentation of the March 1812 Edict that granted Jews limited civil emancipation, portions of which were rescinded very quickly. …

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