Profiles of Acculturation: Jewish Communities in 19th-Century Germany

By Pickus, Keith H. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer-Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Profiles of Acculturation: Jewish Communities in 19th-Century Germany


Pickus, Keith H., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


SINCE MOVING TO WICHITA, KAN., I HAVE BECOME increasingly interested in the communal life of civic and religious organizations. My interest derives, in part, from Wichita's proximity to the Bible Belt, a place where "church life" occupies a pivotal reference point for many people.

Barely a week passed after arriving in Wichita in the mid-1990s before a neighbor politely inquired about my "church home" and kindly invited me to visit his congregation the following Sunday. Unaccustomed to discussing my religious affiliation with relative strangers, I choked out a reply about contacting the local Jewish community once I settled in.

Apparently pleased to learn that I had a church home, albeit a Jewish one, my neighbor returned to his yard work, unaware that my response was not entirely candid. I simply could not bring myself to share that I had not formally affiliated with a religious congregation since leaving my parent's home in the 1970s. This brief neighborly exchange clearly indicated that I had entered unfamiliar territory. Thirty-five years of life in the western United States had not prepared me for living among people who discussed church attendance, social events and membership as regularly as the weather.

Relocating to the high plains of Kansas not only accentuated my non-Christian status, but it also distanced me from family members, who had formed an important communal network for much of my life. Weekend meals with parents and siblings, birthday parties and holiday celebrations commonly shared with close family members were no longer part of my regular routine. Family gatherings would be limited to the times when I traveled to visit relatives.

The distance of family, coupled with the absence of a church home, meant that I began life in Wichita without a well-defined community. In the past 10 years, I have learned, first hand, about the myriad ways that communal memberships nurture and sustain us. Witnessing the degree to which individuals are vested in their congregations personalized the historical processes that I study as a historian of German Jewry. Now when I read communal records about forming committees, drafting by-laws, hiring rabbis and crafting supplemental religious instruction programs, I am keenly aware of the human beings who were involved in these activities.

This newly acquired perspective has made it abundantly clear that the processes of change and adaptation that punctuate the life stories of individual German Jews were anchored in an equally significant alteration in the structure and agenda of Jewish communities.

Toward a Working Definition of Community

Communities, as defined in the Oxford Dictionary, refer to people living in a specific locality or sharing a common religion, profession or sense of similarity. (1) We live in neighborhood communities; we pray in religious communities, work in professional communities and spend our leisure time with people who share a community of interests.

Anthropologist Anthony Cohen wrote that "awareness of community depends on consciousness of boundaries. Hence, communities and their boundaries exist essentially not as social-structural systems and institutions but as worlds of meaning in the minds of their members." The fact that communities are predicated on perceptions of difference provides an element of functional ambiguity. Rather than weakening the sense of cohesion inherent in communities, their ambiguous nature enables a wide range of individuals to lay claim to membership. So long as an individual believes that affiliation with a larger entity is in his/her best interest, then he/she is willing to sublimate their unique sense of self in exchange for membership in the larger collective. "Community is an aggregating device which both sustains diversity and expresses commonality." (2) As a result, German-Jewish communities remained heterogeneous throughout the 19th century, and they contained individuals with a broad spectrum of views on religious practice and education. …

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