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Between Redemption and Doom: The Strains of German-Jewish Modernism.

Between Redemption and Doom. The Strains of German-Jewish Modernism. By NOAH ISENBERG. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press. 1999. 232 pp., 15 ill. 26.95 [pounds sterling].

With this volume Noah Isenberg offers not so much a 'revelatory exploration of the evolution of German-Jewish modernism', as the dust-jacket announces, but rather a subtle interpretation of the discourse on community in examples of German-Jewish modernism. Focusing on 'paradigmatic moments' (p. 4) within the broader context of modernity, Isenberg presents four case studies (Franz Kaf ka, Arnold Zweig, Paul Wegener, and Walter Benjamin) which deal with various responses of post-assimilationist writers to the spread of political anti-Semitism on the one hand and Zionism on the other. The introduction examines how the notion of an organic Gemeinschaft took hold in Weimar culture as a specifically German response to the modern crisis of identity. This romantic ideal of anti-modern wholeness was given a sociological foundation by Ferdinand Tonnies's study Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887). With its polarized typology of authentic community versus fragmented modern society, this widely received study provided a framework for debating processes of identity formation in a modern context. Isenberg rightly argues that the specific discourse on Jewish identity cannot be divorced from the larger context of German modernism. As a first example of how these debates reverberated in German-Jewish circles Isenberg discusses Moritz Goldstein's call for complete German-Jewish disengagement in his essay 'Deutsch-judischer Parnass' of 1912.

A cursory discussion of the search for spiritual renewal in German Zionist circles is followed by a chapter on Kafka's famous encounter with the Yiddish theatre at the Cafe Savoy in the winter of 1911-12 and his speech on the Yiddish language on 18 February 1912. Analysing Kafka's enthusiasm for the world of Ostjudentum and the Yiddish language as tropes of authenticity, the chapter largely synthesizes questions that have been addressed, amongst others, by Hartmut Binder, Ritchie Robertson and, more recently, Mark Anderson.

Chapter Two explores the search for a Gemeinschaft with reference to an affirmative strand of shtetl writing, in particular Arnold Zweig's mythologizing essay Das ostjudische Antlitz, published as a book in 1920 with illustrations by Hermann Struck. Highlighting the impact of Martin Buber's Hasidic tales on an increasing number of Western Jews, Isenberg dates the idealization of the shtetl from around the turn of the century (p. 53). Although the shtetl narrative undoubtedly now takes on an anti-modern, anti-bourgeois and anti-assimilationist stance, Isenberg distorts the picture somewhat by omitting any reference to important nineteenth-century precursors of the nostalgic tradition of ghetto writing, most notably Heine's Der Rabbi von Bacherach (1824-40), Aron Bernstein's Vogele der Maggid (1858) and Leopold Kompert's four collections of ghetto stories Aus dem Ghetto (1848), Neue Geschichten aus dem Ghetto (1860), Bohmische Juden (1851) and Geschichten einer Gasse (1865). The ensuing reading of Zweig's shtetl book shows how in Zweig's imagined community, a utopian form of Zionism and socialism merge (p. 75). At this point of the argument, the chapter would have benefited from an analysis of Zweig's later, downright negative experience in Palestine as elaborated in his correspondence with Freud.

The third, highly illuminating chapter analyses the myth-based and caricatured construction of Jewishness in PaulWegener's golem film Der Golem: Wie er in die Welt kam which opened in Berlin in October 1920. Here Isenberg persuasively argues that the legend was made to fit into widely shared perceptions of the Jews as dark and scheming elements in society, simultaneously characterized by capitalist dominance and ghetto sensibilities. Particular attention is paid to the film's architectural construction of Jewishness by means of its setting in the urban ghetto.

The fourth case study returns to the theme of a Jewish search for community. Focusing on the critical tension in Walter Benjamin 'between Jewish memory and identity construction on the one hand, and the forces of modernity on the other.' (p. 106), Isenberg explores the intersection of remembrance, experience and storytelling in Benjamin's key essays on Proust, Baudelaire and Kafka as well as Berliner Kindheit. This fine chapter ends with an analysis of the Benjamin memorial which was inaugurated in Portbou in 1994. Isenberg's cross-disciplinary case studies thus confirm and elaborate what Zygmunt Bauman has elsewhere called the 'trap of ambivalence'. Although the chapters on Kafka, Zweig and Benjamin do not offer entirely new angles of interpretation, they provide sensitive readings of the German- Jewish discourse on community in a modernist context. With its emphasis on the notions of memory and the 'imagined community' as Benedict Anderson calls it, the volume makes a subtle contribution to current debates on German-Jewish modernism and Cultural Memory.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Fuchs, Anne
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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