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The Berlin Jewish Community: Enlightenment and Family Crisis, 1770-1830.

One of the most pertinent issues that minority groups face is whether and how much they should assimilate into the majority. Successful assimilation may lead to economic prosperity and social acceptance, but full integration may also mean the end of a distinct community. On the other hand, maintaining one's uniqueness upholds traditions, but insistence on separatism can also estrange the group from its neighbors. For Jewish communities this dilemma is timeless. In Steven Lowenstein's recent monograph he addresses this larger concern by examining the behavior of the Berlin Jews over sixty years. Although the Berlin community was not proportionately large, it provides an interesting case study of the effects of modernization on urban Jews. This work is also an excellent example of the wealth of resources that community records can provide when properly utilized.

As Lowenstein makes clear, the Berlin Jews have been amply studied and his book is not a retelling of an old story. Using tax, subscription, and address lists as well as data from kosher butchers, genealogical information, baptismal records, religious and philosophical texts, and government decrees, Lowenstein has written a collective biography of an important community facing what he terms a crisis. The author's central concern is with the interrelationship between modernization, both intellectual and economic, and with the behavior of the Berlin Jews. Lowenstein builds on Deborah Hertz's pioneering work Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin, but asserts in a note that his study "goes beyond her work both in refining the internal makeup of the conversion movement and in comparing it directly with other facts known about Berlin Jewry at the time" (p. 198).

The dates that Lowenstein employs are somewhat arbitrary, but 1770 is when a Haskala (Enlightenment) group of Jews originated in Berlin. The Maskilim's (enlightened) introduction of new ways of thinking, dressing, speaking and worshiping posed a threat to the traditional power of the rabbis and gradually upset the community's homogeneity. These intellectuals aimed at modernization in education, socialization and language. Most enlightened Berlin Jews wrote in Hebrew, which the rabbis believed should be used only in prayer, or in German. Yet by themselves the intelligentsia's influence would have been limited had it not been for the cooperation of the wealthy elite. This group of Jews saw modernization as a way to prosper and began to call for the elimination of the plethora of economic barriers imposed on Jews by the state. In return for these concessions many were willing to part with certain Jewish rituals which they considered anachronistic.

Jews began to dress like non-Jews, shave their beards, speak German, socialize with Christians, attend universities, and loosen up ritual laws and sexual practices. These changes occurred concomitantly with a public debate about emancipation. Although Lowenstein does not detail the debate about citizenship, he does briefly outline Christian Wilhelm von Dohm's argument that advocated granting rights to Jews on the condition that they abandon their separateness. Orthodox Jews feared that emancipation would threaten the existence of Judaism. They wondered whether the efforts for reform would stop short of baptism, or whether conversion was the logical culmination in the effort to assimilate? Lowenstein answers these questions with enormous quantities of data, both quantitative and qualitative. The Taufepidemie (Baptism epidemic) affected 1/2 to 2/3 of Berlin Jews in one way or another, an unprecedented phenomenon in German Jewish history as Lowenstein writes. He adds, I think correctly, that it "was not merely a crisis of conversions; it was a crisis of identity" (p. 133). Young Jews were left without role models and found their boundaries and identity as Jews unclear, which was particularly acute among the wealthy Berlin Jews.

Why was it that after 1800 Jews began to convert in what many saw as alarming numbers? The evidence that Lowenstein presents points to a number of factors that influenced one's decision to leave Judaism. As the Reform movement began to attract followers, many Jews, Lowenstein writes, "found themselves trapped somewhere between the 'real Judaism' they had abandoned and the bulk of Christian society from which they were divided by legal and religious barriers" (p. 192). Thus, many of the converts turned to Christianity not because of religious fervor, but because they could find an identity that would bring with it political, social and economic advantages.

In addition to the material reasons for leaving the Jewish faith, Lowenstein also broaches the interrelationship between the enlightenment and liberal thinking of those who converted. Families played an important role in the decision of an individual to convert. In families supporting the Enlightenment, Lowenstein asserts, "children would have received more encouragement to study general culture, to read works in German, to appreciate art and music, and to associate socially with non-Jews than children in orthodox families" (p. 189). Here Lowenstein discovers, perhaps not surprisingly, that liberal parents erected fewer barriers to conversion than orthodox parents (p. 189). Rather than just relying on quantitative data, Lowenstein has unearthed many motivations for conversion. Yet, Lowenstein is adamant that the Enlightenment by itself did not lead to apostasy. Orthodox Jews did convert to Christianity, albeit in smaller numbers. And, most importantly, orthodoxy was rapidly losing members, not in most cases to Christianity, but to Reform Judaism. It seems that orthodoxy was not able successfully to meet the challenges of the Enlightenment. Yet unfortunately for the Jewish community, Reform Judaism may have just been an intermediate step to conversion in the next generation. Lowenstein posits that Reform Judaism proved unsatisfactory to many Jews not necessarily because it was more modern and less steeped in tradition, but because it had to face a barrage of attacks form the Orthodox and, after 1823, from the government. Lowenstein concludes by saying the "'wave of baptism' was not the abandonment of tradition itself, but . . . the abandonment of tradition was seen as abandonment rather than as the creation of adherence to another model of Judaism. It was the absence of an alternative that caused so many modernized Jews to turn away from Judaism altogether, not the existence of modernized Judaism itself" (p. 193).

Lowenstein's book is evidence that the more information one sifts through the more complex historical causation becomes. Lowenstein's work, when taken together with the works by Hertz, Michael Meyer, Marion Kaplan, David Sorkin, and Alan Levenson, presents a detailed picture of the reasons why some German Jews remained traditionally Jewish, why some became Reformed, and why others abandoned their faith entirely. His book is meticulously researched and documented and provides another piece of the puzzle of a vibrant, if not confused, community. If anything, Lowenstein's book is too succinct for its scope; more attention to the reactions of conversions by the Christian community and the state would be beneficial. Moreover, some comparison to other Jewish communities might help one see whether the Berlin Jews were unique. Similar attempts at reform were ongoing by governments in Bavaria and elsewhere and it would be interesting to have some parallels. As mentioned above the dates in the title are somewhat arbitrary and the study probably should conclude in 1823 rather than 1830. The book is also divided and subdivided too many times, leading to numerous short paragraphs and sections that hinder the smoothness of the presentation. Those criticisms aside, this book is a wonderful addition to the knowledge about Berlin Jews and the complexities of existing as a minority community in changing times.

Glenn R. Sharfman Hiram College
COPYRIGHT 1995 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Sharfman, Glenn R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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