The last temptation.
By Deborah Hertz
Yale University Press, 2007, $38, pp. 276
From the introduction of Deborah Hertz's new book, How Jews Became Germans: The History of Conversion and Assimilation in Berlin, the reader might expect a statistical survey of Jews in Berlin from the mid-17th century the mid-19th century, based on newly discovered data. The period is familiar territory for Hertz: Like its predecessor, Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin (1988), it concentrates on Prussia's capital around the time of its first emancipation of Jews in 1812. While researching that earlier volume in an East Berlin church archive, Hertz came upon a cache of badly worn black notebooks, a stunning discovery, which appeared to list every Berlin Jew from 1645 until 1933 who had married and converted to Christianity.
The notebooks had been put to grim use in 1933, when Hitler was invited to take over the chancellorship of Germany and the Nazis incorporated the archive into a gigantic genealogical enterprise to determine the "racial" status of every local Jew, past or present "This book," writes Hertz, who teaches Jewish studies at the University of California, San Diego, "was born on that day."
Writing about the early decades of Berlin's Jewry, Hertz does indeed offer a few intriguing statistics. But apart from an appendix that charts among other details the number of conversions to Christianity from 1800 to 1875, (a total of 4,635) and the age of infant converts (except for the years between 1820 and 1829, the majority were converted at age two), the author quickly turns to humanizing her subject. Narrative and biography prevail as she sketches the lives of some of Berlin's best known Jews, such as the musical Mendelssohns, the mercantile Beers and her heroine, Rahel Levin, who presided over a famous salon and later married into the Varnhagen clan of Christian aristocrats.
All wrestle with the temptation--and threat--of abandoning their traditional religion for the sake of joining a wider world. Conversion opened doors; Jews who adopted Jesus as their Savior became eligible for careers then closed to Jews--notably in public service and the military. Some Jews, particularly among the rich minority with significant experience in a larger society, strove to join their friends because they were moved and persuaded by Christian ritual or theology. One can see why the proportion of two-year-old Jewish children delivered over to Christianity should have been so large. It spared them the moral dilemmas of discarding their religion while automatically easing their access to social advancement.
Or so it seemed. The dramatic edict of 1812 emancipating the Jews in Prussia was not so consistent, nor so radical, as the forces advocating its liberating intentions on both the Christian and Jewish sides had hoped. Baptism remained the essential ticket to the world that the born Christian held from birth. Nor did conversion guarantee a less troubling future; the notion of adopting Protestantism--or, at times, Roman Catholicism--frequently prompted contempt for these new Christians.
Other obstacles remained. As Hertz documents in a number of instances, a good many Jewish women felt it necessary to postpone this decisive desertion until their mothers, often strictly devout in their Jewish observance, had died. Henriette Herz, for example, a famous beauty and in her early years a highly appreciated saloniere, did not turn Lutheran until the passing of her pious mother liberated her at 53 to make the break.
And always, there was the vexing question of money. The anxiety-producing decision to seek the peace that conversion might bring was intensified by the matter of finances. Well-off Jews obviously could move toward conversion much more easily than their far more numerous poorer brethren who could not afford the costs of the process, such as baptism, bible study and learning Christian history and ritual.
In fact--and this is why Hertz's biographical approach makes good sense--the reasons for conversion were multiple and complex. What one convert might regard as opportunistic--higher status or economic rewards--another might justify as an authentic declaration of faith. Writing about the tortured history of the Mendelssohn family, Hertz notes the private hostilities, not just between anti-Semites and offended Jews, but among allies: As she observes, "Truly, it is astonishing how hated some converts were, even or especially by their friends" who perhaps had less money or were strongly opposed to assimilation on religious grounds or as a matter of principle.
Nor did such highly personal antagonisms spare intrafamilial relationships. Again, the Mendelssohns are a case in point of brothers and sisters at persistent war with one another. "As Felix's musical career began to dominate the lives of the other three siblings and their parents, tensions boiled beneath the surface and sometimes erupted," Hertz writes. The composer's sister, Fanny, was "very devoted to Felix, but also jealous of his public success. Because her parents refused her a public life, her only performance space was family concerts. While Fanny envied Felix, Rebekka resented Fanny." Such obvious intimate conflicts neither require nor receive psychoanalytic explanation. Sibling rivalries underlay many family battles over conversion.
Hertz, fully appreciating the import of individual accounts, generalizes cautiously and rationally. But she bases her whole book on the examination of a single issue: The moral quality, the motives, of Jewish conversions from the mid-seventeenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century. The private purposes of historians are always open to question when a particular approach to the facts dominates the historian's premises, when the historian gives priority to certain personal concerns. Hertz candidly acknowledges her own incentive. "I have written this book because I cannot decide whether a passionate ethnic identity is necessary for personal happiness."
In short, can a convert, who sacrifices an inherited set of commitments, be happy? That provocative speculation is prompted by Hertz's belief that "history is at once an objective scholarly project and a huge therapeutic space"--and it is the therapeutic space that seems to have informed her quest.
In the epilogue, returning to the motive that led her to write this book, Hertz acknowledges that as her research progressed her sympathy for converts at times waned and she "became disappointed with episodes of apparent hypocrisy, self-hatred and self-promotion." While she is willing to criticize the motives of some converts, Hertz strongly rebuts attacks like one she quotes, made by the Zionist Avraham Burg, who wrote: "The Jews of Germany, barricaded against reality, self-satisfied, gifted, went to their deaths, with the fury they aroused in the Germans imposing a death sentence on Jews everywhere." This condemnation, Hertz concludes, is exaggerated and oversimplified. In no way, she declares, did the conversion of German Jews justify the belief held by fervent anti-assimilationists that conversion, by introducing Jewish "blood" into Aryan "purity," provided an argument which licensed Nazi intentions to wipe out all the Jews in their power.
Peter Gay is the sterling professor of history emeritus at Yale and the author of many books, most recently, Freud: A Life For Our Time.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2008|
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