SIGNIFICANT JEWISH BOOKS
The Pity of It
All: A History of Jews in Germany, 1743-1933
Among the anecdotes in Amos Elon's richly-textured history of German Jewry, the most telling is attributed to Erich Maria Remarque, the exiled author of All Quiet on the Western Front. Asked whether he missed Germany after his forced departure in the 1930s, he replied, "Why should I? I'm not Jewish."
In this incisive social history, Elon takes a fresh look at the deep attachment that German Jews felt for Germany--a story that he believes has been characterized unfairly. To outsiders, the infatuation of German Jews with a country that despised and ultimately rejected them seems incomprehensible. Elon explains: "Their true home, we now know, was not 'Germany,' but German culture and language. Their true religion was the bourgeois, Goethean ideal of Bildung (high culture)."
Elon opens with the story of the future philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, who in 1743, at the age of 14, entered Berlin through a gate reserved for cattle and Jews; he ends the book with Hannah Arendt's escape from Berlin in 1933. Between these two events, he calls our attention to two hundred years of German Jewish cultural achievement that rival the Renaissance. The story of the Jews of Germany, he argues, should not be judged from the vantage point of hindsight.
"We must see the German Jews in the context of their time and, at the very least, appreciate their authenticity, the way they saw themselves and others, often with reason," Elon writes. "For long periods, they had cause to believe in their ultimate integration, as did most Jews elsewhere in Western Europe, in the United States, and even in czarist Russia. It was touch and go almost to the end."
Elon writes about Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity who were at the forefront of modernity, secularism, science, and art. "The best among them," he writes, "tended to be indifferent to all religion and to view both their Jewish and their German heritage with detached irony." The story unfolds through collective biographies: Rahel Varnhagen and Henriette Herz, hostesses of Berlin's literary salons; the poet Heinrich Heine and journalist Ludwig Börne; the painter Max Liebermann and poet Else Lasker-Schüler; Freud, Marx, and Einstein; literary critic Walter Benjamin and Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem; political leaders Kurt Eisner and Walther Rathenau (both assassinated). Aside from a few references to Buber and Rosenzweig, there is almost no mention of religious Jews or the modern Jewish denominations born in Germany.
To Elon, the German Jewish experience ended badly, but that ending was not inevitable, and therein lies the pity. Still, stories such as the following give us pause: When Victor Klemperer--professor of linguistics, son of a rabbi, and a reluctant convert to Christianity--was put under house arrest by the Gestapo, he exclaimed: "I am German forever, a German 'nationalist'....The Nazis are un-German!" Despite Elon's admonition to appreciate the history of German Jewry on its own terms, it is impossible not to see this story through the lens of hindsight--with both pity and regret.
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A Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice
"I rebel against the notion that Judaism is diminished by each passing generation," writes Michael Strassfeld, rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York. Today's Judaism, he states, does not have to be merely "a truncated version of a once-vibrant and rich tradition."
In the 1970s, Strassfeld and his friends in the early Havurah movement gave Jewish practice a fresh face with the publication of the Jewish Catalog--a Jewish "how-to" book that became almost a cult item for college-aged baby boomers. Revisiting the topic thirty years later, he has attempted to find an authentic voice for Judaism as a spiritual practice for this time and for this generation.
Although Strassfeld has been a practicing Jew all his life, he frequently found himself performing rituals by rote. "I realized that there was a whole variety of Jewish practices that I observed because they added meaning to my life or because I grew up doing them, yet they did not feel like a spiritual discipline," he writes. Thinking about his spiritual life while on a meditation retreat reaffirmed his sense that "Judaism was meant to be a spiritual discipline, even though we don't talk about it that way....Somewhere that way of looking at Judaism got disconnected from Jewish practice."
This sophisticated introduction to Judaism is enlivened by a new approach that emphasizes an active quest for spirituality. As he describes it, "I imagined a Judaism that would encourage an awareness, a mindfulness, as we go through our daily lives--a practice not for spiritual masters or adepts, but for all of us. I imagined a practice that would take up only little bits of our time and yet have two simple goals: to make us better human beings and to engage us with the presence of God."
Strassfeld's guide is divided into five sections, each devoted to a cycle of life over time, beginning with living a day from dawn to dusk. Teachings from the Shulkan Arukh (a compendium of Jewish law) are applied to practical suggestions for "Getting Up on the Right Spiritual Side of the Bed"; a section on "Living Through the Year" discusses Jewish festivals; "Living a Life of Holiness" considers the life-cycle and its rituals. Featured throughout in shaded boxes are traditional and modern teachings marked "Kavanah" (intention) to help the reader focus on the spiritual aspects of these rituals.
What makes this book stand out in its genre is Strassfeld's familiarity with classical Jewish texts and his ease in drawing upon rabbinical, mystical, and modern sources. This volume can be read as a practical introduction to Judaism, a handbook for Jewish literacy, or as an inspirational guide.
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Editor's note: The UAHC recommends two titles every quarter for book groups. A discussion guide is available on the UAHC Significant Jewish Books Web site.
Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.
Copyright © 2003, Union of American Hebrew Congregations