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The Jewish Question

To convert, and if so, why?

Feb 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 23 • By STEVEN OZMENT
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How Jews Became Germans

The History of Conversion and Assimilation in Berlin

by Deborah Hertz

Yale, 288 pp., $38

There is no book more exciting to read than one by an author who believes he or she was born to write it. In such books every line becomes a paragraph, every paragraph a chapter, and the book itself a never-ending story. Deborah Hertz's How Jews Became Germans is such a book.

Hertz knew she was onto something big several years before she took pen to paper. While researching her dissertation (a study of late 18th-century Jewish salon women who converted to Protestantism), she discovered the Berlin Jewish Index File, a creation of a Nazi genealogical research project that began in 1933. It presented an apparent comprehensive list of every Jew who converted to Protestantism in Berlin between 1645 and 1933. Once in hand, the Nazis used it to check the ethnic purity of candidates for high positions in the regime, going back at least four generations.

Since thousands of Jews converted to the Protestant faith over the previous three centuries, those records also allowed the Nazis generally to "replace the religious polarity of Christians and Jews with the racial polarity of Aryans and Jews." The merged Kinship Research Office and Central Archive of the German Jews estimated the existence of no fewer than 800 million birth, marriage, and death entries in their vast records, far more than was needed to discomfort untold numbers of 20th-century German Jews and Christians, whose genealogy came under the Aryan microscope.

As a quantitative record, the Index gave Hertz accurate data on the numbers of Jews who became Christians in the period covered by her study. Around that data, she has re-created "the actual history" of Jewish conversion in Berlin over the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Her case studies are elite families well known to modern scholars. Yet her deep and sympathetic scrutiny of this unique emotional and controversial transition in the lives of her subjects illumines the human realities in new and moving ways. What she calls her "modern cosmopolitan side" understands the appeal of a national culture and civil rights to then-disenfranchised Jews, and she does not judge quickly those Jews, young and old, who readily succumbed to the siren call of modern Germany.

With novelist Martin Walser and biographer Victor Klemperer, she believes Jewish conversion to Christianity in those distant centuries was also an act of personal and cultural emancipation, and not merely a betrayal of traditional Judaism, as philosopher Jürgen Habermas and authors Gershom Scholem and Daniel Goldhagen characterize it.

Many Jews who sought a Protestant baptism loved modern Germany and its culture and wanted to immerse themselves fully in the culture of their generation and era. Protestant identity was "an avenue to becoming more German on the inside," a key to personal identification with the nation, not merely a religious-spiritual choice.

The converts loved the Fatherland enough to leave their hallowed ancient religion, then being challenged by a vibrant modern culture and politics. Putting herself in her subjects' shoes as every good historian must, Hertz asks the reader to judge their choices "in the terms contemporaries saw them."

Conversions of Berlin Jews to Christianity date back to 1671, when exiled Viennese Jews settled there by invitation. Already then there was "a trickle" of poor Jewish converts into Lutheranism. From the mid-17th century through the 18th, Berlin Judaism progressively lost its discipline and knowledge of Hebrew (Yiddish transliterations then appeared) and was thereafter on the defensive: "More and more German Jews dressed and talked like [Catholic] Christians." Lutheran pietism, especially, made inroads into Berlin Jewry, circulating missionary pamphlets in Yiddish and entering synagogues on days of worship to proselytize.

For conservative Jews at this time, confessing the dominant religion and embracing the dominant culture were "a rare chance to make a dramatic change in one's life circumstances," promising the willing individual the rights of citizenship and access to the top civil jobs. Between 1700-1750, several hundred largely poorer Jews converted to Christianity in migrant cities, 153 in Berlin.