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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.

Hertz showcases the grandeur of Berlin Jewry in the late 18th and early 19th centuries through well-known leading Jewish families, among them that of her heroine, Rahel Levin Varnhagen, who was 31 in 1803. Throughout her lifetime, Rahel's family socialized with Christians, entertained an eclectic circle of friends, and held salons where both practicing and converted Jews met freely and talked. Berlin was then a "pulsating center" of the Jewish Enlightenment, and Rahel's privileged and liberally raised generation grew up experimenting with non-Jewish lives "far from the language, values, and habits of their parents." However, a high price came with such experimentation. Even in very liberal circles, conservative Jews and Christians turned on Jews who, like Rahel's generation, "tried so hard to be less Jewish."

Nineteenth-century parents acted preemptively to gain for their children the benefits of non-Jews, hoping thereby to spare them the civil discrimination they otherwise faced in youth and adulthood. Between 1800 and 1874, 60 percent of all Berlin converts to Christianity were children under five, reflections of parental love and determination to secure a free and full civil life for their children.

Between 1807 and 1811, French occupation and rule saw Berlin Jews embrace the French Revolution. Rahel Levin was a Napoleon enthusiast and a fan of the German nationalist Johann Fichte, alleged founder of modern German nationalism and a strong opponent of civil rights for Jews. In these exuberant years Berlin became a magnet city for the best and brightest young Jews, then a remarkable 7 percent of university students.

By 1811, Germans had had their fill of the French occupation and were viewing Jewish emancipation as a French policy--not a good omen for Jews. Also at this time, the protective old regime alliance of the Jewish elite and the German nobility was showing its cracks, another bad omen for Jews. The Emancipation Law of 1812 ("a golden moment in Jewish life") was to be its last hurrah.

Even though many Jews were deeply patriotic and eager to serve their German Fatherland as free men and free women, Germans remained skeptical in the wake of war and were not about to grant them equal freedoms at this time. The fine print of the Edict of 1812 proved to offer only a partial emancipation: "The spirit of the Edict was that if Jews became modern and served the state loyally, eventually a wider equality might come."

Individual Jews clearly gained a greater, if directed, freedom, while the larger Jewish community saw a "thinning of corporate identity," losing all its rights as a state within the state. The Edict was also interpreted to support the repression of reformed Judaism, which was seen to discourage Jewish assimilation.

In the end, Christian conversion and baptism were the only effective and immediate way to gain a functional emancipation. A Jew could not marry a Christian until he or she had first become a Christian. Nor did an unconverted Jew have any protection against blacklisting when applying for a government job. Although some government officials feared mass conversion of Jews would diminish the financial aid traditionally received from Jews by the state, a coercive policy of conversion won the day, depriving the Jewish community of many of its best and brightest.

The "interpretation" of the Edict of Emancipation spiked conversions and baptisms of Jews from a mere 10 a year in the late 18th century to huge numbers of baptized infants in the early 19th. Parents "crawled to the cross" with their children in the fond hope of seeing them grow up to be secure Christians, thereby sparing them the painful internal and external conflicts that bedeviled the lives of their parents. Seeing the writing on the wall, adult Jews also rushed to change their family names to fit their new civic status, another step away from traditional Judaism without leaving it altogether.

If there was any doubt remaining that the German state had no intention to give emancipated Jews the same rights as emancipated Germans, the so-called "Gans Law" (1822) dispelled it. Eduard Gans was the prize student of G.W.F. Hegel, the age's most celebrated philosopher, and like all young professionals, he wanted to become a powerful and influential man, to which end he sought a position in the university's law faculty.

Although his famous mentor defended Jewish emancipation without conversion and argued the right of a Jew to become a professor, denial came quickly from the university, while the state clarified official policy to mean that only a Christian could be an employee of the state. Within months of that ruling Lea and Abraham Mendelssohn, who had earlier put their children in the Lutheran faith, now joined them there, explaining that they wanted their family to be secure "in the creed of most civilized people today."

On June 28, 1825, Heinrich Heine, a gifted but irreverent wit, also "crawled to the cross" for reasons of career and success. He called his Christian baptism "the entrance ticket to European culture," by which he then meant a hoped-for career as a law professor. As it worked out, he did not become a law professor and he came to regret his conversion. Yet the "Christian ticket" aided his vocational success as a pundit, increased his marriage options, and gave him an inner identity as a German.

For many other converted Jews with skin less thick than Heine's, painful ambivalence appears to have been the rule. Hertz's heroine, Rahel Levin Varnhagen, who converted rather sincerely and married a Christian nobleman, expressed that pain poignantly:

The thing which all my life seemed to me the greatest shame, which was the misery and misfortune of my life--having been born a Jewess--this I should on no account now wish to have missed.

It seems a singular oversight that Hertz does not discuss the content of the Judaic and Christian religions over which her subjects agonized so, the state of mind she describes as ambivalence. Reflecting modern times, she dwells instead on the material, socio-cultural, political, and demographic forces, all of which surface in the telling of this riveting story.

Yet in scattered statements throughout the book, when the Jews of the 18th and 19th centuries leave the faith of their fathers (however perfunctorily) for the faith of the Christians, they seem to be aware that they are dividing themselves between something uniquely transcendental at both ends of the journey. Perhaps for this reason, their lives, material and spiritual, although astraddle the old and the new faith, seem to be every bit as content as they are ambivalent.

Steven Ozment, Mclean professor of ancient and modern history at Harvard, is the author, most recently, of A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People.