The Magazine

The Jewish Question

To convert, and if so, why?

Feb 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 23 • By STEVEN OZMENT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."