The Magazine

The Jewish Question

To convert, and if so, why?

Feb 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 23 • By STEVEN OZMENT
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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.