Cravat and Caftan
To the Editor:
I read Theodore S. Hamerow’s “Cravat Jews and Caftan Jews” [May] with great interest.
In researching the case of Jewish assimilation in Poland for my book on Polish Jewry between the wars, I became aware that the assimilationist Jews in Poland modeled themselves consciously on the assimilated Jews of Germany. How much they succeeded became clearer to me after reading Mr. Hamerow’s excellent analysis.
Celia S. Heller
New York City.
To the Editor:
. . . The illuminating essay by Theodore S. Hamerow touched me in a personal way. I was born, raised, and educated in Lithuania, between the two world wars, in the land of the Ostjuden, on the border of the world of the German Jews.
I was greatly impressed with Mr. Hamerow’s lucid, concise description of the cultural and religious evolution of the German Jewish community, its gradual assimilation, and its sense of alienation from its East European brethren.
The first principal of the Hebrew Gymnasium I attended in the early 20′s was a German Jew, a former principal of the Gymnasium in Königsberg. We were an unruly bunch of ex-yeshiva students. Whenever Dr. Rosenberg was chastising us, he would say: “You Ostjuden have seder [order] only two nights during the year.”
I completely agree with Mr. Hamerow’s criticism of the false, simplistic, sentimental “Fiddler on the Roof” view of cultural life in Eastern Europe. Life in Lithuania was rich in diversity, and in politics it ranged from the extreme Right to the extreme Left. . . .
I differ with Mr. Hamerow only in his comments on Yiddish and Yiddish culture in Israel; he is too pessimistic, in my view. . . . There has been an awakening of interest in Yiddish and its culture in the last decade or two; witness the success of the Yiddish theater in Tel Aviv. The quarterly journal, Die Goldene Kayt (“The Golden Chain”), published in Israel, is of the highest literary standard, and a platform for a considerable number of Yiddish poets and writers; . . . and there has also been renewed interest in and knowledge of Yiddish among native Israeli writers. . . .
New Orleans, Louisiana
To the Editor:
Theodore S. Hamerow’s . . . description . . . bears no relation to the Jews who were and are my parents and grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and their cousins and husbands and wives and friends. . . . Perhaps this is because the names of his Jews come out of history books and he has never known the people whose yellowing photographs now become the raw material for academic industry.
Mr. Hamerow grievously misrepresents German Jews with one stereotype after another: they “no longer need[ed] to insist that they [were] indistinguishable from the Gentiles among whom they lived”; they “resolutely tried to rid themselves of all those appearances and attributes regarded as typically Jewish”; they “came to identify [jewishness] . . . with the mentality of the moneylender and shopkeeper”; and on and on.
But who were these “German Jews”? To a very large extent they were immigrants from Poland and Russia and thereabouts, who in turn, of course, were the children of exiled German Jews—in the long view of history, all Ashkenazim are German Jews. Many of these immigrants had literally walked to Germany, some from as far away as Russia, to go to German universities, to learn, to improve their lot. The so-called German Jews were often first- or second-generation immigrants. There is no discontinuity between Eastern and Central European Jews, but rather a continuum that, within living memory, spanned the full range of European history, from the Middle Ages to modernity. . . .
What is so wrong with a wave of bright, eager immigrants flattering an immensely attractive culture with imitation? Isn’t this what happens everywhere under similar circumstances? Isn’t this what happened in America?. . .
Is assimilation really an unmitigated sin? Is it always and in any form wrong, impure, craven? Consider the alternatives to the melting pot: Quebec, the Flemish and French in Belgium. . . . A nation cannot survive without a common reference point for the loyalty and enthusiasm of its inhabitants. It is of the gravest consequence to lock children into “ethnic” alienation from a common culture. If our nation were to fragment into tribes, it would not survive. . . .
How much can one reasonably be expected to give up in the course of assimilating? . . . Did the Jews in Germany give up too much, too soon? Mr. Hamerow carefully allows the rather repellent Bleichröder and the tragic Walter Rathenau (he was to be assassinated) to speak for German Jews, but offers only a curt nod to Jewish “intellectuals, writers, musicians, artists, and actors,” waiting in the wings, as if they had nothing to say to or about Jews. . . . Quite the contrary, German Jews invented the institutions that would make Jewish survival compatible with modernity. German-speaking Jews invented the modern synagogue, the rabbinical seminary, and the modern rabbi (a fact that some would hold against them), modern Jewish history, and modern Zionism. Among the “intellectuals” were not only Freud and Einstein, whose Jewishness was incidental and questionable, but Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Heinrich Graetz, Leo Baeck. . . .
The ghetto and the shul and medieval Judaism were not abandoned out of some vile embarrassment by people ashamed to be Jewish, but because the compelling magnetism of a modern civilization open to Jews would not be denied. Rather than betraying their heritage, the Jews of Germany lived within a distinctly and proudly Jewish community whose institutions could and did hold their own in Gentile society, where Judaism was preserved in synagogues and schools and welfare and youth organizations, the same institutions by which Jews in America will survive—or not.
What we find so hard to forgive the German Jews is not that they assimilated, but that they assimilated to Germany. But how could they have known that Germany would become the embodiment of evil in the history of the world? . . .
To the Editor:
As a German Jew, I read Theodore S. Hamerow’s article with great interest—and almost no sense of recognition. . . .
Mr. Hamerow is so eager to build his case that he produces a picture of German Jewry that is glib to the point of flippancy. One of his worst omissions is his failure to say anything about the remarkable renascence of Jewish religious thought and activity that followed the emancipation of German Jews. . . . With the emancipation came the exploration of new religious forms and ideas—both Orthodox and Reform. Secular scholarship infused Torah study with new insights, and Judaism with new dynamics. How can anyone present a picture of German Jewry and fail to mention Samson Raphael Hirsch, Franz Rosenzweig, the Wissenschaft des Judentums, Julius Guttmann, and dozens of other remarkable scholars whose massive body of work still makes up the core of any contemporary library of Judaica? . . .
Mr. Hamerow makes no distinction between acculturation and assimilation, and I suggest that this is why he is so puzzled by the revival of interest in German Jewry. . . .
As for Yiddish: Mr. Hamerow insists that German Jewry discarded it out of self-loathing assimilation-ism. . . . We were taught that Yiddish was the language of the ghetto, evolving from persecution. We were taught that Hebrew was the language of free Jews, and that for ease of communication one spoke the language of the land. . . .
No one denies that some German Jews assimilated to a fare-thee-well. . . . Nor can one doubt that some German Jews said bad things about Ostjuden. But having met assimilated Russian Jews who fled the Revolution, I know that assimilated Ostjuden also said nasty things about ghetto/shtetl Jews. Assimilated Jews are all pretty much alike, and not necessarily lovable.
What bothers me most about Mr. Hamerow’s article, however, is his account of the German Jewish refugees in the U.S. None that I ever met . . . tried to hide his past, break with it, blot it out, or deny it. If anything, they leaned too hard on “with us, at home” nostalgia. I would not call Der Aufbau a mere newsletter, nor would I call the Leo Baeck Institute, on the one hand, or the many German Jewish congregations (notably K’hal Adath Jeshurun in Washington Heights), on the other, any part of a determination to forget. . . .
When the German Jewish refugees came to this country, they were met—by their fellow Jews—with indifference at best and hostility, resentment, and Schadenfreude, at worst. None of the welcoming gestures now extended to Russian Jewish émigrés was made to us. So we did not “adapt without difficulty.” Not trusting my own memories as a pre-teen, I recently asked an older relative if her recollections were as dismal as mine; hers were worse. Having done next to nothing to save German Jewry from 1933 to 1942, American Jews were not happy to see us. . . .
Constableville, New York
To the Editor:
“Cravat Jews and Caftan Jews” is a scholarly presentation of great interest. However, I feel that Theodore S. Hamerow is suffering from a severe case of cultural blindness. He writes from the perspective of an assimilated Jew to whom the religious culture of Eastern Europe is completely alien.
As a first and minor point, Mr. Hamerow seems to be puzzled by the attraction of contemporary American Jews to the experience of German Jews, as contrasted with the unrealistic romanticizing of Eastern European Jewish culture. Yet this appears to me, precisely what might be expected, since most American Jews are assimilated into the general culture in exactly the same manner as were the bulk of German Jews. It is to be expected that they would relate with a much greater degree of empathy to Jews so much like themselves, rather than to a culture which they view nostalgically, but with which they do not really identify.
When it comes to the legacy of the two groups of Jews, however, I believe that Mr. Hamerow has things completely reversed. Will anyone, either Jew or non-Jew, care a century from now about the fact that a particular scientific discovery or philosophical idea originated with someone who happened to be born a Jew? The contributions of the assimilated German Jews were as secular individuals to secular culture, and have no relation either to specifically Jewish concepts or even to the Jews as a people.
The Eastern European Jewish culture, which Mr. Hamerow dismisses as “largely forgotten,” is actually the one that continues to live, regardless of the views of the assimilated majority of American Jews. It is true that Yiddish is now essentially a dead language, and that ideas such as Jewish national autonomy in Eastern Europe are subjects for the history books. Yet the great yeshivas of Eastern Europe continue to exist, both in Israel and in the United States, and continue to educate many of our youth. The works of the great rabbis of Eastern Europe continue not only to be studied, but to serve as guides for all observant Jews. The various groupings of Hasidism, which originated in Eastern Europe, not only continue to exist, but along with the yeshivas, extend their influence over the general Jewish community. The anecdote which Mr. Hamerow quotes regarding the child from Prague who became a Belzer Hasid could apply as well to a contemporary American Jewish family.
It seems evident that, contrary to the conclusion advanced by Mr. Hamerow, the contributions of the assimilated German Jews are destined to be considered as part of the accomplishments of German culture. However, the ideas, philosophy, and institutions of the traditional Eastern European Jews are those that will survive throughout the ages as a truly Jewish contribution.
Theodore S. Hamerow writes:
In talking about the differences between “cravat Jews” and “caftan Jews,” I intended above all to describe and analyze two opposing perceptions of ethnic destiny. On the one hand, there was the policy of far-reaching assimilation pursued by the Jewry of Central Europe; on the other, the cultural and civic autonomism of the East European Jewish community. Though I suppose it is no secret where my own sympathies lie, it was not my purpose to extol one at the expense of the other. I have no wish to reprove the dead or sermonize the living. To be sure, it does seem to me that the stark juxtaposition of “cravat Jews” and “caftan Jews,” which is at the core of Steven E. Aschheim’s recent book, tends to distort rather than illuminate a complex historical process. But in no way did I seek to minimize the important contributions of the Jews of Central Europe to either German secular culture or Jewish religious thought. I do feel, nevertheless, that those contributions were often made at a considerable psychological and spiritual cost, namely, the suppression of a distinctive ethnic identity. Be that as it may, the vigor of the response to my article encourages me to believe that now, after the tragic destruction of Jewish communal life in both Eastern and Central Europe, we can examine its essential qualities more openly and critically. If what I had to say makes a modest contribution to such an examination, I am quite content.