Assimilation and the Jew: I am who I – erm?

Theodor Herzl didn’t believe in the Judaic faith. He – like many educated and well-to-do Jews of the 19th century – became converts to the Enlightenment. They were called out of the “darkness” of YHWH into the marvelous light of the European weltenshauung (world view). In the 19th century the light shone brightest in Germany. As Fanny, my mother, would have said, die greste dokteirim geit dottern (the greatest doctors go there) – die greste philosophers (Hegel, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche), die greste psychologists (the Swiss German, Jung, and the Viennese Jew, Freud – who lived across the road from Theodor), die greste musicians (Mendelsohn was Jewish), die greste archaeologists, die greste writers (Goethe, Schiller; Heine, who was a Jew), die greste historians (von Tretschke, von Ranke) die greste philologists (Nietzsche again, Mommsen, the Grimm brothers) – in a nutshell, the best spread a liberal regime had to offer. Theodor became an assimilated Jew, like so many of the brilliant 19th century German Jewish minds such as Heine, (Moses) Mendelsohn and Freud mentioned earlier. Heine went the whole hog and became a Lutheran: he didn’t only assimilate the language, the culture and the wurst, he went all the way; he assimilated the religion as well. In truth, it wasn’t a genuine assimilation; it was baptism without conversion. He lived to deeply regret this mock conversion. I’ll say more about Heine’s “conversion” when I compare it with Hans Herzl’s conversion and my conversion to Christianity.

Moses Hess in his “Rome and Jerusalem” (1862, Letter 6) rebukes the Jewish obsession with all things Teutonic (Germanic), so prevalent throughout the 19th century:

“…the barren wood preponderates in Occidental Judaism. Most of the German Jews, as soon as they come in contact with European civilization, begin to feel ashamed of their religion and descent. The Germans have so frequently and thoroughly demonstrated to us that our nationality is an obstacle to our ‘inner’ emancipation, that we have finally come to believe it ourselves and, giving up our Jewish culture and denying our race, have made every effort to be deserving of the ‘blond’ Germanism.Yet in spite of the excellent mathematicians among them, our Jewish Teutomaniacs, who bartered away their Judaism for State positions, grossly miscalculated their chances.”

The enlightened Jew of the time measured the degree of enlightenment in terms of the degree of disregard for Jewish traditions; the more enlightened you were, the less you followed Jewish customs. The Enlightenment saw Jews giving up their “Jews first” identity and intermarrying with non-Jews, especially in the in Greater German Empire. In recent times, this dropping of Jewish customs and/or intermarriage continues at a steady rate. In my family, of the five brothers, only one, Benny, married a Jew. The wives of two of my brothers, Sammy and Joe, converted to Reformed Judaism.  When I married my first wife, Marrianne, I was a lapsed Catholic, and Marianne’s religion was “love”; I was a lapsed Universal, and Marriane believed in Universal Love. So between my universal lapse and Marianne’s universal love, the Jew got homogenised.

I am an Ashkenazi (European) Jew. How Jewish is an Ashkenazi Jew? Jon Entine, author of Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People, says:

“As we all recognize, ethnicity and identity is closely bound with politics. The issue of “Jewish distinctiveness,” for lack of a better phrase, long has been part of Jewish history. There were a number of periods during which Jews watered down their signature identity, self-selected or imposed, as a “chosen people.” The Samaritans were a blend of Jews and non-Jews. Jews adopted many Hellenistic cultural practices during the Second Temple period, and intermarriage, particulalry among the educated elite, was not uncommon. There was also a fair amount of intermingling between Sephardic Jews and non-Jews during the Golden Age of Jewish, Muslim, Christian relations and in the century leading up to the Inquisition, which undoubtedly left a complicated imprint on the Jewish gene pool. Another more powerful wave of assimilation was touched off by the Jewish Enlightenment, which encouraged some Jews to drop their identity as “Jews first” and blend in culturally and through intermarriage with non-Jews, particularly in Greater Germany, in the 19th and early 20th enturies.”

“In each of those cases, Jews assimilated along the edges but the Jewish community Maintained its central ethic of Jewish distinctiveness rooted in the belief that Judaism was a tribal religion tied by threads of ancestry, culture and belief. Each of those experiments in assimilation arguably ended badly for many Jews, with the Holocaust the most tragic and recent example. So, when a movement arose in the 1950s, most popularly propaganized by Arthur Koestler in The Thirteenth Tribe, that Ashkenazi Jews were mostly converts, its political and social attractiveness-Jews didn’t have to suffer the consequences of their chosenness-many liberal Jews fervently embraced the idea. Beginning in the 1950s and 60s, it became fashionable for Jews to to reframe Judaism as a religion and not a “race,” which fit with the anti-race ideology of post World War II Europe and America.”

The question is: can an assimilated Jew remain a Jew? Back of that question is the primordial question: what does it mean to be Jewish? I will examine this question in various sections of this bography.

The last entry – May 16, 1904 – in Theodor’s lengthy diary is a report to Jacob Schiff (1847 – 1920). He was a leading American-German banker, industrialist, and philanthropist. The Encyclopaedia of World Biography describes Schiff as a “devout Jew” who “believed in assimilation.”

A devout assimilated Jew? Isn’t that an oxymoron? I suppose it depends what Schiff (his biographer?) means by “devout”: devoted to what, to whom? I suppose Schiff means the God of the Torah.  There are many different kinds of Jew; some are ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Deconstructionist(?) and Buddhist. All these would claim to be devout Jews who believe in the God of the Torah. Later in the biography, I shall discuss these different “branches” of Judaism. For now, I’d like to take a closer look at the term “assimilation”.

The physiological meaning of “assimilation” refers to what happens to food once it leaves the fork or fingers and enters the alimentary canal: the food is digested and nutrients are converted into living tissue: ingest, chew, digest and assimilate. In this “digestive” definition of assimilation the nutrients do not become similar nor do they become identical to the organs that assimilate them; rather, the nutrients are absorbed into the organs, and the organs grow and are repaired. The waste is excreted. If the process of social–cultural assimilation were to imitate physiological assimilation, the assimilated individual would be totally transmuted into the assimilating society-culture. For example, the devout Jew would transmogrify into an enlightened German, and the waste products – the “devout” and the “Jew” – are eliminated. But is this what happens to an assimilated Jew?

Perhaps linguistics can help to shed more light. In linguistics, the term “assimilation” is defined as:

“the process by which a sound is modified so that it becomes similar or identical to an adjacent or nearby sound. For example, the prefix in- becomes im- in impossible by assimilation to the labial p of possible.”

Two key terms in the definition are: “similar” and “identical” (to an adjacent sound). In the above example, the prefix in- becomes im- before the labial p. Has the prefix in- been swallowed up when it changes its form to im-? Not at all; in- has indeed lost its n but not its i ; i may have been assimilated but i have not lost my identity. It’s even better than that. My n is not too different from the m I have become. I still am who I – erm?

All I’m saying is: It’s not impossible to say “devout Jew” and “assimilation” in the same breath.

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