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Friday, July 31, 2009

Heine, the non-Jewish Jew

Heine, a double life [1]

Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), the great poet of 19th-century German romanticism, has always been a most controversial figure. A Jew self-converted to Protestant Christianity, heavily influenced by French culture, and sharply critical of the semi-feudal Germany of his own time, Heine was rejected by German Jews and Christians alike. Heine played no small role in forging this polemic: his biting sarcasm was bestowed upon friends and enemies alike.

Heine had a flair for making enemies, as dramatic as his genius for composing poetry in the lyric vein—verses that made him, justly, the idol of millions of readers. As an essayist, literary critic, political analyst, arts and theater journalist, philosopher and music connoisseur, Heine bequeathed his singular prophetic vision to the German literary scene.

During his lifetime and posthumously, Heine suffered the slings and arrows of anti-Semitism. The Nazis tried to erase him from German history, but the popularity of his song, the “Lorelei,” was too great; though in the end, it was attributed to an anonymous source.

Whenever the Jewish intellectual contribution to world culture is discussed, Heine’s own Judaism comes in for questioning. Whenever the thorny question of Jewish identity is raised, Heine’s name is bandied about interminably.

Heinrich Heine was born into a well-to-do business family. His mother, Piera van Geldern, envisioned a great future for her offspring, and sent young Heinrich to a Roman Catholic finishing school. Despite his mother’s assimilationist tendencies, the family’s own Jewish tradition was quite strong, exerting a strong influence on Heine’s life. His uncle, the rich Hamburg banker Salomon Heine, supported Heine financially from the cradle to the grave. This gross dependency inevitably led to a love-hate relationship, and periodic explosions were the rule between the two. In Heine’s youth, his uncle set him up in a business framework that ended, as was to be expected, in total bankruptcy.

Though Heine considered himself a steadfast opponent of society’s hypocrisy, he frequently submitted, albeit unwillingly, to norms that he inwardly rejected. Though an enemy of institutionalized religion, he made sure to be married in a Parisian Catholic church; while proclaiming the delights of hedonism and free love, the woman he married was a near-illiterate Paris merchant, and their life together was the height of “middle-class” existence. He did all this while preaching the ideas of Jewish pride, and decrying the servile attitude of Jews who converted to Christianity for social advancement. Heine was the epitome of self-contradiction: converting was exactly what he did.

A vocal critic of organized Jewish community life, Heine was emphatic in his condemnation of the more reactionary aspects of Jewish faith. He clashed with the fanaticism of Orthodox sects, while simultaneously opposing the crass opportunism of the upwardly mobile assimilationists. Of all the elements in Heine’s life that shaped his Judaism most clearly, his membership in “The Jewish Society for Science and Culture,” in his youth, had the greatest impact upon him.

No less important, however, was his return to Judaism following his own apostasy, in his later years of illness and paralysis. It would be fitting indeed to remember Heine’s celebrated response to a friend who inquired about the poet’s desire to re-join the Jewish people: “There is no need to return, for in fact I have never left.”

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Felix Mendelssohn and Jewish Identity

Felix Mendelssohn and Jewish Identity [1,2]

Felix Mendelssohn was born into a family of means and privilege. His intellect and aptitude for music were apparent at an early age; by the age of fourteen he had already demonstrated an astonishing facility for musical composition, composing over one hundred works, from small scale keyboard works to large scale operas and symphonies. But the apparent effortlessness with which Mendelssohn met continued successes (and enjoying that rarest of commodities extended to composers -- fame and recognition by the public during their lifetime) as well as the advantages afforded him due to his family's social standing belied a turbulence that would appear incongruous to the composer of vibrant, joyous works such as the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture and the Octet. The society and culture in which Mendelssohn worked and lived was rapidly evolving.

Born into a Protestant family of Jewish heritage, at a time when Jews were still largely marginalized in society, Mendelssohn's own life might aptly serve as a metaphor for the conflicting social attitudes of his era. His maternal grandfather, Daniel Itzig (1723-1799), worked within the status quo by serving as a banker to the royal court of Frederick the Great, eventually obtaining special privileges for his family and heirs -- that is, the same privileges enjoyed by other German (Christian) citizens. Mendelssohn's paternal grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), is considered to be the preeminent Jewish philosopher of the German Enlightenment; as an objective observer of society, removed from the status quo, he called for religious tolerance towards Jews and for their full participation in German society.

Despite the pro-Jewish stance of the children of both Moses Mendelssohn and Daniel Itzig, the sober reality of the era was that practicing Judaism in late eighteenth century Germany substantially limited one's access to professional opportunities. While two of Moses's children retained the Jewish faith, two others converted to Catholicism, and the remaining two embraced Protestantism. Felix's father Abraham Mendelssohn (1776-1835) was one of the latter, although (tellingly enough) he and his wife Lea Salomon (1777-1842) did not officially convert until 1822.

In 1816, at the age of seven, Felix, along with his siblings, were baptized into the Protestant faith. At about this time, the family added the surname "Bartholdy" to their existing name (to become Mendelssohn Bartholdy). The addition of this surname, urged by Lea's brother Jakob Salomon (later Jakob Bartholdy, adopting the name of a family dairy farm) who had converted to Christianity in 1805, indicates the lengths to which even cultured, protected, monied, educated Jews felt constrained to conceal their heritage within an intolerant society.

While Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was raised and remained a practicing Lutheran throughout his life, and never received any religious instruction in Judaism, it would appear that he retained a substantial sense of his Jewish identity -- something of which he would have certainly been aware in his daily life as part of a family that had, by all indications, successfully assimilated into German (Prussian) culture, but who were nevertheless regularly subject to instances of anti-Semitism. Predictably, the very public nature of Mendelssohn's career proved the easiest target for anti-Semitic sentiments. It is revealing, however, that in the subjects of the two biblically-inspired oratorios produced in the last year of his life -- Elijah and Christus, reflecting, respectively, the Old Testament of his Jewish heritage and the New Testament of the Protestant faith adopted by his family -- may be discerned a rapprochement, or an attempt at such, between these two parts of his identity. Perhaps like his grandfather Moses before him, Mendelssohn was striving to reconcile issues of spirituality and religious tolerance within society, and within himself as well.

Friday, July 3, 2009

German Jewish Refugees (1933-1938)

Atlas of the Holocaust, Martin Gilbert [1]