The Jewish Century


In the 19th century, Jews were champions of reason and enlightenment. But their attempts to assimilate into liberal European society were often fraught with difficulties. “Success at ‘assimilation’ made assimilation more difficult,” writes Yuri Slezkine, “because the more successful they were at being modern and secular, the more visible they became as the main representatives of modernity and secularism.”

In the following excerpt from Yuri Slezkine’s
The Jewish Century, Slezkine discusses secular Jews in 19th-century Europe, and the challenges of assimilation.

The most common early strategy of the newly “emancipated” and “assimilated” Jews in Western Europe was to promote the liberal cause by celebrating “neutral spaces” in public life and cultivating a liberal education and the liberal professions in their own. Jews were not just the embodiment of Reason and Enlightenment—they were among their most vocal and loyal champions. They voted for liberal parties, argued the virtues of individual liberties, and faithfully served those states that allowed them to do so. The Habsburg Empire—as well as France, of course—was the object of much loyalty and admiration because, as the historian Carl Schorske put it, “the emperor and the liberal system offered status to the Jews without demanding the nationality; they became supra-national people of the multi-national state, the one folk which, in effect, stepped into the shoes of the earlier aristocracy.”

To join the later—liberal—aristocracy, one needed to acquire a new secular education and professional expertise. And that is exactly what the Jews, as a group, did—with an intensity and fervor worthy of a yeshiva and a degree of success that was the cause of much awe and resentment. Gustav Mahler’s father read French philosophers when he was not selling liquor; Karl Popper’s father translated Horace when he was not practicing law; and Victor Adler’s grandfather divided his time between Orthodox Judaism and European Enlightenment. But what mattered most—to them and others like them, as well as to History—is whose fathers they were. Liberal education as the new Jewish religion was very similar to the old Jewish religion—except that it was much more liberal. Secularized Jewish fathers–stern or indulgent, bankers (like Lukac’s father) or haberdashers (like Kafka’s)—did their best to bring up free, cosmopolitan Men: men without fathers. They were remarkable successful: indeed, few generations of patriarchs were as good at raising patricides and grave diggers as first-generation Jewish liberals. And no one understood it better than Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx.

Liberalism did not work because neutral spaces were not very neutral.  The universities, “free” professions, salons, coffeehouses, concert halls, and art galleries in Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest became so heavily Jewish that liberalism and Jewishness became almost indistinguishable. The Jews’ pursuit of rootlessness ended up being almost as familial as their pursuit of wealth. Success at “assimilation” made assimilation more difficult, because the more successful they were at being modern and secular, the more visible they became as the main representatives of modernity and secularism. And this meant that people who were not very good at modernity and secularism, or who rejected them for avariety of Apollonian (and Dionysian) reasons, were likely to be impressed by political anti-Semitism. As Kathe Leichter remembered her high school days in fin de siecle Vienna, “with my [Jewish] friends I discussed the meaning of life, shared my ideas about books, poetry, nature, and music.  With the daughters of government officials I played ‘house.’”  Kathe Leichter grew up to be a socialist and a sociologist; at least some of those officials’ daughters grew up to be anti-Semites.

But mostly liberalism did not work because it never could—not in the sense of interchangeable cosmopolitan individuals and certainly not in the Apollonian Babylon of Central and Eastern Europe. The facts that nobody spoke Liberalese as a native tongue and that the Man who had Rights also had citizenship and family attachments were easy to forget if one lived in a state that was more or less successful at equating itself with both family and the universe. It was much harder to do in  a doomed Christian state or a youthful national one. Nobody spoke Austro-Hungarian, on the one hand, and on the other, it took a lot of practice to start thinking of Czech as a language of high secular culture. The Jews who did not wish to speak the language of particularism (Yiddish, for most of them) had to find the language of universalism by shopping around. The main selling points of would-be national universalisms (French, German, Russian, Hungarian) were a claim to a prestigious high-cultural tradition and, most important, a state that would give that claim some muscle and conviction. Esperanto—conceived in Bialystok by the Jewish student Ludwik Zamenhof—had no chance of living to maturity. Universalism relied on the nation-state as much as the nation did.

This excerpt from The Jewish Century (Princeton University Press, 2004) is reprinted with permission from the author and the publisher.

Yuri Slezkine is Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to The Jewish Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), his books include In the Shadow of the Revolution: Life Stories of Russian Women from 1917 to the Second World War (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000), and Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).