Strasbourg Cathedral
Michael Shurkin

On January 10, 2003, I returned to the Strasbourg Cathedral. I have visited the Cathedral several times over the years, as it has long drawn my imagination, and come to contain within its stones and stained glass some of my most profound questions of meaning and identity. Yet I doubt I will return anytime soon.

I first felt the pull of the Strasbourg Cathedral in the Fall of 1997, when I sat for days in the posh Second Empire reading room of the old Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. I came across it in the pages of Alexandre Weill's memoir about growing up in Alsace in the 1820s and 1830s. Weill described his first trip to Strasbourg, when he went with his father to take some cattle to market. Before that trip, all he had ever known was the pastures and woods of his village and the humble folkways of the Alsatian country Jew. But suddenly Weill found himself standing before one of the finest architectural achievements of Western Europe, an edifice that had practically inspired Goethe to launch the Romantic movement. He was blown away.

The encounter with the Strasbourg Cathedral foreshadowed what would be a lifelong conflict for Weill. On one side were the claims of his family, his people, and his God. On the other, his burgeoning love for the French and German Enlightenment and Romantic culture that he devoured while pursuing his Talmudic studies in Frankfurt, Metz, and Nancy. It was a time of poetry and Revolution, and a time when the warm bath of universalist idealism was having a particularly corrosive effect on Jewish identity. It seemed to young Jews like Weill that, with the promise of emancipation and the Enlightenment, one could exchange one's nation for the new brotherhood of humanity, one's old faith for the new cult of progress. Now, Jews like Weill had to define for themselves who they were and how they would live. In the words of Rosenzweig, "a whole generation of German Jews suffered the torture of truly embarrassing questions, and the Jewishness of each danced on the needle point of why." Heinrich Heine converted. Rahel Varnhagen suffered. Weill drifted -- and also struggled. To complicate matters, Weill would stumble through a series of misadventures with women that only highlighted the difficulty of squaring allegiance to custom and tradition with a sentimental education that follows its own course. "L'amour ne se commande pas," a dear French friend once told me, perhaps to explain her own affair with a married professor. Love takes no orders. That's not what the rabbis teach in yeshiva.

My identification with young Weill was immediate. For years I had swung violently between the imperatives of Judaism and a passionate embrace of the outside world. I was unable or unwilling to renounce either, nor could I find a proper equilibrium between the two. And, like Weill, I perceived that the tension between religious duty and Romance-which I define here as the embrace of the sentimental and the sublime, and the exaltation of the universal- put my head and my heart in an intractable battle. Indeed, I had come to Paris nursing a broken heart which I blamed, in part, on the fact that Judaism had been a source of strife between me and the woman who had dumped me.

About a month after I read Weill I traveled to Strasbourg, looking for inspiration. It was a gesture of revolt against God, an effort to throw myself into the Romantic and thereby give myself a new sense of ambition and purpose. I thought that by drinking from the same well that had so inspired Goethe and Weill before me, I might enjoy life again. The voyage from Paris by train is an ascent, much like the drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The train quickly leaves behind the Marne, traverses the rolling hills of Champagne to Nancy, and then winds its way ever higher into the Vosges mountains before finally cresting and settling down on the plateau of the Alsatian plain. There is a sense of having rounded a corner, of leaving the end of one world to begin another. For after the Vosges begins Germany. The Rhine (and the Franco-German border) was still about a kilometer or two East of Strasbourg, but a mere glance at the houses streaking past the train makes clear that here borders mean little. Bilingual and bicultural Alsace is a good place to be a universalist.

Next: The Cathedral and the French girl

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