Michael Shurkin
The Gifts of the German Jews: Toward a Postmodern Judaism, p. 3

One of the most striking aspects of German-Jewish modernism, and certainly what distinguishes it from the surrounding German milieu, is its meditation on Jewish tradition, which to the modernists represented a pre-modern authenticity that they felt they had lost. Curiously, and perhaps not unlike my own rabbis, German-speaking Jewish modernists most commonly fixed their gaze not just on any Jewish tradition but that of Eastern European or, more vaguely, 'Oriental' Jews, a term that enabled them to stress their own distance from tradition while still claiming a mystical as well as genetic connection. Like other Orientalists, German modernists regarded the Eastern Jews as exotic and even intimidating, like Kafka's gatekeeper. Yet they also saw in the Eastern Jew a vision of their own personal origins, a ghost of authenticity past. For what are Western Jews, the Austrian writer Joseph Roth asked, if not Eastern Jews who had forgotten?

Roth mourned what seemed to him to be the irreversible process by which Jews westernized, "gave up," and lost the "sad beauty" he eulogized in his essay "The Wandering Jews" as well as his novel, Job. He, like Kafka, seemed to believe that there was no going back. Others, however, proposed various ways of reconnecting. The great Expressionist poet Else Lasker-Schüler liked pretending that she was, in fact, the Oriental "Prinz Jussuff." The novelist Jacob Wassermann similarly flattered himself by boasting of an "Oriental force" in his blood that powered his creativity.

Few, however, made as much out of this Jewish Orientalism as Martin Buber, who defined Western Jews as Orientals whom emancipation had denatured. Buber reassures his readers that the soul of the Jew is intact: "the Jew has remained an Oriental." One can even detect the Oriental spirit, he wrote, "in the most assimilated Jew, if one knows how to gain access to his soul; and even those who have eradicated the last vestiges of Judaism from the content of their thinking still, and ineradicably, carry Judaism within them in the pattern of their thought." For Buber, the Orient still thrived in Eastern Europe among the "decadent yet still wondrous Hasid of our days." The renewal of Judaism in the West lay precisely in turning to the East for inspiration and instruction.

Much of the German-Jewish reflection on 'Oriental' Jews is irrelevant today. Buber's Poland is long gone, Yiddish is dead, and the "Hasid of our days" is wondrous to very few. (Indeed, Buber's Orient never existed in the first place, as it was to a large extent the expression of his own yearnings.) What we can learn from, however, is the German-speaking Jewish modernists' ability to identify with Jewish tradition while remaining outside of it. They turned to Eastern European Judaism without renouncing their own modernity, without denying the distance between the traditions and themselves. In fact, that distance was the only thing of which they were really certain.

Obviously their relationship with tradition was attenuated and artificial. The modernists always regarded Jewish tradition through their own subjectivist lens, reifying it, orientalizing it, imposing numerous discursive constraints that deformed their perception of it. They were to a great extent its authors, and we should not only recognize this fact, but draw on it for inspiration as we renew and reinvent Jewish tradition to suit our own era. However, their Orientalism also brought them into an intimate relationship with the real liturgy, language, law, and lore of the Jewish people. Not content to just talk about the tradition, they tried to get inside it and learn it. Thus Kafka studied Hebrew and fetishized the Yiddish theater. Gershom Scholem became the great historian of Jewish mysticism. Whatever their path to tradition, they avoided the nihilism according which all knowledge, because it is so contingent, is suspect and therefore to be refused. Instead, they groped for ways to live with the Law and with themselves.

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Image: Martin Buber

August 2003

The Queer Guy at the Strip Club
Jay Michaelson

The Gifts of the German Jews: Toward a Postmodern Judaism
Michael Shurkin

My first shabbos
Jennifer Waters

Stones of Jerusalem
David Goldstein

Holocaust Video Testimonies: The Other Reality TV
Dan Friedman

Josh Tells a Bedtime Story
Josh Ring

Zeek in Print
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David Stromberg

About Zeek

The Zeek Archive



From previous issues:

Strasbourg Cathedral
Michael Shurkin

Skepticism Does Not Exist
Jay Michaelson