A Perpetual Fate, a Perpetual Disgrace

Roth, Joseph: Juden auf Wanderschaft (English title: The Wandering Jews) ISBN 978-3-423-13439-9 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Reading Kafka, reading about Kafka and reflecting the fate of the Jews from Eastern Europe – it’s all part of the same story. Kafka was an assimilated Jew living in Prague, and during World War I, thousands of Jews from Russia and Galicia fled to what would later become the Czech Republic. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was suffering defeat after defeat on the Eastern front, and former Austrian outposts were overrun by Russian troops, forcing the local Jews to flee. Russia was no friend of the Jews. Neither was Prague.

Joseph Roth (1894-1939) , a writer turned reporter, narrates the story of the Eastern Jews, despised by their assimilated cousins in Western Europe and most of the rest of Europe. Filthy, poor, dishonest, uneducated – thise were Jewish prejudices against Jews, gladly taken up by anti-Semitists anywhere in Europe. “The Wandering Jew”, published in 1927, is a disturbing book, even after so many years. So little has changed. If you look at the current stereotypes attributed to refugees from Syria, Irak, Afghanistsn, Libya… you know where they stem from. And Anti-Semitism of course is alive and kicking.

Roth’s book is brutal when it comes to describe how Eastern Jews have been treated since the late 19th century and up to 1933, a date after which all Jews in Europe risked to run a common fate: annihilation. This is balanced by his description of the Eastern Jews’ communities, their industriousness, their internal solidarity, their faith, the rich cultural traditions, their unshakable will to live and their courage to pursue their luck in foreign countries, whatever price they may have to pay.

The wandering of the Jews – for up to the foundation of Israel they lacked a true fatherland in a territorial sense – pushed them to seek a political and ideological home: Palestine. Not just a territory, no, a political concept, a dream. Zionism, the logic consequence of more than 1000 years of European Anti-Semitism, the way out of the eternal dilemma: assimilation or discrimination? It’s hard to say what was worse in Roth’s eyes since he showed little sympathy for the superficial Western bourgeois society of which he was a product. Roth studied in Lviv and Vienna, he later lived in Vienna, Berlin and Paris.

Roth explains it all very well, and any honest reader looking at the refugee debate in Europe, President Trump’s idée fixe about a protective wall on the Mexican border or the Middle East shows that the so-called Western civilizations use stereotypes and concepts in their debates almost identical to those used some 100 years ago. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the biggest fool of all? Speaking about fools, Roth taught me something I didn’t know yet. Every Stetl had its Batlen, a storyteller, a joker or, as Roth puts it, somebody who reflected useless ideas. I sense a subversive element here and I love this kind of social subversion. Watch and listen to the Batlen, for he speaks the truth!

The laconic style in which Roth describes life in a Stetl, the relationships among Jews and between Jews and gentiles and between the Jews and God made me smile occasionally. These descriptions appear funny like in “funny little people” – the Hobbits come to my mind. Actually, there is nothing funny about them. The stoicism with which the Eastern European Jews supported their internal political and cultural divisions and the hostility of the environment is remarkable. It hides the earnest that filled these people’s minds. Roth says the Jewish people can be punished by God, but never abandoned.

Finally, in the context of Eastern Jews settling in Berlin, Roth mentions something important: “Everything is improvised […] One must always be ready to move and carry one’s few belongings, some bread and an onion in one pocket, the Tefillin in the other. Who knows whether one will not be forced to wander again in the next hour.” From German Jews I occasionally hear that, once more, “the suitcases are packed”. In the light of a revival of Anti-Semitism in Germany, this is no surprise. It certainly is a disgrace. At the same time it would appear that it never has been different: a perpetual threat, a perpetual disgrace. And this text grows longer and longer, and it’s message will reach, once more, the wrong audience…

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, qis celebrated with a prayer, the Kol Nidrei. Max Bruch and Arnold Schönberg have set it to music:

A light is sown for the repenting sinner

Jew or Viennese or Both?

Eva Menasse: Vienna ISBN 978-3-442-73253-1 (translated into English under the same title) ⭐️⭐️⭐️ Vienna from the beginning of the 20th century through two World Wars until today – what a marvelous setting! The story of a Jewish family – how promising! Those were my thoughts when I read about Eva Menasse’s novel “Vienna”. The Austrian writer apparently draws on autobiographical material, and narrating the fate of a Vienna based Jewish family throughout the 20th century could have been the occasion to draw a critical portrait of Vienna’s society, its latent anti-Semitism and xenophobism, to explore the moral choices a Jewish family faced under the regime of Adolf Hitler and during the confusing time immediately after World War II.

All these issues come up, focused through the lens of the narrator searching for his own identity in this family, in this town, in this country. But the novel lacks a coherent structure. It follows a historical timeline, but the beginning already is confusing. Too many characters are introduced at the same time, you never quite now what time the narrator is referring to at a specific moment. Later the story is at times repetitive, the episodes seem unrelated to each other and my reading pleasure was regularly thwarted by these experiences. Furthermore the story lacks active elements that propel it forward, there is no tension, no culmination point the story is leading to.

The family members have both Christian and Jewish roots and their quest for identity is the central element of the novel. This however gets blurred by 1001 anectodes, funny at times, but distracting from the main issue. The question of “who is the better Jew” and whether one can belong to the Viennese society as a Jew or only as a Christian remains unanswered.

On the positive side I freely admit that the main characters and the difficult family relationships and interactions are masterfully sketched, wonderful miniatures peppered with intense Jewish humour that made me laugh more than once. A book pleasant enough, but Thomas Mann has set a very high standard with “The Buddenbrocks” in the field of German family sagas, and compared to this masterwork, “Vienna” remains unsatisfying.

While I read the novel I explored the works of the composer Max Bruch and his Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor captures some of the sadness I felt when I imagined the characters of the novel in their struggle for their identity:

Natural elegance – of rocks and music

Being a Jew – a choice, a fate, a burden?

Paul Spiegel: Was ist koscher? Jüdischer Glaube – Jüdisches Leben. ISBN: 978-3-548-36713-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️  As regular visitors to this blog and my classical music blog know, religion is a subject that occupies my mind a lot. The recent uproar against the US president’s initiative to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the ensuing anti-semitic and anti-zionist protests compelled me to educate myself about what it means to be a Jew, to be a Jew in Israel, to be a Jew of the diaspora, i. e. living outside Israel. I wanted to know how these people live, how the Jewish religion evolved over time, how it relates to Christianism and Islam. All this with the question in mind where the hate against Jews comes from and how it could be overcome.

Paul Spiegel’s introduction to the Jewish religion and the Jewish “way of life” – they can’t be seperated actually since religion permeates life from birth to death in one way or another – gave me some valuable first answers. I have more books on Judaism on my bookshelf, thanks to my fellow blogger Juna Grossmann, but this one was a good start. Paul Spiegel chaired the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, the over-arching association of Jews in Germany, for many years and did a lot to improve the mutual understanding of Jewish Germans and Gojim. This book is perhaps the essence of his lifelong mission.

Spiegel explains in detail and with a lot of humour all the moral obligations of a faithful Jew. Belonging to God’s Chosen People amounts to quite a burden, it would appear. He presents the different traditions, hard to understand for an outsider, and retraces the long anti-semitic track record of the Catholic church. Spiegel also deals with deliberately spread fake news and conspiracy theories about Jews and the difficulties that arise from cultural assimilation of Jews in Western Europea societies.

The two faces of assimilation – the danger to loose one’s identity and the chance to bypass anti-semitic discrimination – seem to me to be a particularly tragic fate of Jewish communities. Two composers come to my mind in this respect: Felix Mendelssohn, who did not like the family name “Bartholdy” that his father adopted, and Max Bruch:

United we pray

A light is sown for the repenting sinner

A brilliant fool’s story of survival

Angel Wagenstein: Isaac’s Torah ISBN: 978-1-59051-245-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Isaac Blumenfeld survives two world wars, the Holocaust and Stalin’s camps mainly by acting like a fool. A grim and witty novel about a fate that stands for the fate of many Eastern European Jews, peppered with black humour and far-reaching theological and philosophical reflections. Superb story-telling – you will laugh and cry and hopefully think about the lessons of the past for the present and the future. For this is one of the leitmotivs of the novel: Becoming an accomplice to crime by looking away when populism has its way. מזל טוב to the Bulgarian author.

Dmitry Shostakovich has written a very impressive symphony named after the massacre in Babi Yar (Ukraine), one of the settings of Wagenstein’s novel:

Mass murder and a lesson in morality