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Vorbild und Gegenbild: Das iberische Judentum in der deutsch-jüdischen Erinnerungskultur 1779–1939, by Carsten Schapkow. Cologne: Böhlau, 2011. 456 pp. €54.90.
It has long been recognized how important the memory of Sephardic traditions was for the identity formation of post-Enlightenment German Jewry and how this remembrance concerned both the so-called “Golden Age” of convivencia on the Iberian peninsula and later centers of Ibero-Jewish culture after sanctions and expulsion had dispersed Sephardic Jewry to places in the Netherlands, the Ottoman Empire, and elsewhere. In 1989 Ismar Schorsch spoke of the “myth of Sephardic supremacy”; other commentators have highlighted the identification of individuals like Heinrich Heine with Marranos. The present study, though, is the first to investigate German Jewish engagement with Iberian Sephardic history and culture over a prolonged period of time (from the Enlightenment to the advent of the Second World War) as well as the first to deal with the treatment of the culture and achievement of Jews from the Iberian peninsula by a variety of writers, historians, and community leaders in German-speaking central Europe.
Schapkow organizes the multitude of sources into three distinct historical phases: (a) In the context of the Haskala, Sephardic memory was focused primarily on exceptional figures whose example could inspire the process of “civic improvement” at a time when Christian Wilhelm Dohm (who himself invoked the Iberian Jewish past in his famous tract) was encouraging German Jews’ entry into mainstream society. In the Hebrew magazine of the 1780s, Ha-Me’assef, Moses Maimonides and Menasseh ben Israel were the two figures selected for readers’ special attention. The famous German-language periodical Sulamith (1806–1818) continued in the same vein. Less well known, but worthy of consideration, is Isaak Euchel’s epistolary novel Igrot Meschullam ben Urijah ha-Eschtemo’i (1790) with its vivid portrayal of contemporary Marrano culture.
(b) In the second phase, proponents of the Wissenschaft des Judentums devoted much energy to the presentation of the cross-cultural fertilization under both Muslim and Christian rule to their German readers. Heinrich Graetz, in his magisterial works, attempted to integrate Ibero-Jewish history into his concept of universal history; others, like Isaak Markus Jost, suggested an analogy between the dichotomy of Ashkenas and Sepharad of old and the modern one of “German” and “Polish” Jewry, thus declaring the educated middle-class Jewry in nineteenth-century Germany heirs to the achievements of their Iberian ancestors-in-spirit.
(c) Iberian memory led to political activism when Ludwig Philippson, in 1854, petitioned the Spanish Cortez for the re-admission of Jews into Spain and an apology for the expulsion of 1492. Towards the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, however, the consensus on the importance of the Iberian model began to wane. The neo-orthodox movement assessed the integration of Sephardic Jews on the Iberian peninsula into non-Jewish society with much more scepticism than their liberal counterparts; and Zionists like Max Nordau and Fritz Yitzhak Baer claimed that contemporary Jewry could determine their destiny in the modern world without taking their cues from the Golden Age of coexistence on the Iberian peninsula.
All of these examples, and many more, are related in much detail; the various chapters include short biographies of the main protagonists (such as, to add just some names not mentioned in the overview above: Leopold Zunz, Abraham Geiger, Mayer Kayserling and Gustav Karpeles) and much background information on their other activities and political persuasions. What is not attempted is an overall interpretation of the patterns of Sephardic memory: Is it a cyclical phenomenon? Is there a perceptible connection between general cultural currents and the nature of these writers’ invocation of Iberian models? What purpose does the postulation of a dialectic between Ashkenas and Sepharad, German and Polish, Jewish culture and Muslim/Christian majority culture in Spain, the Netherlands and later Germany actually fulfil?
At this stage, i.e., after a summary of the main content of the volume under consideration, any review would naturally proceed to an evaluation of the merit of the work in question. In this case this might mean to emphasize how the sheer volume of the material demonstrates strikingly the pervasiveness of the Iberian discourse or to take issue with the interpretation of the role of Ibero-Sephardic Jews as “Vermittler,” mediator, a category which, though appropriate in certain respects, is applied here too liberally and too loosely to Ibero-Jewish figures. Alas, discussing this book’s qualities is not easy. The reasons are quite clear: The writing is riddled with typos, incorrect and incoherent quotations, faulty grammar, dubious spelling and punctuation errors. The inappropriate use of tenses, of reported speech (or rather the absence of same), of subjunctives and other devices often makes it impossible to distinguish between the voice of the source and the voice of the commentator or, worse still, gives the impression that fictitious characters’ opinions are historical facts. Imprecise syntax, mangled word order or unclear connection between phrases confuse the logic of the analysis or render it altogether incomprehensible. Mistakes like these appear, on average, at a rate of two per page. Other common mistakes are duplications in sentences or tautologies (cf. pp. 198–9: “A change of present circumstances could best be changed by a secure legal status”). Particularly striking is the capitalization of nouns in a quotation from Grimm’s Deutsches Wörterbuch (p. 347) when it was the authors’ explicit policy not to adhere to this orthographic convention. Factual mistakes such as the confusion of the literary genres “novel” and “novella” or the confused chronology of the emergence of Jewish historical fiction and of ghetto fiction (pp. 279ff.) also abound. If, in footnote 220 on p. 110, and again in the bibliography, a study that appeared between 1974 and 1980 is listed with the by-line “Auf 3 Bde. berechnet” [anticipated to comprise three volumes], then the suspicion arises that some outdated publishers’ catalogue was used here and not the work itself. All of this is extremely annoying; it makes reading the book productively impossible and discerning its central findings unachievable. One cannot resist the impression that an earlier draft of the manuscript might have gone to press in error. Whatever caused this serious breakdown in quality control, the result is disastrous. Much as it saddens me to say it so bluntly, Böhlau, one of Germany’s most respected academic publishing houses, would be well advised to withdraw the volume from the market, and recall it from libraries, until it achieves an acceptable standard of basic accuracy.
National University of Ireland Maynooth