Joshua Shelly, review of Marc Volovici’s “German as a Jewish Problem: The Language Politics of Jewish Nationalism”

Marc Volovici. German as a Jewish Problem: The Language Politics of Jewish Nationalism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020. 352 PP. Cloth $65.00. ISBN: 9781503612303.

Volovici - German as a Jewish Problem cover

How do we understand the field of German Jewish Studies? Given the history of Central Europe generally and the experiences of Jews in that area of the world in particular, scholars in the field often understand the first word to mean “German-speaking.” This allows for the grouping together of communities of Jews who experienced shifting political boundaries or else, in the same historical moment, found themselves either under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in Prague or Bismarckian rule in Berlin. In his recent monograph German as a Jewish Problem: The Language Politics of Jewish Nationalism (2020), Marc Volovici invites us to an even more capacious understanding of the field: one that includes “German-reading Jews,” “a geographically broader group, ranging from Russia to the Americas and to Palestine, and including individuals who acquired German at some stage of their lives without it necessarily being central to their self-understanding” (7). This move allows him to undertake an ambitious project in which he examines how different Jews’ understandings of German from the nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries reflected “the key dilemmas and divisions of Jewish nationalism” (14).

The first chapter summarizes the Jewish perception of German in the wake of the Enlightenment, a period during which the “linguistic shift” from Yiddish to German — and other European languages — facilitated Jewish entry “into the political and discursive realm of the state” (15). The chapter discusses Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786) and the Maskilim, their well-known disdain for Yiddish, and their “revitalisation” of Hebrew. Volovici’s analysis draws attention to the multivalent, competing meanings German held for Jews — and non-Jews — at the time. For one, linguistic romanticism actively appropriated German as the quintessential expression of a nation whose boundaries could best be determined linguistically. Simultaneously, however, German represented a “universal language” of scholarship (Wissenschaft). For Jews specifically, it was also inexorably understood as the language of reform — both religious reform as well as a means to remake the (Jewish) individual. In sum, readers learn how German in the early years of the nineteenth century represented modernization and progress for Jews throughout the western world.

The book’s second chapter examines the work of Leon Pinsker (1821–1891), the author of Autoemancipation!, a work of Jewish nationalism often read as a precursor to Theodor Herzl’s (1860–1904) famed pamphlet Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State, 1896). Here, Volovici draws our attention to Pinsker — a self-identified “Russian Jew” — and his choice to publish his text in German. German, he argues, not only allowed Pinsker to address an audience of Jewish elites in the German-speaking world (45); it also allowed him to draw on nationalist, philosophical, scientific, and emancipatory discourses that had left their mark on the “prestige language” of German. The chapter’s concluding discussion of an early Hebrew translation of Autoemancipation! demonstrates how German gave Pinsker a linguistic medium to propose a (more) secular Jewish nationalism — one that often took on a religious valence when rendered in Hebrew.

In “The Language of Knowledge: Early Hebraism and German” (Chapter 3), Volovici recounts the attitude of “leading Hebraists” toward German’s place in Jewish culture and nationalism in the late nineteenth century. More a simple story of antagonism, the discussion — which focuses most extensively on Peretz Smolenskin (1842–1885) and Nahum Sokolow (1859–1936) — foregrounds the ambivalent attitudes these Hebraists held toward German at the time. While many critiqued the Jewish embrace of German as endangering Jewish national unity, Volovici also shows how these same individuals had an appreciation for the “significant role” German had played “in the introduction of modern scholarly, secular, and political ideas into Jewish societies — all of which were central to [their] ideology” (74). The second part of the chapter addresses the emergence of German as “Zionism’s chief language” (91), even as it also came to be associated during this time with völkisch nationalism and antisemitism. Here, Volovici addresses the question of the dominant role German played in Congress-Zionism, often at the expense of other languages, most notably Hebrew.

Chapter 4 acts in many ways as a continuation of the previous chapter. It addresses a series of figures — Simon Bernfeld (1860–1940), Eliezar Ben-Yehuda (1858–1922), Hayim Nahman Bialik (1873–1934), and Ahad Ha’am (1856–1927) — who wrestled with the relationship between German and their desire to achieve a form of “Hebrew monolingualism.” Here, too, Volovici demonstrates how these figures simultaneously fought for Hebrew to become the Jewish national language, even as they recognized their indebtedness to German. This indebtedness was both a recognition of German as a tool of (Jewish) scholarship and as a model of a language that had helped bring about German national unification. Especially enlightening here are the discussions of Bernfeld’s appreciation for Luther’s Bible translation as a means for “consolidating the unity of the German people” (114) and the inspiration Ben-Yehuda drew from the Grimm Brothers’ German dictionary project. Throughout this chapter, Volovici also attends to questions of secularism and religion, something most clearly on display in the chapter’s concluding discussion of the challenge Ahad Ha’am confronted when translating Leon Pinsker’s Automemancipation! into Hebrew.

In chapter five, Volovici turns to discuss what he terms Martin Buber’s (1878–1965) “language problem.” With admirable nuance, his analysis foregrounds the gap between Buber’s and other German Zionists’ romanticization of Hebrew and their simultaneous struggle to communicate in it fluently. Though Buber had a thorough textual knowledge of (biblical) Hebrew, Volovici highlights his struggle to use it as a (modern) spoken language. Buber shared this struggle with a majority of German Zionists, many of whom did not share his deep knowledge of biblical Hebrew. Interwoven with this personal story is a discussion of the linguistic consequences of the First World War, after which German began to lose its primacy in the Zionist movement and pressure built on German Jewish Zionists to acquire Hebrew. The chapter ends with an examination of the biblical translation Buber undertook with Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929). Here, Volovici reads Buber’s and Rosenzweig’s emphasis on recapturing the “spokenness” of the original biblical Hebrew in their translation as an effort to provide German Jews with their own entry point into a(n alternative) spoken Hebrew, one they understood as capturing something that was lost in the modern Hebrew then being spoken by Zionists in Palestine.

In its penultimate chapter, “German as a Jewish Question,” Volovici turns directly to address how various figures viewed the relationship of Yiddish to German in light of Jewish nationalism. On the one hand, the language’s relationship to German became the occasion for Zionist claims that Yiddish-speaking Jews had an affinity with German culture. This cut two ways: for some, this association was understood as holding potential value in the quest for gaining “German sponsorship” of Zionist political efforts (180). Yet for Hebraists, this relationship to German provided precisely the justification necessary to dismiss Yiddish as a product of exile unfit to be the primary language of Jewish nationalism. Among Yiddishists, by contrast, Volovici shows how their repeated situating of Yiddish vis-à-vis German allowed them to justify their claim that the language was an expression of the Jewish people. The chapter then pivots to discuss the anxieties around “daytshmerish,” the use of modern Germanisms in contemporary Yiddish. It concludes with a compelling discussion of Kongressdeutsch: a special form of German — or Yiddish — then spoken at Zionist congresses. Volovici convincingly reads the language as “a discursive site of interaction between the speakers of [Yiddish and German]” (199).

Volovici’s tour de force concludes with a discussion of German in the final years of the Yishuv and early years of the Israeli state. He examines the transformation of German from a language of Jewish nationalism — something already in decline — to the “language of Hitler”: something most conspicuous for its absence, not presence. Here, he considers three interlocking “problems”: those of using, thinking in, and hearing German in the State of Israel. Without dismissing the role of the Third Reich and the trauma of the Holocaust for many Jews, Volovici situates this change within the longer history of the fraught relationship between German and Jewish nationalism.

In many ways, German as a Jewish Problem is a history of decline. It begins with German as a “prestige language” used by Leon Pinsker to give voice to his idea of a secular Jewish nationalism, only to end with the language marginalized and largely unspoken in contemporary Israel. Yet this history is no teleological one. Nor is it one of simple divisions between German and Hebrew and Yiddish. Instead, in his excavation of German in the history of Jewish nationalism, Volovici shows how many Jews, including prominent Hebraists, did more than read German. More significantly still, in German, they saw a model for their own linguistic nationalist project.

By widening the scope of his lens to look not only at German-speaking but also German-reading Jews, Volovici is able to tell a fascinating, transnational history that helps reconstruct an important discursive site in the history of early Zionism. Moreover, in the process, he reveals the extent to which discourses about Hebrew, Yiddish, and German among Jewish nationalists were overlapping and inseparable from each other. The end result is an excellent book that will no doubt be of interest far beyond the confines of German Jewish Studies. It will prove a compelling read to those interested in nineteenth- and twentieth-century European Jewish history generally and early Zionism particularly, as well as those interested in broader issues of language politics and nationalism.


shelly_profile.large[05.2021]Joshua Shelly recently completed his dissertation on the role of German Jewish literature in the early Zionist movement in the Carolina-Duke German Studies Program. He is now a librarian working in the area of open access at the University Library at the University of Potsdam in Germany.

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