Caroline Kita, review of Kerry Wallach, Aya Elyada, eds. “German-Jewish Studies: Next Generations”

Kerry Wallach and Aya Elyada, eds. German-Jewish Studies: Next Generations. New York: Berghahn Press, 2023. 278 PP. Cloth $145.00. ISBN 9781800736771.

German-Jewish Studies cover

What is German-Jewish studies? From where did this field emerge and where is it going? What relevance does its scholarship hold for our world today? These are the questions that German-Jewish Studies: Next Generations attempts to answer in twelve essays written by past recipients of the prestigious Gerald Westheimer Grant from the Leo Baeck Institute. Established in 2007, the Westheimer grant is designed to help junior-level scholars achieve tenure at their institutions by funding the completion of a creative or research project. The book’s nuanced introduction, written by volume co-editors Kerry Wallach and Aya Elyada, situates the work of these scholars within the larger trajectory of German-Jewish Studies as it has evolved since its rise to international prominence in the mid-twentieth century. Acknowledging the work of Jewish émigrés who developed the field as a means to preserve their culture, literature, language, and history in the face of persecution, exile, and the Holocaust, Wallach and Elyada also reflect on how German-Jewish studies has responded in recent decades to shifts in historiographical writing and new scholarly paradigms including critical studies of race, gender difference, and transcultural exchange. While there have been a number of journal articles, special issues, and essay collections dedicated to outlining the “state of the field” in the last two decades,[1] this volume is unique in its focus on the scholarship of the “next generation” – described in the introduction as scholars born primarily in the 1970s and 1980s who are the inheritors of the traditions of German-Jewish Studies and the current architects of its future.

The volume is divided into four sections that trace key figures, moments, and movements in German-Jewish culture. Part I follows the Early Modern Period to the nineteenth century, Part II the early twentieth century, Part III Migration, Exile, and Diaspora from the late 1930s onward, and Part IV examines German-Jewish cultural life after 1945. However, the essays also form fascinating thematic constellations that transcend these chronological demarcations.

One of the “red threads” that connects the essays in the book is the focus on how networks, both local and global, have allowed German Jews to preserve, chronicle, and reinvigorate their culture and communities over time. Mirjam Thulin’s research on the Wertheimer family portraits explores this theme through the lens of kinship studies. Her study of “fictive kinship,” or the “relations to the family that served as both mutual support and a sense of community and also expanded a certain social framework and control” (23), illuminates how studying archival networks and the relationships that maintained them can offer new perspectives on visual art and material cultures. Stefanie Fischer and Tina Frühauf investigate more ephemeral traces of community found in embodied practices such as mourning rituals and musical performance. Fischer studies the transformation of Jewish practices of memorializing the dead in the wake of the Holocaust through correspondence between émigré Jews and their former communities regarding the care of their relatives’ graves. These documents reveal how cemeteries took on new meaning in the postwar period, not only as “visible testaments” to a time in which Jewish life and death had been respected (217), but also as spaces to express “cultural belonging” and “rootedness” in the face of forced migration (222). Frühauf’s study of Jewish music in Munich after 1945 focuses on the influence of the cantor Kurt Messerschmidt (1915-2017), whose radio broadcasts not only helped to reestablish Jewish communities after the Holocaust but also “helped reintegrate Jewishness into the soundscape of postwar Germany” (259) by creating new forms of interfaith community and exchange.

Other essays are connected through their shared methodological approaches. Matthew Handelman and Stefanie Mahrer, for example, both employ computational methods to reconstruct Jewish intellectual communities and draw attention to the profound influences of German-Jewish women within these networks. Handelman mines letters and feuilletons of German-Jewish thinkers in the Weimar era, tracing the ideas of negativity and “unreason” popularized by figures such as György Lukács (1885-1971) to the lesser-known poet and critic Margarete Susman (1872-1966). Mahrer uses similar methods to map transnational academic networks of Jews in exile between 1933-1955, illustrating how the data gleaned from historical migration research informs the “biography in context” that she is writing of the Swiss Jewish scientist Berta Ottenstein (1891-1956).

The volume also highlights the persistent presence of Yiddish in German-Jewish literature and culture. Elyada’s essay draws attention to the surprising afterlife of Old Yiddish texts through their translation and adaptation into German in the nineteenth century. Elyada refers to the importing of texts from an earlier time to a new generation within the same culture as “diachronic translation” (42), a process that allowed for Jews to maintain a connection with their past while still asserting their integration into modern German bourgeois life. Nick Block’s essay reveals how Nathan Birnbaum’s (1864-1937) translation of Yiddish literature into German reflects a “curation” of the image of the Eastern Jew and inversion of negative stereotypes (110). Turning to visual culture, Kerry Wallach examines the paintings and illustrations of Rahel Szalit-Marcus (1888-1942), a Russian Lithuanian by birth who also held Polish citizenship and lived much of her life in Germany. In her depictures of Jews, Wallach argues, Szalit adopts a gaze akin to the “ethnographic techniques of much of Yiddish realism,” while also drawing on a style of Jewish caricature that played on antisemitic stereotypes (159). This unique visual language reflects the artist’s insider-outsider status as a figure whose very identity pushed boundaries of nationality, language, culture, and gender.

Wallach and Elyada describe their volume as “a handbook in case studies,” meaning that the essays are intended to offer both insight into the various methodological approaches presented as well as specific examples from the authors’ own research. Several of the essays strike this balance particularly well. For example, Corey Twitchell’s essay on the post-Holocaust novels of Edgar Hilsenrath (1926-2018) offers not only an accessible introduction to narratology as a mode of reading texts, but also demonstrates how this approach informs his reading of the fractured narrative voice and disruption of narrative causality in Hilsenrath’s work. Joshua Shane’s essay offers a detailed bibliography for the study of Jewish Orthodoxy, which frames his study of its evolution in the late-nineteenth century in response to the rise of Zionism. Stefan Vogt’s essay introduces the reader to current debates on intersections of German-Jewish history with (post-) colonialism. His essay argues that Jewish life in Europe was necessarily “co-determined” by colonialism – as Jews were both victims and collaborators in its institutions. In so doing, he illuminates the continuities between German-Jewish encounters with racial theory and the broader structures and practices of exclusion that underly “some of the most basic tensions and dynamics of modern society” (83). Finally, Jason Lustig’s essay on the history of the Gesamtarchiv der deutschen Juden, the central archive of the German Jews, traces the impact of this institution on the curation and archival practices of German émigrés of the following generation, which in turn shaped the “Germanocentric model” of Jewish studies that persists to this day (197). His essay, along with Block’s investigation into the state of Yiddish language programs in North America, provides critical insights into how German-Jewish studies as a field is currently being maintained, developed, and reconfigured in the spaces of the archive, the museum, and the university.

In their introduction, Wallach and Elyada highlight two major challenges facing the field of German-Jewish studies – the problem of oversaturation – finding new and original research topics, and the question of relevance – how does a field that emerged from the framework of personal experiences of war, persecution, and exile continue to attract those who are now several generations removed from this experience (6)? Their volume suggests that despite such concerns, there is still much room for this field to expand in the hands of the “next generation,” especially as it develops in conversation with new trends in critical scholarship across the disciplines and with the help of innovative digital research tools. As Michael A. Meyer’s epilogue emphasizes, we have not yet mined in full the hyphen between the German and the Jewish, the “fulcrum” or pivot point that links both identities and which marks the dynamic and elusive nature of their entangled relationship. With its rich contributions and astute reflections on the field, German-Jewish Studies. Next Generations serves as an invaluable resource for students and scholars alike.

[1] To offer just a few examples: The special issue of German Quarterly German-Jewish and Jewish-German Studies” 82, no. 3 (Summer 2009); Steven E. Aschheim and Vivian Liska’s edited volume, The German-Jewish Experience Revisited (De Gruyter, 2015), Leslie Morris’ essay, “German Studies and Jewish Studies: the Symbiosis of Two Fields” German Studies Review 39, no. 3 (October 2016): 601-610; and Gideon Reuveni’s introduction to The Future of the German-Jewish Past: Memory and the Question of Antisemitism (Purdue University Press, 2021).

Caroline Kita headshotCaroline A. Kita is Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on German and Austrian literature in the nineteenth- and twentieth centuries, German-Jewish culture, music, theater, and radio drama. She is the author of Jewish Difference and the Arts in Vienna: Composing Compassion in Music and Biblical Theater (Indiana University Press 2019) and co-editor of The Arts of Democratization: Styling Political Sensibilities in Postwar West Germany (University of Michigan Press 2022).

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