August 31, 2012

“What is the most Jewish thing you have ever done?” an interviewer recently asked Bernard Wasserstein.

“Marry a non-Jewish woman,” he replied. “It’s a mitzvah.”

Granted, Wasserstein was joking. That’s one of his talents, the ability to weave humor with solemnity without lowering the tone. His reply was nevertheless superbly ironic given the theme of his latest book. In “On the Eve,” Wasserstein argues that European Jews were a doomed civilization even before the Holocaust. Centripetal forces caused their culture to fly apart. One such force was assimilation, driven by the desire to belong. One tactic of assimilation was to marry outside the faith.

“On the Eve” is a book about cultural decline, an entirely different concept than racial extermination. Wasserstein accepts that the disintegration of Jewish civilization was in part the result of external forces, in particular the quest for distinct national identities that fostered intolerance toward Jewish peculiarity. Societies once accepting of diversity turned tail and learned to hate. What started as a desire for standardization easily morphed into virulent racism, not just in Germany but across the continent. Anti-Semitism was a European pandemic.

Poverty, which affected Jews disproportionately, was another factor in the Jewish decline. The Great Depression corroded Jewish culture, rendering the stability of small communities — the shtetl — no longer tenable. While the shtetl was doomed, its death was ironically postponed by charitable contributions from wealthy Jews in Western Europe and North America who had desperately escaped its claustrophobic inertia. As the reality of the shtetl’s demise became apparent, residents migrated to big cities, leaving their heritage behind.


‘On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War’ by Bernard Wasserstein (Simon & Schuster)

The external forces that caused cultural disintegration are tragic but not overly controversial. Much more contentious and disturbing are the internal forces — in other words, the extent to which Jews were architects of their own fate. Herein lies the real worth of this book. Wasserstein deserves enormous praise for his courage in removing the protective cloak of martyrdom to examine the naked body beneath.

Jews, he reveals, were proficient self-haters. The life of the Jewish masses “repels every healthy man,” argued the Zionist literary critic Isidor Eliashev. The Jewish writer Kurt Tucholsky labeled Jews a “slave people” who had survived because they “guzzled their own [expletive].” The community was not a community at all, but rather a racial group torn by divisions of class, politics and ethnicity. Ashkenazi Jews looked down on Sephardic Jews. Liberals despised Zionists, who in turn distrusted Hasidim. Jewish Marxists were derided as traitors to their faith, so much so that Rabbi Jehiel Weinberg of Berlin praised Hitler’s attacks on communism and atheism. The idea of a unified Jewish mass was a counterfeit peddled by those who hated Jews.

Many Jews, tormented by the consequences of their uniqueness, tried desperately to blend into wider society. Assimilation was a quest for serenity in a threatening world. Rituals and customs were jettisoned by those who sought homogenization; modernity became the new faith. Some gestures were small: One Viennese assimilationist recounted eating ham with his Passover matzot. Others were extreme: A disturbing number of Jews joined fascist parties. Yet the tragic consequence of assimilation was deeper alienation. Non-Jews remained suspicious of those who tried to integrate, yet once-secure cultural anchors had been tossed away. Assimilationists were bereft, rudderless on a tempestuous ocean.

For women, assimilation meant liberation. The status of females in orthodox Jewish society was low, with customs and educational practices reinforcing subservience. A folk adage went: “Better a son, even one who is a bathhouse attendant, than a daughter, even one who is a rabbi’s wife.” Survival of orthodox culture was therefore dependent upon denying basic freedoms to half of the Jewish population. The community did not discover a way to accommodate cultural integrity with gender equality.

Assimilationists were victims of their own success. This was starkly revealed in academia. In the Soviet Union in 1935, Jews constituted 1.78 percent of the population but 15.5 percent of those with university degrees. Yet a liberal education inevitably eroded Jewish orthodoxy, a dilemma that stymied conservatives. A secular education not only meant exposure to competing ideologies, it also presented a challenge of loyalty. Jewish intellectuals entered an international fraternity that militated against insular ethnicity. This also meant that the physicists, philosophers and social scientists who might otherwise have provided leadership to their Jewish brethren often had other allegiances.

“On the Eve” is a superb book, but a complex and deeply disturbing one. It is sometimes confusing, but then it should be, since Jewish culture does not lend itself to simplistic generalization. The book, with its incredible detail, is nevertheless testimony to the fact that meticulous research and deep analytical insight are not the enemies of engaging and entertaining prose.

The most intriguing aspect of this book is the questions left unanswered — the unresolved issues that aggravate equanimity. For instance, Wasserstein combines the customary homage to the richness of prewar Jewish culture with a brutally realistic picture of poverty, filth, disease, bigotry and vice. In so doing, he raises questions about the extent to which martyrdom has been dependent — needlessly so — upon an idealized version of pre-Holocaust life. Even more disturbing is the possibility that martyrdom and massacre have reversed the disintegration caused by assimilation, that a doomed culture was rejuvenated by the attempt to wipe it out.

Great books are those that stay with the reader, abrading consciousness for years afterward. “On the Eve” is such a book.

bookworld@washpost.com

Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

ON THE EVE

The Jews of Europe Before
the Second World War

By Bernard Wasserstein

Simon & Schuster. 552 pp. $32.50