Once upon a time in a region in Middle Europe there lived a man named Moses Mendelssohn. Moses was Jewish and his mother tongue was Yiddish. Yet he was deeply ashamed of his language or “jargon,” as he would call it. To become progressive, Jews were to replace Yiddish with the German language and culture. Moses thought that was the path to integration into German mainstream society. The next generation of Jews supported his approach, convinced that it would eventually bring about equality.
150 years later Moses’ daring vision had come true. Jews in Germany had acculturated to their home country and were an integral part of the nation. Most of them viewed themselves primarily as German citizens and only secondarily as Jews. The term “Jewish” had come to signify nothing more than a religious creed, and some even avoided the word altogether, referring to themselves simply as “Germans of Mosaic faith.” When the most influential Jewish organization was established in 1893, the founding fathers chose the name “Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith” (Centralverein). There was no better way of expressing which part of their identity they prioritized.
In 1938, however, the dreams of the Maskilim were shattered along with the glass of the Jewish-owned shops and synagogues.
A few years after the war, a new Jewish federation was founded as the “Central Council of Jews in Germany.” While being Jewish had become a certainty, being German was something Jews had to put into question.
75 years after the destruction of the German-Jewish dream, there are about 200,000 Jews in this country. Should we still think of them as “Jews in Germany” or have they returned to Old Moses’ ideal of being “German Jews?”
At this particular moment in history it is appropriate to say that most of them are Jews merely living in Germany. But ironically, this does not directly result from the Shoa; about 90% of the Jewish population are immigrants from the former Soviet Republic. The smaller the community, the larger the percentage. The majority of them are beyond the age of 50 and poorly integrated into German society. Yet even those who went to school in Germany are still closely attached to their native culture. Russian is the lingua franca in most German shuls, on birthright trips, and on Jewish dating websites. Our friend Moses would have a hard time finding a German siddur in a German synagogue today; if he asked the community members if they had read “Nathan the Wise,” they would probably negate and recommend Tolstoy to him. If he suggested opening a bottle of Rhenish wine, they would poor him a glass of Vodka instead.
In short, there is little German about Jews in Germany these days.
For those who adore Heine, Feuchtwanger, and Buber, these prospects are depressing. Looking at the situation from a different angle, though, we can also spot some chances. The young immigrants, who came to Germany in their teens, may still be caught between two different worlds. Their children, however, are born here, and there is little doubt that they will regard this country as their home. We are about to witness the emergence of a new generation of German Jews. Even now there are already first signs of this development: a new center for German Jewish theology has popped up near Berlin, a young foundation for Jewish students is trying to shape the country’s intellectual elite, and on Jewish online platforms there are fierce debates over educational seminars in Germany that are being held in Russian.
May the Maskilim rejoice in the end? I am afraid the answer is no; for while it is clear that Jews in Germany will soon consider themselves German, it is very uncertain if they will actually identify with the Jewish people. Growing up in a communist regime, many have little sympathy for all concepts associated with religion. Only half of them belong to Jewish communities, and those who do primarily attend the social activities. The point is not to transform all those Jews into Ultra-Orthodox experts in Halacha. But if they are to maintain a sense of ethnic Jewish identity, they need to be made familiar with the basic rites and holidays. It is high time that the Jewish communities reach out to them and establish educational programs. So far this has not been done sufficiently.
It seems that the next generation of German Jews might also realize the nightmarish side of Mendelssohn’s dream. But this is nothing new. Even Moses’ own grandson Felix was baptized as a child and later composed the oratorio “St. Paul.”