Cover Story

Gradual emancipation

Issue: "All in the family," March 2, 2002

In Western Europe and America the 17th through 19th centuries brought new opportunities. Protestant Reformed leaders in Holland welcomed Jews there, as did Oliver Cromwell in England. Jews expelled from Portuguese Brazil in 1654 made it to New Amsterdam (now New York City), and their descendants built a synagogue building there in 1730. New York rabbi Gershom Mendes Seixas received an invitation to George Washington's 1789 inaugural. In 1778, Europe's first modern Jewish school-one that taught mathematics, modern language, art, and business subjects-opened in Berlin, and five years later Moses Mendelssohn published his translation of the Torah into German. Mendelssohn argued that Jews could be both Orthodox and part of the modern world, and should speak the language of the countries in which they resided.

Enlightenment leaders like Voltaire hated Jews for their purported "stubbornness, their new superstitions," and for how they "surpassed all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct, and in barbarism." Nevertheless, the French Revolution and Napoleon's subsequent conquests brought to France and other Western European countries Jewish emancipation-total legal equality with non-Jews. Some Germans and Danes rioted in 1819 to protest rights that they said were allowing Jews to exploit others, but emancipation accelerated after the revolutionary upheavals of 1848-1849. From 1867 to 1874 Jews of Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy received full emancipation, with ghettoes abolished.

Separatists within Judaism were dominant for centuries because there was no point in asking for admission to a club that would not accept Jews. But once emancipation opened the club in Western Europe and brought forward new options for both appeasers and transformers, separationism fell with surprising speed. Appeasers now had the opportunity to ignore the Bible and merge into an increasingly secularizing society in one of three ways. They could leave the synagogue entirely and have no religious affiliation. They could embrace a variety of Judaism called "Reform" that promoted worship and practice similar to that of the increasingly liberal churches of Germany or other countries. Or they could become nominal "Christians," with few questions asked at the liberal churches and few repercussions within the fragmenting Jewish population.

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The number of transformers also grew. Some, following in Mendelssohn's footsteps, attempted to combine Orthodox worship with involvement in broader social and political trends. Others, like Mendelssohn's grandson Felix, lived as Christians not to abandon the Bible but to transform their own communities and others by taking hold of all of it. They read the prophet Isaiah's promise from God to make Israel "a light for the gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness." They typically hoped to bring new vitality to Christianity while liberating the minds of some of their own people.

From the 18th to the early 20th centuries, though, an almost-iron curtain running from the Baltic to the Balkans divided Europe, with most Jews west of it coming to embrace modernity and most east of it becoming even more removed from the cultures that surrounded them. The Hassidic movement, rife with mysticism, grew in the mid-18th century when new pogroms hit Jews in eastern Poland. The Russian empire in 1791 completed its acquisition of much of Poland and set up a ghetto area called the Pale of Settlement; Jews could live there and nowhere else. New legislation separating Jews and Russians came in 1804.

Hungarian rabbi Moses Sofer in 1806 opened a Talmudic school and insisted that Jews have no contact with modernity. His pupils became influential throughout Eastern Europe. The Russian government tried to break Jewish culture by grabbing 12-year-old Jewish boys and assigning them to "community service" in a peasant village for six years and then military service for the following 25. Over the next three decades some 40,000 to 50,000 boys were removed from the Jewish community in this manner, but that gross attack finally ended. Others followed, with major pogroms in 1881 and 1903 angering the poet Haim Nahman Bialik. He criticized not only the perpetrators but also Jewish men-cowards, he called them-who were unable or unwilling to fight back, often because they were engrossed in Talmud study.

Emancipation in Western Europe did not always go smoothly. In 1893, anti-Semites gained some electoral success in Germany, and in 1894 the French government sent Captain Alfred Dreyfus to prison for allegedly selling military secrets to Germans. Dreyfus gained acquittal in 1906. Many Jews became transformers or appeasers. In Eastern Europe most Jews remained in the separatist tradition, rendered romantically by Sholem Aleichem's stories about Tevye the Milkman from 1894 on. Others repudiated tradition by joining the only option that beckoned to them, revolutionary socialist parties.

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