- In and Out of the Ghetto: Jewish-Gentile Relations in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany
The contents of this volume are based on a UCLA Clark Library conference held in 1991 to discuss Jewish-Christian relations in early modern Germany. Many issues discussed here have become the focus of increased interest and scrutiny since the publication of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s controversial book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Knopf, 1996), in which the author claims that there was an “eliminationist” anti-Semitism particular to modern Germany that led to genocidal Nazi policies. Throughout In and Out of the Ghetto the specter of the Holocaust is felt, standing always behind the curtain of academic research: Can something we are seeing in the early modern era help explain why Germany became the destroyer of European Jewry in this century?
The book is divided into six parts, each of which focuses on a particular theme: Jewish identity and exclusiveness, social and economic structures of German Jewry, Jewish-Gentile contacts, representations of German Jewry and German Christians, political patterns governing Jewry, and overall perspectives on German-Jewish history. Each of the first five parts consists of two or three essays followed by a comment by an eminent historian in a related but not identical field. The comments do a great deal to help the reader put the studies, some of which are quite technical and specialized, into perspective. Each contains highly insightful comments and criticisms.
The quality of the essays is in general very high. It was particularly encouraging for me, a nonspecialist, to see that the traditional Jewish historiography of German Jewry, based almost entirely on Hebrew sources and well-known published works, has given way to a more balanced era of research in which the rich archival material and popular literature are exploited as well. The result is a picture of early modern German Jewry far more detailed and nuanced than what has been previously available in English. Earlier studies like those of Jacob Katz can now be fleshed out and evaluated in the light of detailed research, which often suggests entirely new areas of inquiry as well. Attention is drawn, for example, to such categories as the ordinary Jewish physician who ministers to common Christians; the Jewish bandit and his gang; the poverty-stricken Jewish traveler; and the ordinary village Jew.
I found the essays of Otto Ulbricht and Miri Rubin particularly interesting, though there is no lack of fascinating material in the other papers as well. Ulbricht discusses the Jewish criminal class in some detail, commenting particularly on Jewish and Jewish-Christian [End Page 128] gang activity, and how Jewish criminals were tied to the “law-abiding” Jewish community. He suggests that Jewish criminality became a source for new anti-Semitic attacks, but he also deals with the question of what changing policies and economic conditions might have fomented the rise in Jewish crime. Ulbricht’s essay is uncomfortable reading, and some of his ideas may require rethinking, but it is undoubtedly research which scholars must read. Miri Rubin offers a lengthy and extremely solid essay on Eucharistic discourse and Host desecration accusations that serves as an admirable companion to R. Po-chia Hsia’s work on ritual murder. As the commentator, Carlo Ginsburg, points out, the Host desecration and ritual murder are in fact closely related accusations that may have a common functional role for Christians still tentative about the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Paul Wexler has offered a bombshell in the form of an essay claiming that the Yiddish language is in fact of Slavic rather than Germanic origin. While his evidence seems weak to me, it will be the linguists who must evaluate and pass judgment on this study.
Ultimately the various essays offer no unified voice concerning the significance of Jewish-Christian relations in early modern Germany. While many of the contributors are quick to point out that these studies prove...