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  • Kafka as a Jew
  • Walter H. Sokel (bio)

With a single exception, there are no overt references to Jews and Jewishness in Kafka’s entire oeuvre. The conclusion one might draw from that is that Jewishness did not matter to him fundamentally, and at any rate had no import for his writing.

But such a view would miss an essential dimension. We know from his biography, and his life documents—diaries, letters, reflections in aphoristic form—that, although he was indeed indifferent to it in his youth, Jewishness and Judaism began to matter very much to him from 1911 on, when Kafka was twenty-eight. From that time on, he began to be intensely occupied with Jewish history, Jewish tradition, Jewish lore, and Jewish culture—an interest which was not only sustained but constantly grew until his death in 1924 at the age of forty. It is significant for his writing that Kafka’s turn to Judaism preceded by less than one year what he called his breakthrough to the work of his maturity, to the kind of writing that established his posthumous fame and for which the adjective kafkaesque has been coined. As I shall try to show, there exists a connection between the peculiar nature of Kafka’s mature writing and his discovery of what he considered to be authentic Judaism, which he regretted bitterly not having known until then.

To do justice to the relationship between Kafka’s discovery of Judaism and the structure of his writing, it will be helpful to provide some historical background on the situation and self-understanding of the Jews of Prague in Kafka’s time, because this, as I shall try to show, has an important bearing on the topic.

Franz Kafka was born in 1883, in Prague, then the capital of the province of Bohemia of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Kafka was the eldest and only surviving son, and for several years the only child—later several girls were born—of an upwardly mobile bourgeois couple of minimally observant German-speaking Jews. His father, Herrmann Kafka, son of a kosher butcher in a rural south Bohemian ghetto, was a hard-working, self-made man who like so many other Jews had come to the capital to rise in the world. He acquired a dry goods store in the center of old Prague which became highly successful and which his energetic wife Julie, née Löwy, helped to run. The Kafkas were in many ways a [End Page 837] typical Jewish couple of their region of the world in their time. They reflected the situation of the strenuously assimilating, but not yet fully assimilated, rising Jewish bourgeoisie, frantically trying to advance economically, which for them also meant socially, in an environment which provided a deceptive appearance of equality, prosperity, and security, a false picture of social integration which in actuality they did not enjoy. What the shy, delicate, and deeply introverted child and adolescent Franz Kafka sensed, without as yet being explicitly aware of, was a profound discrepancy between the appearance of solidity and a reality of alienation and vague but persistent menace. He felt a hopeless split between what seemed to be solid ground under his feet and the suspicion that things were really not holding together very well and might fly apart at any moment. But he also felt that he alone was cursed to feel this, while all others, and his parents above all, could blithely ignore all threats. In the first story preserved among his writings, “Description of a Struggle,” written at the age of twenty-one, he gave striking expression to this feeling. One of the narrators exclaims:

Oh, what dreadful days I have to live through! Why is everything so badly built that high houses collapse every now and again for no apparent reason? On these occasions I clamber over the rubble, asking everyone I meet: ‘How could this have happened? In our town—a new house—how many does that make today?—Just think of it!’ And no one can give me an answer.

“Frequently people fall in the street and lie there dead. Whereupon all the shop people open their doors laden...

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