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  • Kanon im Exil. Lektüren deutsch-jüdischer Emigranten in Palästina/Israel by Caroline Jessen
  • Jan Kühne
Kanon im Exil. Lektüren deutsch-jüdischer Emigranten in Palästina/Israel. By Caroline Jessen. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2019. Pp. 398. Paper €42.00. ISBN 978-3835333482.

The importance of the German literary canon for modern European Jewish traditions and its nationalist movement can hardly be underestimated: Theodor Herzl, for example, established the very foundations of Zionism and, hence, those of the state of Israel through his works in the German language, which were decisively influenced by the German literary and theatrical canon. However, after Herzl's death, German language and literature came to be increasingly perceived by the Zionist project as a rival vis-à-vis the modernization of Hebrew culture. Though lying at the basis of modern Judaism, the German literary canon and its humanist tradition became a bone of contention in the new national settings of the Palestine Mandate and the state of Israel.

Since 1933, Jews of German-speaking origin, who had fled to Palestine from the fascist regime of German National Socialism, brought with them their libraries and established German publishing houses, as well as printing presses. A thriving German literary subculture thus began to develop. The presence of German culture in the Zionist colonies of Palestine, however, was perceived as a threat to the hegemonic aspirations of Hebrew culture. It was viewed as an ideological antagonist in an internal cultural war within the Zionist movement that had flared up, at the latest, around 1914, when a political controversy over the language whereby lectures should be delivered at the Institute of Technology in Haifa—the Technion—was decided in favor of modern Hebrew (Ivrit) and its still poorly developed vocabulary.

This aggressive controversy reached its peak around 1943, with terror attacks launched on German cultural institutions—for instance, with the bomb explosion that destroyed the printing press of the German journal Der Orient. Only toward the end of the 1970s did the Israeli consensus against anything German—enmeshed with associations with the Nazi dictatorship and industrial genocide—begin to slowly subside. Conversely, increasingly in the aftermath of the Holocaust and despite, or maybe because of their paradoxical standing in Israeli society, German Jews often perceived themselves as the only ones to carry the torch of the German humanist tradition—a tradition that had become obliterated in Nazi Germany, where it not only lost its authority but also its credibility on account of this caesura. Confronted with these contradicting perspectives, the question that needs to be asked is what did happen with the German literary canon in Palestine/Israel and, moreover, with its humanist tradition? [End Page 416]

Caroline Jessen's eloquent study on the German literary canon in Palestine/Israel—showcasing meticulous research and outstanding elegance—provides some crucial and penetrating insights whose scope transcends, by far, the contradiction depicted above. Her sharp and empathic analysis pertaining to the reading habits of five German Jewish writers who immigrated to Palestine, and who continued to read and write in Israel, will prove to be of interest to scholars of other exile and minority literatures as well. Indeed, Kanon im Exil is potentially relevant for any scholar engaging in the presently contested humanities pondering the intellectual processes of reading and writing, since Jessen's book focuses on "strategies of re-appropriation and applications of a literature, … which had forfeited its self-evident authority" (315).

Jessen opens her book—the abridged and edited text of her dissertation—with a theoretical introduction into "the research of canonicity as historiography of memory and discourse" (52). The second chapter is dedicated to the material history of German literary culture and traces the difficult ways whereby German books had reached the Jewish settlements in the Palestine Mandate. There, these highly prized private libraries often continued a fragmented afterlife in antiquarian bookstores and—increasingly toward the end of this generation—were left abandoned on sidewalks due to lack of interest and/or capacity for dealing with this legacy on behalf of local archives and libraries as well as cultural and academic institutions.

Initially, these private libraries had provided isolated reservoirs of reading...