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Multiple Identities

Between 1901 and 1923, the Berlin-based magazine Ost und West promoted European Jewish culture to Jewish audiences in Germany. The common goal of the editors of the journal was to reverse Jewish “assimilation”1 in Western and Central Europe by constructing an ethnic-national identity that included East European or “Eastern” forms of Jewishness.2 This study of Ost und West is thus concerned with the question of whether German Jews were interested in adopting elements of East European Jewish identity at this time. And, if this was the case, was it possible to have both a German and a pan-Jewish3 identity in Wilhelminian Germany (or the Kaiserreich), where Jews were already suspected of nonconformity, if not disloyalty?4

Ost und West reveals the possibilities and limitations of such multiple identities for turn-of-the-century German Jews. Even though the editors of the journal succeeded in creating a public sphere for pan-Jewishness (Gesamtjudentum), they were confronted with serious obstacles. East European Jews—referred to as “Eastern Jews” or Ostjuden5 in this book—had been perceived negatively by many Western Jews (Westjuden) and non-Jews since the Enlightenment. Since the late eighteenth century, an elite of intellectuals and policymakers had called on the Ostjuden to become less Jewish and to “regenerate” themselves into a group more like “the Germans.” The Ostjuden were increasingly caricatured in literature, the arts, and the sciences, a development that had reached a high point as Ost und West began publication.

As a means of correcting these negative images of Eastern Jews, Ost und West attempted to legitimize public expressions of Jewishness in the West. In this sense, the journal sought to “reeducate” Jews in Germany. Despite its emphasis on reeducation, however, Ost und West did not simply advance the interests of a Jewish nationalist avant-garde. Instead, its founders knew that they would have to reflect the presuppositions of the broader Jewish audience if they were to attract more readers. To influence Jewish readers in Germany who knew little about Eastern Jewry, Ost und West appealed specifically to the three main audiences in the Kaiserreich: Jewish intellectuals, middle-class Jewish women, and middle-class Jewish men. Leo Winz (1876–1952), the transplanted Ukrainian Jew and public relations adept who published the magazine, was well suited to this task. And judging by its wide circulation—Ost und West reached at least 10 percent of the 625,000 Jews in Germany at its height6—the journal was a success. At least in the public sphere, it brought Westjuden closer to Ostjuden.7

Winz, in fact, was a veteran “image maker” who had served between 1905 and 1908 as the head of public relations (Chef der Propaganda) at the oldest major German advertising firm, Haasenstein and Vogler. Besides owning and investing in a range of businesses, he was also the publisher of the largest, most widely circulated Jewish newspaper in Germany (the Gemeindeblatt der jüdischen Gemeinde zu Berlin) from 1927 to 1934, as well as the founder of Der Schlemiel. Ein illustriertes jüdisches Witzblatt [The Schlemiel: An Illustrated Jewish Humor Magazine] (1904–23). Keenly aware of the need to conduct audience research and always aiming for higher advertising revenues, Winz was something of a Robert Maxwell of the German-Jewish press—a savvy entrepreneur and sponsor of the arts, music, boxing, and film. To date, there exists no biography of Winz or of his main associates at Ost und West, Binjamin Segel (1867–1931), Theodor Zlocisti (1874–1943), and Arno Nadel (1878–1943). Yet he and his colleagues were responsible for publishing the first rich trove of materials that promoted an ethnic, pan-Jewish identity.

In its first three years, Ost und West was best known for images that glorified Eastern Jewry. The magazine thus differed visibly from competing German-Jewish publications in boldly asserting its Jewishness. As soon as the reader picked up an issue, he or she knew that the stories, essays, and illustrations were provided by Jews, about Jews, and for Jews.8 The very first issue (January 1901), for example, featured an essay titled “Jüdische Renaissance” by Martin Buber (1878–1965), a review of Robert Jaffé’s Ahasver (1900) by Samuel Lublinski (1868–1910), a story by Isaac Leib Peretz (1851–1915) in German translation, drawings by Ephraim Moses Lilien (1874–1925), and an article on the Hebrew language by Simon Bernfeld (1860–1940). In this and later issues, European (in particular, Ashkenazic) Jewry was presented as having a proud ethnic heritage and a diverse cultural tradition. Many of the early contributors to Ost und West—Buber, Lilien, Davis Trietsch9 (1870–1935), to name a few—were also active in the Zionist organization. There they were involved in creating new Jewish images through “agitation and propaganda,” terms that did not carry a negative connotation at the time.

Although the first three years of Ost und West signaled a “Jewish Renaissance,” the magazine soon became formulaic, especially in its attempts to create a new Jewish aesthetic. After Buber and Lilien distanced themselves from Winz in 1903, positive images of the Ostjude in the journal were gradually superseded by negative criticisms of the Westjude. Having seen how difficult it would be to change the attitudes of German Jews, Winz and his associates reasoned that the best defense was a good offense. It was not enough to “repackage” the Eastern Jew, who remained dirty, poor, and superstitious in the minds of Westerners. Rather, a new approach was needed that subtly attacked the Westjuden themselves. The Westjude thus became the butt of a concerted campaign based on anticapitalism and anti-Western thought, and the magazine came to rely on this critique after its first three years.

Ost und West’s “negative” approach suggests that pinpointing a common enemy fostered a greater sense of belonging than new ideals and myths. What is remarkable about the magazine, however, is that negative images of Jews were able to coexist alongside positive ones. On the one hand, this inconsistency revealed both the possibilities and the limitations of ethnic identity in the journal; on the other hand, it was an inevitable function of stereotyping. In this study, stereotyping is defined as a mental shorthand central to all thinking and to the formation of human identities. Looking at stereotypes in this manner reveals that positive stereotyping was the flip side of negative stereotyping. In other words, the two existed on a continuum. Many contributors to Ost und West did not depict the Ostjuden in negative terms. Instead, they reversed the categories, rendering Eastern Jews as “noble” or “traditional” instead of culturally backward. At the same time—using a similar strategy—the magazine tried to reach out to German Jews by adapting negative stereotypes of Ostjuden: elements of these stereotypes were transferred onto representations of Westjuden. For the purposes of this study, these “recycled” stereotypes have a cognitive-psychological function: they represent necessary stages in the process of Jewish self-definition. As we shall see, Winz and his associates came to understand this process of self-definition and were able to exploit it as a promotional technique.

Images of Jews in Ost und West were not always transparent and often resist a single interpretation. The magazine’s Jewish nationalist editors were, for instance, not willing to part entirely with Western enlightened thinking, and they rarely glorified Eastern Jews such as the Hasidim, whom they thought of as unenlightened. One major subthesis of this investigation is that stereotypes in Ost und West based on Western Jewish criteria were as prevalent as stereotypes based on Eastern Jewish criteria.

By interpreting both positive and negative Jewish self-images in Ost und West as they appear in literary texts, essays, editorials, and works of art, we shall see how the journal helped to redefine European Jewish identity. As an early example of the promotion of ethnic identity, Ost und West may shed light on later attempts by Jews and other minority groups to promote multiple identities. At the same time, this study goes beyond the analysis of cultural politics to reveal how Jews living in Germany perceived themselves in the decades leading up to National Socialism and the Shoah (or khurbn). It suggests that they perceived themselves as different from other Germans. It also suggests that, for all their prejudice toward Eastern Jews, German Jews were capable of tolerating Jewish diversity. In appealing to the Jews of Germany, Ost und West urged a healthy respect for differences rather than an elitist glorification of one Jewish identity over another. As a result, it brought Eastern and Western Jewry closer than many assumed was possible, at least in the limited public sphere of Jewish journalism. In this public realm, then, there existed an East-West Jewish symbiosis, if not a German-Jewish one.

Historians have long used biological metaphors such as symbiosis to discuss the status of Jewish identity in the German lands. They have stressed, particularly after the Holocaust, the negative dimensions of symbiosis. As a result, they tend to devalue the idea of the “German Jew,” the idea that an individual could be, at one and the same time, both German and Jewish. As a result, much of post-Holocaust historiography denounces those Jews living in Germany before 1933 as delusional, assimilationist, or self-hating.10

A symptom of this bias against multiple Jewish identities has been to censure German-Jewish attitudes, behavior, and actions toward the Eastern Jews. Recent scholarship on East-West Jewish relations has focused on the mutual alienation of these groups. This reaction is in part a response to decades of denial concerning Western Jewish prejudice toward Eastern Jews. Researchers understandably have wanted to compensate for the neglect of Yiddish-speaking Jewry, a neglect that can be traced back to the Enlightenment. Steven E. Aschheim’s Brothers and Strangers (1982) represents one in a chorus of voices seeking to rescue the Ostjude from German-Jewish domination. Aschheim demonstrates that German Jews, like their non-Jewish compatriots, harbored negative attitudes toward Eastern Jewry. He documents the wide-scale production of negative stereotypes of Ostjuden by Jews and non-Jews. Yet, while duly noting that the idealization of Ostjuden in World War I took on cultic proportions, his conclusions and those of more strident critics of Western Jewry suggest that all attempts to reconcile Eastern and Western Jewish cultures were doomed from the start.11

While acknowledging that German Jews thought and behaved negatively toward their fellow Jews, this study does not favor Eastern Jews. In fact, its primary insight is that both Jewish groups—the Eastern Jewish producers of Ost und West and the Western Jewish recipients of the magazine—employed tried-and-true techniques of stereotyping. By the same token, stereotyping cannot be written off as deceptive or divorced from historical reality just because it is carried out by cultural and political institutions.12 Such a position plays into the dualism that this investigation—like Ost und West before it—has tried to avoid.

In scholarship since the mid-1980s, a more balanced viewpoint about East-West Jewish differences has been emerging. Jack Wertheimer’s Unwelcome Strangers (1987) complements Aschheim’s research by investigating the political and socioeconomic realities that shaped the responses of Jewish Easterners and Westerners to each other. Wertheimer asks how German Jews behaved when they encountered Eastern Jews, and he concludes that they showed “empathy” for their Eastern coreligionists even if they occasionally showed little “sympathy” for Eastern Jewish customs. In arguing that Westjuden despised Ostjuden less than non-Jews did, he implies that a measure of Jewish communal solidarity prevailed.

Is it therefore justified to label the contempt of Western Jews for Eastern Jews as “Jewish antisemitism”? Antisemitic attacks on Eastern Jews certainly made German Jews look—and feel—bad. According to Sander Gilman’s thesis of Jewish self-hatred, Western Jews hated not only their Eastern brethren but also, as a result of psychological projection, the Eastern Jew within themselves.13 This theory assumes that German Jews felt threatened by the prospect of “hordes” of Jewish aliens pouring across the Eastern border. Even though Jewish migration to Germany never exceeded a few hundred per year until 1918 and even though the new Jewish immigrants were statistically insignificant in comparison to the host populations—the total number of Ostjuden who settled in Germany never exceeded 100,000—their presence was immediately noticed by government officials and political opportunists. On this basis, Aschheim, Trude Maurer,14 and others have argued that worried Jewish communities feared an antisemitic backlash and tried to keep the numbers of immigrants down or at least less visible.

Wertheimer, by contrast, presents compelling evidence that the Jews in Germany responded positively to the challenge posed by antisemitic attacks on Jews from the East. To be sure, some German Jews blamed Eastern Jews for antisemitism, pinpointing them as a source of shame or embarrassment.15 And the established Jews of the West may have avoided contact with immigrant “Russians” and “Galicians,” even treating them with condescension.16 But, writes Wertheimer, the Jewish middle classes in Germany

also displayed compassion for the suffering of their coreligionists…. [T]hey provided various types of support—legal aid, political support, and care for the needy. While we have no way of knowing what the “average” German Jew said in the privacy of his home, we have numerous ways of documenting what German Jews said and did publicly. And from the evidence at our disposal, it appears that their actions on behalf of the immigrants were incompatible with hatred.17

What was taking place here will not surprise researchers of migration in the twentieth century. People from the same place who have immigrated at different times classify themselves as “greenhorn” or “assimilated”—a phenomenon typified by, but not specific to, European Jews.

Wertheimer’s point is not that Jews were incapable of mutual animosity. Rather, he claims that Western and Eastern Jews may have benefited from each other. And the extent of their interactions and their cultural similarities suggest that a relationship existed upon which Ost und West might build. The idea of a pan-Jewish public sphere was no pipe dream: there was a ready-made market in Germany for the magazine and its version of Eastern Jewish culture.18 If we understand Ost und West as a public relations enterprise that brought specific images of Jewishness to specific audiences, we must draw upon both Aschheim’s cultural history and Wertheimer’s social history so that a clearer picture of the media’s influence on fin-de-siècle European Jews may emerge.19 For this study is not a history of Jewish self-representation or of its subcategories, such as Jewish nationalism. Instead, this study explores the discourse20 of Jewish identity in an institutional framework: a German-Jewish periodical. It is thus more concerned with the promotion of Jewish identity in Ost und West than with its theoretical formulation or semiotics.

Such an approach to Jewish identity and identity politics is long overdue. By looking at minority self-stereotyping as both a discursive and a socio-psychological phenomenon, models of Jews in Germany as self-hating or assimilating are revealed for what they are: ideological dogma. At the same time, the study of Ost und West—a twenty-three-year, 10,000-page discursive universe—is “local history” of a particularly rich microcosm. My anthropological approach to this institution complements and gives a more complete picture to other general histories of the period.

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