Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What is "Europe"?

So far, Martin Halliday is the only one who told me that he had read my book review in the Listener. He took me to task when I met him, for saying that from the sixteenth and the eighteenth century there were virtually no Jews in Europe. Most had been either murdered or driven out. Clearly, Martin is right. I should have said 'in Western and Central Europe". A geographer would tell you that Europe reaches as far as the Urals in Russia. It includes Poland, Belarus, Lithuanian, and all the countries of Eastern Europe. Yet when we talk about European civilization we really mean the civilization of Western and Central Europe. The line that divides the European heartland from Eastern Europe runs down along the borders of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. It includes Lviv, Krakow, Czernowitz, old Austro-Hungarian cities, but go further east and you are in the Slav world of onion dome churches, and a different view of European civilization. So Martin is right, but perhaps I am not entirely wrong. 

This division is reflected in the Jewish world too. The Jews of Western and Central Europe hardly felt any commonality with the Ost-Juden. The Ost-Juden, the Polishers looked different, wore different clothes, had manners that appeared uncouth to those who modelled themselves on the middle class or the gentry of their country. These Jews were an embarrassment to the Jews of Germany, France, and indeed, Hungary. For the Ost-Juden, the Polishers, the emancipated Jews of Western and Central Europe hardly seemed Jewish. What defined you as a Jews? Surely it is the way you lived, davened three times a day, fasted on fast days, ate only food that was kosher, felt at home in the synagogue, the shul, the shtiebel. In Imre Kerttesz's film and book, Fatelessness, the orthodox Jewish prisoners in the concentration camp, Buchenwald, thought of the others who came from emancipated backgrounds as goyim, not worthy of their help.

But even within the confines of the orthodox Jewish world, Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the greatest rabbinical authorities of his age, was perceived as a Yakke, a German, writing obscure, difficult, ever so Germanic texts, even if this was founded on unimpeachable Jewish sources. Not for him the colourful comforting Hassidic tales. Grappling with being Jewish was a serious challenging intellectual pursuit.