Middlebrow 19th Century Orthodox Literature

Jonathan M. Hess, Middlebrow Literature and the Making of German-Jewish Identity. Stanford University Press, 2010 was reviewed when it came out by a literature professor Ritchie Robertson (St. John’s College, Oxford) and I originally did not take much notice. But having just read the book, I found it a gold mine of information on the cultural world of German Orthodoxy. The entire last chapter is on the popular middlebrow books written by Rabbi SR Hirsch’s daughter- Sarah Guggenheim and those by Rabbi Markus Lehrman.

Robertson wrote:

As German Jews, from the eighteenth century on, entered the world of German culture, they became strongly attached to the literature of the Enlightenment and classicism (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Friedrich von Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), which often expressed universal and humane ideals and were central to _Bildung (cultivation). Indeed, as David Sorkin argued in a landmark work of scholarship (The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780-1840 [1987]), their continuing attachment to Bildung while the Gentile society around them lowered its cultural standards made them, without realizing it, a distinctive subculture that was only nominally assimilated.
Hess recognizes the need to complicate the outdated German binary distinction between “high” literature and Trivialliteratur.Middlebrow literature is situated between the two

Hess’s approach is well illustrated by his first chapter, on the nineteenth-century German-Jewish historical novel. [The second chapter is on] the “ghetto novel,” pioneered by Leopold Kompert, aimed to reach two audiences. In writing about the enclosed Jewish communities of Eastern Europe that were on the verge of dissolution, Kompert wanted to awake among his Jewish readers nostalgia for their own past and an appreciation of the often tragic conflict of tradition with modernity. Among his Gentile readers, he wanted to arouse sympathy for Jewish communal life and for the tragic isolation experienced by those who first broke away from it.

[The third chapter is on ]The self-appointed guardians of Jewish literature, such as Ludwig Philippson, were ambivalent about another genre, that of romantic fiction. Continuing the eighteenth-century polemic against undisciplined reading, they denounced such books as inducing the spiritual equivalent of curvature of the spine.

Literature is naturally subversive: it questions and undercuts the simplistic ideologies for which people try to instrumentalize it. By that standard, the fiction of orthodoxy discussed in Hess’s final chapter is barely literature. He reveals a lost continent of fiction which tried to show that orthodox Judaism was compatible with modern Western culture. This genre was founded by Sara Hirsch Guggenheim, daughter of the leading neoorthodox rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. To enforce its message that orthodoxy is the key to happy family life, it defines itself against the classics of high culture, deploring the temptations to immorality offered by Heinrich Heine and Schiller, and isolating itself firmly from the literary mainstream.
Read the full Review here.

When I actually read the book, I found an enlightening, funny, and highly critical analysis of Orthodox popular literature and may be first time that Bourdieu and Baudrillard were used to discuss Orthodoxy. I gained lots of little tidbits about the journal Jeshuran and the Orthodox world of it readers.

Mordechai Breuer wrote about orthodox middlebrow literature “By reading classical drama and modern novels in their armchairs people imagined that they were full-fledged participants in German cultural life.” (cited on 167) Hess’s attitude toward Orthodox literature expands this statement.People may affirm high culture but are really formulating a particularistic derivative version. They carved out a minority niche within a contemporary field to give Jews a means of acquiring cultural capital that was necessary for social integration. The literature was an imagined identity of “a harmonious union between modern culture and a self-consciously orthodox Judaism” built on differentiation of themselves from those orthodox who did not read the middlebrow literature. (167)

The middle class life of a blissful marriage and financial success are credited to keeping the traditional practices.

Hess points out the self-serving hubris in Orthodox statements that reveled their self-perception in which they thought that Orthodoxy allows one to offer critical assessments of the greatest authors in literature unavailable to public at large. In their mind, they thought that the secular world only takes the worst of the romantic authors but Orthodoxy is uniquely situated to appreciate the best. Orthodoxy was situated to exist in perfect harmony with German literature in ways that the broader culture could not.

Orthodox fiction portrays itself in its introductions “orthodox fiction harbors the potential to be an art form superior to European high culture.” (185) In self-praise the orthodox protagonists are shown to know Schiller while the reformers are counterfactually portrayed as mixing up Goethe, Shakespeare and Schiller. Reformers are characterized as following the ignoble characters in literature while orthodoxy learns from the noble characters. Rabbis in the stories can always quote the best of the high culture even as they are warning people not to let it lead people astray.

Most minority literature seeks to reframe center and periphery and extol the virtues of the periphery. This literature “enshrines itself as the epitome of high culture in its own insular sphere, with grand gestures that were of little interest to the non-orthodox- and that would have alienated non-Jewish devotees of Schiller, Heine, and other classical writers.” (188)

The long shelf life of this literature shows that these tensions continued for many decades.

Despite proclaiming its superiority, the orthodox literature was clearly derivative from secular works And the fact that the audience did not mind that the works were unoriginal copies shows that this literature led few back to the original classical works. They were proud to be derivative because it showed that their own works expressed the classical sentiments in an orthodox manner better than the originals. Their works were derivative in borrowing plots, themes, and subject matter and most in the community thought that it was a good thing because it made the community aware of these important literary plots and themes.In their mind these Orthodox works looked and read the same way the classical works did.

It created a simulacrum as described by Baudrilliard of being a secular fiction when in reality it was entirely orthodox. “Needless to say, there never was an orthodox Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary.” (192) A self-conscious embracing of orthodoxy becomes a panacea to all social ills and social tensions and commitment to orthodoxy concurrently offers the simularcrum of possessing secularity and secular erudition.

One response to “Middlebrow 19th Century Orthodox Literature

  1. It seems to me Jewish culture is subject to two opposing forces. We want to feel there is a distinctive Jewish voice and point of view, but we will be incapable of producing anything substantive if we are not open to the general culture and the great books of this Western culture. Let’s talk about a modern Jewish culture. By modern I mean people who are aware that their values are not Torah values, and they are willing to stand behind their values. Modern people feel slavery is wrong as are cruel punishments and animal sacrifices. But most importantly modern people feel they can chart the course of their own life and should be as free as possible from subjection to the will of others. In this secular sense of modern it is silly to think of closing oneself off from the world. It would be like rediscovering the wheel. The great novelists and philosophers have been working on this issue of living in a secular world going on two centuries, and they have already laid out the major themes.
    All the major Jewish cultures of modern times started with the problem of modernity. For example what is called the German-Jewish symbiosis, (Benjamin, Bloch, Kafka, etc.), Yiddishist Bundist culture, Labor Zionist culture all began with the premises of modernity or secularism. Orthodox cultures start with the premises Torah is both true and relevant. I don’t know of any serious contributions of Orthodoxy to modern dilemmas other than to become Orthodox and stop being modern. Am I wrong in my assessment?

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