Short Fuse: The History of Jewish Emancipation

An engaging book from a London-based journalist that sets out to illuminate a challenging slice of Jewish history.

emancipation“Emancipation: How Liberating Europe’s Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance” by Michael Goldfarb, Simon and Schuster, 408 pages, $30.00.

Reviewed by Harvey Blume

Michael Goldfarb is an American-born, London-based contributor to NPR (as well as to THE BBC and “The Guardian”), who was inspired to endure “the agony of writing” his engaging book for seemingly disjointed reasons. One was Talmudic. “The Talmud,” he tells us, enjoins Jews to perform 613 mitzvoth or commandments. Goldfarb, though far from an observant Jew, nevertheless adduced and felt called upon to fulfill yet a 614th mitzvah, one that enjoined him, along with other “Jews born after the Holocaust . . . to reclaim and retell one part of the history of our people.”

The slice of history Goldfarb sets out to reclaim is that of Jews who entered into the mainstream of European society when, in the late eighteenth-century, the Enlightenment began to pry open legal, cultural and physical ghettos. At their first brush with the broader world, the outsider status of newly emancipated Jews permitted them to see both the failings in and the opportunities presented by the status quo more clearly than many of their contemporaries. They were equipped to be critics, artists, and businessmen — catalysts for change, in other words, which, in turn, often made them suspect in the eyes of the population at large and put them at risk.

Their emancipation was, in any case, tenuous and reversible. One hears Ghetto doors literally opening and closing throughout Goldfarb’s chronicle. One of his chief points is that over time Jews were able to claim and fight for rights in their own voices and on their own behalf, rather than solely by petitioning mercurial protectors.

The book begins in 1785, shortly before the French Revolution, when a question proposed for general discussion among the French literati was: “Is there a way to make a better wine press?” The wine press question was accompanied by a social question: “Are there means to render the Jews more useful and happy in France?”

Goldfarb takes the debate about whether Jews could — or should — be rendered more useful and happy through the French Revolution, where it inspired endless hours of debate in the National Assembly, and to the rise of Napoleon. Napoleon suppressed debate but decided in favor of general emancipation. When his forces conquered Italy, denizens of its ancestral ghettos were astounded to find that there were Jews in the liberating army, who relieved them of the Jewish stars they had been compelled to wear since the Middle Ages.

Goldfarb comes to his story from a very different angle. As a journalist who, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, found himself reporting on radical Islam, he wondered about parallels between nineteenth-century Jewish and twenty-first century Muslim experience of Europe. Jews, like Muslims today, were once by and large considered inassimilable. Moreover, there was a religious element among them who vociferously opposed contagion by exposure to European culture.

Harvey Blume Goldfarb notes that “In 1811, as Napoleon marched east through the Ashkenazi heartland into Russia, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Lubavitcher Hasidism, found his sleep troubled.” Should he support Napoleon, who would make Jewish life easier, or lend his weight to the Tsar, historic oppressor of the Jews? Rabbi Zalman opted for the Tsar. “Even though poverty will increase,” he reasoned, “the hearts of Israel will be bound, fastened and tied to their Father in Heaven.” Goldfarb notes drily that: “Very few Jews in Russia helped the French.”

Goldfarb’s account uses Spinoza as a touchstone (documenting his influence on John Locke, for example), hones in on Moses Mendelssohn, praised as an exemplary Enlightenment philosopher by Immanuel Kant, and spends a fair amount of time on Karl Marx and his peers, many of whom were contending, whether as converts or not, with their weight of Jewish heritage. Goldfarb’s reprise of Marx is notable for making less of the gentile Fredrich Engels and more of Jews like Moses Hess and Heinrich Heine. It was Hess, for example, who, in 1847, first coined the expression, “A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of Communism,” with which Marx, a year later, began the Communist Manifesto.

Goldfarb seamlessly weaves elements of his family’s story into the narrative. He tells the tale of Mordechai Katz, for example, his great-grandfather, who left Odessa in 1884, became Goldenfarb, a more Germanic name, when in Hamburg, and had the name shortened and finalized as Goldfarb by an immigration clerk when in the United States.

“Emancipation,” though an honorable effort to fulfill the author’s 614th commandment, is not and does not claim to be, definitive. There are grounds for questioning some of Goldfarb’s omissions and conclusions, as I had an opportunity to do during an email exchange with the author.

HB: You write: “A young Orthodox Jewish woman from Galicia arrives in New York, drops out of school at fourteen, and goes to work in a sweatshop. Her son becomes a doctor. His son becomes a writer. Along the way, religious observance diminished in importance, the identity of Jew does not. That happens to be my family’s story, but in its broad outlines it is like millions of others.”
But what space is left for secular Jews at this point? Hasn’t secular Jewish culture shrunk?

Author and journalist MIchael Goldfarb

Author and journalist MIchael Goldfarb

MG: I don’t think the space for secular Jews has grown smaller. I think that the practice of religion has grown more adaptable. If younger self-identified Jews in the U.S. are joining temples again that has as much to do with the increased religiosity of America as it does with squeezing out the secular Jewish identity.

I am an atheist, I am also a Jew. How could I not be? No one can take away that part of my identity formed at seders at my grandmother’s house, the overheard conversations (in the 1950’s) about Israel and the Holocaust, and the whispers about whether this person or that person was Jewish. Nor can anyone take from me the questioning wit that is the hallmark of Jewish thinking.

HB: You write, re Moses Mendelssohn, that: “The very idea that a Jew . . . could write with such eloquence was considered astonishing in and of itself.” Was it really the case prior to the Enlightenment that Jews were considered unfit for literature? How radically at odds with current typology!

MG: Jews were considered “clever.” But before Spinoza they didn’t engage with the great intellectual questions of the day. Spinoza wrote in Latin. But Mendelssohn wrote in German — his third language — and no Jew had ever published such important work in that language up to that point in time. That’s what made it seem astonishing.

HB: Bernard Lazare is remembered for his fierce condemnation of French Jewry’s timidity and passivity during the Dreyfus Affair. Where would someone like Lazare be in the Jewish world today?

MG: Probably living in Israel. Writing for “Ha’aretz.” Feuding with everybody.

HB: The poet Heinrich Heine complains: “I try to tell my grief and it all becomes comic.” You comment: “No one has ever distilled the essence of modern Jewish writing so clearly”. But what’s so funny about Jewish grief?

MG: What underlies mordant Jewish wit is profound anger and confusion: think of Philip Roth (who, by the way, regards Heine very highly). The irony of the interrogative in shaping Jewish jokes derives from Talmud study but its withering sarcasm is motivated by grief. “Thank you for making us the Chosen People, but couldn’t you have chosen someone else.”

HB: Though you deal with Marx at some length, you barely touch on his alleged anti- Semitism. Do you feel it has been overblown?

MG: No, there’s no getting around the self-hatred inside of Marx. But then he was full of hatred about every aspect of his origins. He hated the bourgeois class from which he came just as much. His views were always overstated. One of the reasons his work found an audience was his skill with invective. Over-reaching is the hallmark of all his writing, as anyone who has struggled through “Das Kapital” can attest.

HB: You make a parallel between the Jewish experience of Europe in the nineteenth century and the Muslim experience of it today. How so?

MG: Picture the typical Ashkenazi Jew coming out of the ghetto: he wears traditional dress, takes a different Sabbath, is barely fluent in the local language. He goes to his rabbinical courts for redress on every legal question. He doesn’t trust his new environment but has to earn a living within the confines of it. The society is demanding that overnight he stop with the silly clothes and strange Sabbath and go to the same court as everyone else, and to hasten the process is passing legislation forbidding his traditional way of life. How do you think his children feel?

Now, picture a Muslim immigrant from a small village in Pakistan, Bangla Desh or Turkey. He wears traditional dress, takes a different Sabbath, is barely fluent in the local language. He trusts his Shari’a court more than the local justice system. In fact, he trusts very little about his new environment but this is where he has to make a living.

The society is demanding that overnight he stop with the silly clothes and strange Sabbath and go to the same court as every one else, and to hasten the process is passing legislation forbidding his traditional way of life. How do you think his children feel?

Those are the similarities. The critical difference is that Islam today is going through a civil war between those who want to be modern and the radicals who want to take the religious community back to their interpretation of the “pure” Islam. Some frustrated younger people are turning to the radicals.

HB: You ask: “What was the price paid by the Jewish community and European society for the process of integrating?” The second part of that question is disturbing. What price did Europe pay for having Jews?

MG: Hmm, you catch out a phrase that is rhetorically interesting but on reflection may be no more than that. Let me go rabbinical on you and answer a question with a question. “What has been the price paid by the African-American community and the wider American society for the process of integration?” The changes in the society brought about by admitting Jews into it as citizens were similar.

Not every individual in Europe in the nineteenth century had his or her life changed by this different Jewish presence. But the society was completely changed by it: through the work of Jewish intellectuals, financiers and simply by the fact that an old sense of Christian superiority had been challenged.

HB: You live in England, for the most part. I’ve never thought of England having much in the way of robust secular Jewish expression. Wouldn’t Manhattan suit you better?

MG: There are fewer Jews in Britain than you can find in Zabar’s in Manhattan on an average weekend morning. But the Jewish question was not what motivated my move here. I’m a descendant of Jews who left their homelands for a New Land in order to have a better life. I moved to London from New York for the same reason. I was a total failure in the town of my birth. Within five years of moving to London I was writing for “The Guardian,” making programs for the BBC and had become NPR’s London correspondent. So I’m living the immigrant dream in reverse.

HB: You describe Jews as having had their “mullahs,” so to speak, rabbis who detested the likes of Mendelssohn, for instance. Don’t we still have them, on the religious right in Israel for example.

MG: I think the power you refer to is very mutable and reflects the times in which we live. Fundamentalism is eating away at all the Abrahamic faiths at the moment. This era will pass, I hope.


  1. Jeff Millett on January 9, 2010 at 6:52 am

    Very interesting review and interview. Goldfarb’s book is on my must read list.

    Raises the following questions:

    1. What role does Judaism play, for twenty-first century individuals, and in twenty-first century societies?
    2. Should we move beyond the Abrahamic belief systems?
    3. Would societies suffer as a result of such a move?
    4. Can individuals and societies even tolerate a sustained post-abrahamic world-view?
    5. Have we already already moved beyond the Abrahamic traditions?
    6. What’s next?

    Perhaps The History of Jewish Emancipation will shed light on whether and how we can all be emancipated from

  2. Harvey Blume on January 11, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    Jeff, you’ve asked such questions!

    1. What role does Judaism play for twenty-first century individuals and in twenty-first century societies?

    Judaism may be a faith. Being a Jew isn’t, necessarily. This is rough, but I can’t do better right now: I can’t possibly cease to be a Jew any more than I can cease to be American. In other words, it would take lots of work.

    2. Should we move beyond the Abrahamic belief systems?

    Due to electronic popular culture, we have already, perhaps.

    Commentators from Gore Vidal through Camille Paglia and rabbi Adin Steinsaltz ( have said we are now in post-abrahamic, neo-pagan culture. I don’t quite buy it. That’s because I don’t believe history can be reduced to religious history.

    Some do.

    I’m more of a mcluhanite: text-based thinking & culture is now being seriously challenged by electronic images — & texts! — of all sorts.

    Is that a religious event?

    Maybe, despite all the harm it does, religion is overrated.

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