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Historian Alan Levenson On Jewish History’s ‘Success Stories,’ Ethnic Memory

Dec 25, 2015

Understandably, modern Jewish history revolves around the Holocaust – the systematic execution of 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime during World War II that also led to the resettlement of millions more trying to escape persecution.

But there’s a long history of what University of Oklahoma historian Alan Levenson calls “success stories,” most recently in Germany throughout the century leading up to the Holocaust. Levenson is the author of Between Philosemitism and Antisemitism: Defenses of Jews and Judaism in Modern Germany, 1871-1932

Alan Levenson, the Schusterman/Josey Chair in Judaic History, University of Oklahoma
Credit Provided

Levenson says throughout the 19th century, German Jews earned political equality, saw educational advances from parochial and Jewish-only schools to becoming fully integrated and contributing to Jewish educational and cultural life, and economic evolution from overall impoverishment to a very respectable middle class.

“Most German Jews in 1800 were beggars or peddlers, and had no rights of residence, and spoke Yiddish, but were not part of the German national fabric,” Levenson said. “And by the year 1900, all of that was completely different.”

According to Levenson, during this six-decade period between German Unification and Hitler’s rise to power, most people in German society were able to free themselves of anti-Jewish prejudice, and had relatively positive views of Judaism as a religion, or Jewish ethnicity and culture.

In a wide-ranging conversation with World Views host Suzette Grillot, Levenson also discussed whether or not there are parallels to the current refugee crisis as migrants escape war-torn areas of Iraq and Syria, and cultural identity and ethnic memory.

Interview Highlights

On How The Syrian Refugee Crisis Compares To Centuries Of Jewish Migration

The country of Syria has imploded. Iraq has imploded. These are terrible events that are happening every day unfolding. And I think that I'm not sure how much the Jewish situation really sheds light on this, to be honest, because one of the things that until, from basically the year 65 BCE to 1948 CE, one thing that wasn't part of Jewish life was sovereign territories, or sovereign nations. So I think this is quite different, in some ways, from both these Middle Eastern countries that were carved up at the end of World War I, a lot of them. But also Islam grew up with a great deal of political sovereignty and self-determination. And right now, it's having to struggle, I think, with internecine quarrels among groups within Islam. I don't think there's a close parallel to the Jewish situation there.

On Jewish Cultural Identity And Ethnic Memory, Especially In The United States

Less than 50 percent of American Jewry in any given time could be considered Judaicists. In other words, people who are actively practicing their religion. And that's the fun part of talking about American Jewry, is that for many, many Jews - by now certainly the majority - their Jewishness is mainly a product of ethnic memory or affection for parts of Jewish culture, whether it's the food or the humor or some, again, even memory not from the distant past but just of, say, the East Coast immigrant experience.

And then you have this strange interplay among lots of groups between forces of assimilation, to be exactly like your host people, and then often in the third or fourth generation, forces of dissimilation. All of a sudden, you say, "Hey, we don't really want to abandon absolutely everything about our heritage." And then you have curious and interesting ways of trying to reclaim a heritage that, it doesn't take very long.

I always love this example. It only takes one generation to forget a language. All the Jews who moved over from eastern Europe, or at least most of them, were native Yiddish speakers. Already, their children who went to public schools, were native English speakers, but probably still understood Yiddish. And their children, who also went to public schools, and then often went to decent colleges and universities, not only did they not speak Yiddish, but they couldn't understand it either. And then their kids took Yiddish 101, or Hebrew 101 at a university like Oklahoma. So you have these interesting counterplays. I think for scholars of American immigration, I think it's called Hanson's Law, the third generation tries to remember tries to remember what the second generation tried to forget.

One of the curiosities about Jewish life is that you can decide to connect via religion or via ethnicity and ethnic memory. For some people, who have no interest whatsoever to go to a synagogue, or do anything ritual, but are interested in pastrami, and others.

On the disconnect between a critical, academic reading of the Bible, and a devotional approach

Most people who actually read the Bible read it from what we might say is a devotional perspective. They're looking for spiritual guidance. They're looking values that they can use in everyday life, and it just seemed to me there was a huge gap between the Bible as it really exists in our intellectual world, at one level as just another thing that is studied and studied very well I might add. And on the other hand, what it means to most of the readers of the Bible. And so I was very interested in this. And in my previous book, The Making of the Modern Jewish BibleI wanted to take a look at how different Jewish cultures managed to take a book from the Ancient Near East, which is in fact very remote from our lives, and still make it relevant.

The Bible is the subject, in Jewish culture at least, of so much commentary and so many different perspectives, that in fact, you can hang a meaningful identity not only on the book itself, but on the intervening 2,000 years of thought and commentary on that book.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Alan Levenson, welcome to World Views.

ALAN LEVENSON: Thanks for having me.

GRILLOT: Well, Alan, you're an expert on 19th century German-Jewish history. And so, I have to ask just right off the bat, what drew you to that subject? What it is it about 19th century German-Jewish history that is of interest and importance?

LEVENSON: Well, I wanted...if you're in Jewish history, a lot of the main developments in, say, the study of Jewish history, a lot of what's considered part of modern Jewish culture, religious denominations, all of that stems from the 19th century and from German Jewry. And I also, pretty early on, was reacting against the idea of all of Jewish history being treated as an extension of the Holocaust. I found that to be unfortunate and unrepresentative, and so I was drawn toward a more creative and a more positive era.

GRILLOT: So the contemporary thinking, then, if I understand you correctly is that everybody focuses on the Holocaust and 20th century Jewish experiences, where you thought that there needed to be a full, a better understanding, or at least some attention being paid to...you know, Jewish history goes back a long way. And if you've ever visited a Jewish museum, for example, you know that it goes back a long way. There's much more to it than what happened in the 20th century. So this is what you're saying, is that you just wanted to focus on those previous experiences.

LEVENSON: That's absolutely true. And my teenage son will complain that he has visited every Jewish museum in every place that we've ever been to. And in fact, the Holocaust and the Nazi era as a sort-of vacuum that sucks everything up is also true in German history. If you were to go to our local Barnes and Noble in Norman, you would see the number of books on the Nazi era is a whole shelf, and the number of books on anything else that happened in German history is four or five books total. So it's more than just Jewish history, as I came to realize.

GRILLOT: So what are the main distinctions, then? Because many of us are familiar with the Holocaust and what happened during the 20th century. So what are some of the main issues, or how would you characterize German-Jewish history prior to that time period?

LEVENSON: Well, the history of German Jewry in the 19th century, although it's so hard to believe now, was mainly a success story. It's a story of getting political equality, which took a couple of generations at least, depending on the German state. It's a story about educational advance from a pretty parochial and Jewish-only subject matter to Jews being fully part of German educational and cultural life and contributing greatly. It's a story of economic, not necessarily rags-to-riches, but certainly a passage from overall impoverishment to very respectable middle class life. Most German Jews in 1800 were beggars or peddlers, and had no rights of residence, and spoke Yiddish, but were not part of the German national fabric. And by the year 1900, all of that was completely different. So I think it was a century, I still think it's a century in which Jewish life modernized in a most dramatic, and believe it or not, generally positive way.

GRILLOT: So it's interesting though, that the 19th century, as I'm hearing you say, is this success story. It's kind of this bright light in Jewish history. Quite in contrast to centuries before. And then of course in stark contrast to their experience of the 20th century. So what can you tell us, what are some of the underlying reasons for that? And are there any lessons that can or should be drawn from that period in terms of explaining today, 21st century Jewish experience?

LEVENSON: Well, first of all, if you grew up, as I did, in the '60s and '70s, and then were trained in the '80s, you were told, and I think it's true, that you can't give in to a view of Jewish history that it was always about expulsion, martyrdom, and oppression. In fact, it wasn't, and there were many eras - we don't have enough time to go into all the eras - but in many, many times and places Jewish life really flourished. And that is, I guess because I'm an optimistic person, that always drew me more in terms of looking into the 20th century. I wrote a book called Between Philosemitism and Antisemitism in which I tried to show that at least until the Nazi takeover, there were many people in German society who were able to free themselves of anti-Jewish prejudice and had relatively positive views of either Jews or Judaism as the religion, or Jewishness as a cultural thing, and that this was a real factor also, although a neglected. So that was a subject of a whole book, and my positive takeaway is that such attitudes not only can exist, but generally do exist and deserve to be cultivated. 

GRILLOT: So, interestingly, Alan, as I'm listening to you talk about the Jewish experience in the 19th century, and of course what they experienced before and after, clearly having some very negative experiences. I appreciate the fact you're focused on the positive experience of the 19th century. But I can't help but think about some parallels with today's experience with Islamophobia, for example. With other segments of society. So not Jewish segments of society now, but Islamic segments of society around the world that are experiencing perhaps some similar problems and concerns and hatred, repression, expulsion. We're dealing with all these migration issues now, and immigrants coming and being welcome or not. I think this is very similar, right? To the Jewish experience? Where they migrated around the world and were in flux, and in some places were perhaps welcomed, and in many places they weren't. Could you perhaps some draw some parallels, or are there any lessons, perhaps, we can use in terms of getting through this interesting time period for another segment of the world's society?

LEVENSON: Well, I really have to say, I'm hardly an expert in the modern Middle East, and that would be the right person to give you the best answer. But first of all, there's the humanitarian element, which I hope would be cut across everything. There's a terrible, terrible situation that everybody is aware of who reads the newspaper going on in Syria and Iraq. And you have millions of refugees who need aid, and need assistance. And where to best provide that assistance and how to best provide it is really not something that I have much knowledge as to what would be the best way to handle it. I think what is clear is the idea of trying to impose a religious test on human need is always a bad idea, in my opinion. And I think certainly the refugees over what, 15, 16 million displaced by now? The country of Syria has imploded. Iraq has imploded. These are terrible events that are happening every day unfolding. And I think that I'm not sure how much the Jewish situation really sheds light on this, to be honest, because one of the things that until, from basically the year 65 BCE to 1948 CE, one thing that wasn't part of Jewish life was sovereign territories, or sovereign nations. So I think this is quite different, in some ways, from both these Middle Eastern countries that were carved up at the end of World War I, a lot of them. But also Islam grew up with a great deal of political sovereignty and self-determination. And right now, it's having to struggle, I think, with internecine quarrels among groups within Islam. I don't think there's a close parallel to the Jewish situation there. So I'm afraid I can't really be that helpful.

GRILLOT: Well, let me just see if I can connect it in this way, and relate it to something that you've taught in the past. You've taught a course on American Jew, Jewish-American. The kind of ethnic case studies of the difference between, and I'm going to ask you about what's the difference between an American Jew and a Jewish-American. Of course, as we know, many Jews migrated to the United States, to America. And so I think there's somewhat of an interesting parallel in terms of their experience in terms of coming to this country versus the experience of other people in the Middle Eastern region coming to this country. But tell us about this course that you've taught in the past on the American Jew and the Jewish-American. What do you mean by that?

LEVENSON: Well, the title is, of course, meant to be both a little bit provocative and a little bit playful. Because, of course, Jewish-American is like Irish-American, like Italian-American...

GRILLOT: So emphasizing the nationality, right, the nationality of being a Jew as opposed to the religious aspect of being a Jew. An American Jew meaning that you're an American but you practice Judaism. Is this the main distinction? The distinction between religion and nationality?

LEVENSON: I think that's totally fair, but the irony is, that of course, if you're just basing it on how many Jews practice Judaism, then you're going to find that less than 50 percent of American Jewry in any given time could be considered Judaicists. In other words, people who are actively practicing their religion. And that's the fun part of talking about American Jewry, is that for many, many Jews - by now certainly the majority - their Jewishness is mainly a product of ethnic memory or affection for parts of Jewish culture, whether it's the food or the humor or some, again, even memory not from the distant past but just of, say, the East Coast immigrant experience. Because still, most American Jews are extended from that great wave from 1880 to 1920, which is true of Italian-Americans, and is also true of Slavic-Americans. So there's that ethnic element. And then you have this strange interplay among lots of groups between forces of assimilation, to be exactly like your host people, and then often in the third or fourth generation, forces of dissimilation. All of a sudden, you say, "Hey, we don't really want to abandon absolutely everything about our heritage." And then you have curious and interesting ways of trying to reclaim a heritage that, it doesn't take very long. For instance, Yiddish. I always love this example. It only takes one generation to forget a language. All the Jews who moved over from eastern Europe, or at least most of them, were native Yiddish speakers. Already, their children who went to public schools, were native English speakers, but probably still understood Yiddish. And their children, who also went to public schools, and then often went to decent colleges and universities, not only did they not speak Yiddish, but they couldn't understand it either. And then their kids took Yiddish 101, or Hebrew 101 at a university like Oklahoma. So you have these interesting counterplays. I think for scholars of American immigration, I think it's called Hanson's Law, the third generation tries to remember tries to remember what the second generation tried to forget.

GRILLOT: I love that, that you refer to it as ethnic memory. And we do see a lot of heritage students, I think, that come back. Third-, maybe even fourth-generation that come back and try to recapture some of those things that they lost. I know, even for me, I'm of French heritage. Of course, French was in the culture and language was long-gone by the time I was born. So wanting to kind of reconnect and know something about your past is really interesting. Whether it's driven by one's ethnicity or religion, in that case, or nationality. But it is an interesting connection that you're making.

LEVENSON: May I just add one thing? One of the curiosities about Jewish life is that you can decide to connect via religion or via ethnicity and ethnic memory. For some people, who have no interest whatsoever to go to a synagogue, or do anything ritual, but are interested in pastrami, and others.

GRILLOT: Is this unique, you think, to the Jewish community? Again, because my family was always very French Catholic. And I can see where some of my relatives, very much interested in connecting with the French side of the equation, but not necessarily with the Catholic side of the equation. Yes, Christian maybe, but not Catholic necessarily. So I'm just wondering how unique that might be to the Jewish experience.

LEVENSON: I tend to think that all peoples are unique. I think once you learn about a particular people, you always find the story is so interesting and has so many details that I think every nation is unique.

GRILLOT: Well, I think that's an excellent point. Well, so, I have to get to your most contemporary work and your upcoming book.

LEVENSON: Sure.

GRILLOT: Now, you've kind of moved from doing German-Jewish history to studying the Bible. Interestingly, you kind of got "bit by the Bible bug," I think is what you've said before. You've even taught a class on the use and abuse of the Bible since the Enlightenment. And you've got a forthcoming book on Joseph. So tell us a little bit about this transition you've made in your scholarship. Why the Bible? What is it about the Bible, and why is it that you talk about the use and abuse of the Bible, in terms of helping us understanding Biblical history?

LEVENSON: Sure. Thank you for asking. This has been my last 10 years, and probably the rest of my career I'll work on this question. I was really struck, about a decade ago, a little more, about the disconnect between an academic, theoretically objective, hardcore historical, critical reading of the Bible, which treats it entirely as a human document, secular document just like every other document. And the fact that overwhelmingly, and obviously, most people who actually read the Bible read it from what we might say is a devotional perspective. They're looking for spiritual guidance. They're looking values that they can use in everyday life, and it just seemed to me there was a huge gap between the Bible as it really exists in our intellectual world, at one level as just another thing that is studied and studied very well I might add. And on the other hand, what it means to most of the readers of the Bible. And so I was very interested in this. And in my previous book, The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible, I wanted to take a look at how different Jewish cultures managed to take a book from the Ancient Near East, which is in fact very remote from our lives, and still make it relevant. If you look at Jewish Publications and Society, the oldest Jewish publisher in America - from the 1880s has been in existence - almost all of their lists of new scholarly works are in Bible, overwhelmingly relate to Bible in some way. So why would American Jews, who are very acculturated, very modern, very secular on the whole, why do they still want to read this book so much? And that's what I tried to investigate in my last book.

GRILLOT: What's the answer to that? (Laughs) I mean, I know we're all going to read your book, but just what's the quick answer to that? Very quickly, what's the answer to that?

LEVENSON: The quick answer, I've found, is that the Bible is the subject, in Jewish culture at least, of so much commentary and so many different perspectives, that in fact, you can hang a meaningful identity not only on the book itself, but on the intervening 2,000 years of thought and commentary on that book. And that it's actually a surprisingly useful book.

GRILLOT: Well, I think many people would agree with you, but perhaps for different reasons.

LEVENSON: For different reasons. And I guess I would also say, if that comes across as a little glib, I'd say there's more common ground between a purely scholarly approach to the Bible and a more, frankly, devotional approach than I think sometimes is acknowledged or conceded. And I guess my argument in that book, and I continue it in my Joseph book, is that you really can be enriched in the reading of the Bible both by a traditional perspective, and also from a historical, critical one. That they are not contradictory. Some of the premises or axioms are contradictory, but if you put them into practice, and you read a Biblical story, let's say of Joseph, you'll actually find that they're very self, mutually enriching.

GRILLOT: So, lastly, then, in the last 30 seconds that we have, Joseph. What is it that we need to know about Joseph? What are you wanting to tell us about him? The upcoming book is Portraits Through the Ages.

LEVENSON: That every age found in Joseph, the Joseph story especially, Genesis 37 through 50, different aspects that were worth reflecting on and relating to. So some generations found the family dynamic between Joseph and his brothers the most compelling part. And other ages found the governance of Egypt, and how Joseph saved the Egyptian people, and the rest of humanity, from starvation the most compelling parts. And then, there are parts of the Joseph story that are only hinted at. For instance, his Egyptian wife, mentioned only in three verses. Which generated an entire tradition of commentary and novellas and fictional literature. And Asenath, the wife of Joseph, becomes a very important character. And you can say that about the minor characters, and they all shed light on Joseph, who's the centerpiece of these chapters.

GRILLOT: Very interesting, Alan. Thank you so much. We'll all look forward to reading the book about Joseph, and your other works as well. Thank you so much for being here today on World Views.

LEVENSON: Thank you, Suzette, it's been great.

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