Germans into Jews: Remaking
the Jewish Social Body in Weimar
Germany
Sharon Gillerman,
Stanford University
Press, 2009
G
ermans into Jews turns to an often over-
looked and misunderstood period of
German and Jewish history — the years between
the world wars. While it has been assumed that
the Jewish community in Germany was in de-
cline during the Weimar Republic, Sharon
Gillerman demonstrates that Weimar Jews
sought to rejuvenate and reconfigure their com-
munity, as a means of both strengthening the
German nation and creating a more expansive
and autonomous Jewish entity within the Ger-
man state. These ambitious projects to increase
fertility, expand welfare, and strengthen the fam-
ily transcended the ideological and religous
divisions that have traditionally characterized
Jewish communal life. Integrating Jewish his-
tory, German history, gender history, and social
history, this book highlights the experimental
and contingent nature of efforts by Weimar Jews
to reassert a new Jewish particularism while si-
multaneously reinforcing Jews’ commitment to
Germanness.
In 1929, four years before Hitler would
assume the chancellorship of Germany, Siddy
Wronsky, a founding figure in German social
work and leading Jewish social reformer,
warned her co-religionists of the impending
catastrophe facing German Jewry. In her
opening remarks at a conference on Jewish
population policy, her words bore a prophetic
tone, warning of the increasingly acute “dan-
ger of extermination or atrophy of those
already born and yet unborn.” Rather than
predicting the extermination of the Jews at
the hands of a genocidal regime, however,
Wronsky aimed at drawing attention to the
wounds of the Jewish social body inflicted by
the twin processes of modernization and as-
similation and the broader social and
economic crises of the Weimar Republic.
Wronsky urged Jewish leaders to tend the
Jewish population as the body of a people,
whose “life-germ” was mortally threatened by
the “unhealthy” social, political, and eco-
nomic conditions of the postwar era. …
While Wronsky approached the task of
improving the Jewish population as a Zionist,
Weimar Jews held competing visions for po-
tential social remedies as well as the ultimate
appearance of a reinvigorated Jewish commu-
nity. Would a revitalized Jewish entity in
Germany resemble a densely textured ethnic
component of the German nation or its own
nation? Would it embody an expansion of Lib-
eral Jewish religious values or create an
altogether new kind of Jew? For their part,
non-orthodox and non-Zionist Liberal Jews
regularly employed such terms as
Gemeinschaft
,
which, by the 1920s, already implied a com-
munity bound by organic ties. Moving away
from a notion of the Jewish collectivity defined
strictly in the liberal sense of an assemblage of
autonomous individual citizens, Liberal Jews
increasingly invoked the notions of the com-
munity in its totality (
Gesamtheit, Volksganze
)
bound by fate (
Schicksalsgemeinschaft).
By con-
trast, but in some respects parallel to Liberal
Jews, Zionists tended to refer to their ideal Jew-
ish community in terms that directly paralleled
the German national ideal of “national com-
munity” (
Volksgemeinschaft
)
or “national body”
(
Volkskörper).
Though differences between Zionist and
non-Zionist visions of the Jewish future cer-
tainly remained, these new articulations of
community nevertheless bore a surprising de-
gree of similarity. To capture this commonality,
I use the term social body to include the va-
riety of visions Jews held for a new kind of
community that bound the individual body
in dynamic relation with a larger social one.
Through organic metaphors, reformers across
the religious divide understood a society that
functioned as a social organism, with needs
and interests that extended well beyond those
of the atomized individual. Equally impor-
tant, they linked the health of the individual
body with that of the Jewish community.
Thus, in contrast to what one historian of
Weimar Jews has labeled the “divisive land-
scape of German Jewry,” the notion of a
Jewish social body calls attention to a hereto-
fore neglected dimension of German Jewish
self-perception: that among a degree of ideo-
logical disunity, there existed an overarching
unity of intent not merely to relieve social dis-
tress but to reorder Jewish society and manage
it as a coherent whole.
The idea of a Jewish social body that was
subject to intervention and treatment was
taken directly from social and medical dis-
courses about the health of the nation.
Against this background, this book shows
how Jews, many of whom had gained knowl-
edge and expertise as professionals in the
fields of social welfare and medicine, mobi-
lized discourses devised to strengthen the
German nation on behalf of the Jewish com-
munity. What is particularly striking in this
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is Associate Professor of Jewish His-
tory at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. Her
publications focus on early twentieth-century central European Jewish history with
particular emphasis on gender, the body, Jewish identity and popular culture in the
interwar period. In addition to her first book,
Germans into Jews: Remaking the Jew-
ish Social Body in the Weimar Republic
,
she is writing a book on the performances
and reception of the popular Polish Jewish circus strongman and vaudeville star
Zishe (Siegmund) Breitbart in Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and the United States
and coediting a volume of essays entitled
Jewish Masculinities: German Jews, Gender, and History.
Dr. Sharon Gillerman