The Place of German in the History of Jewish Nationalism: Review of German as a Jewish Problem by Marc Volovici

Lea Greenberg

Marc Volovi­ci, Ger­man as a Jew­ish Prob­lem: The Lan­guage Pol­i­tics of Jew­ish Nation­al­ism. (Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2020). 352 pp. $65.00.

Marc Volovici’s German as a Jewish Problem is as much about Hebrew and Yiddish as it is about German, but German functions as the central organizing principle of the study. Such a focus demonstrates how when we talk about the development of modern Hebrew, the political and literary trajectory of Yiddish, and the establishment of Hebrew as the Jewish national language, we are also often talking about a relationship to German. The German language, history ( in particular the Reformation and the subsequent development of a literary culture), and politics served as key models in Jewish national politics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even for the most ardent Yiddishists and Hebraists.

It is notable for a piece of historical, rather than linguistic, scholarship to take a language as its central object of study. Volovici does so elegantly, tracing the shifting symbolic and functional role of the German language in the development of Jewish nationalism over the past two centuries. This monograph will be of immediate interest to researchers and students of German Jewish studies, and it further animates this field by demonstrating the broad reach of “German Jewish Studies.” 1 1 Volovici’s book joins a body of scholarship on the centrality of the German-speaking world for modern European Jewish culture. While this work focuses on how German language ideology helped make Hebrew the language of Jewish nationalism, Jeffrey Grossman’s The Discourse on Yiddish in Germany from the Enlightenment to the Second Empire (2000) traces how Yiddish figured into these German national and language politics taking shape in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Jonathan Hess (z’’l) (2010) and Jonathan Skolnik (2014) have both written on the productive role of literature in shaping an influential German Jewish culture. More recently, Rachel Seelig, like Volovici, has considered the intersection of German, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Seelig’s Strangers in Berlin: Modern Jewish Literature Between East and West, 1919–1933 (2016) takes as its focal point the multilingual Jewish literary scene of interwar Berlin, attesting to the porousness of national and linguistic boundaries. Leslie Morris’s The Translated Jew: German Jewish Culture Outside the Margins (2018) also makes a radical move to think beyond national and geographic boundaries, reading Jewishness and its relationship to German-language culture in the literary, visual, and digital world in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. When German Jewish scholarship refers to “German-speaking lands,” it often refers to the lands of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and of present-day Germany and Switzerland. But German was a central language of education and thus intellectual and political expression well beyond these regions. In German as a Jewish Problem, Volovici presents the centrality of German in the Russian Empire, Palestine, and beyond. The book does this in part by revising the commonly employed category of “German-speaking Jews” with the designation “German-reading Jews,” a formulation that is one of the book’s many important contributions. Thinking about Jews who actively engaged with German literature and politics accounts for a much larger group and a broader ideological, cultural, and geographic scope than the category of “German-speaking Jews” can encompass.

Volovici opens German as a Jewish Problem with Angela Merkel’s 2008 visit to the Knesset, using more recent Israeli debates on the role of German as a starting point for exploring what he refers to as the language’s “paradoxical place in Jewish nationalism” (3). Although Merkel was regarded as a staunch ally of Israel, it is still unsurprising that her German oration was met by some with hostility, with the politician Arieh Eldad pushing for the speech to be conducted in English and several MKs walking out on the event. The post-1945 position of German in Jewish history is but one short, albeit tectonically shifted, chapter of a long and entangled past.

In excavating this history, Volovici tells a story that moves beyond prominent Zionist figures like Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau demonstrate the pervasive and nonterritorial role German had in the intellectual and political trajectory of Jewish nationalism, as both a useful model and a potential threat. Over the course of seven chapters, Volovici traces this tension through the shifting role of German for European Jewry, beginning with the Enlightenment and then focusing on the language politics of Jewish nationalism from the late nineteenth century until the Eichmann trial.

The foundations of this debate can be found in the language ideologies of German scholars like Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Wilhelm von Humboldt that theorized the relationship between language and the idea of a given national spirit. Volovici shows that these ideas were central to the conceptual framework and vocabulary for national movements throughout Europe, and Jewish nationalism was no exception. German was central not only to the ideological program of the Berlin Haskalah; German rabbis were also at the center of religious reform that took place in the middle of the nineteenth century. Reform Judaism affirmed that German could, and should, be a central part of religious life. These approaches then spread outside of German-speaking lands. The cultural capital of German—as a language of science, philosophy, and literature, in short of Bildung—and its association with notions of progress contributed to a positive view of its potential to promote the modernization of Jewish society. This, though, was coupled with a continued distancing from Yiddish, a process that was exacerbated by the Romantic notions of linguistic “purity.”

While many maskilim advocated for Hebrew as the primary Jewish language, German served both to bolster and undermine this cause: German was an important vehicle and a model for the advancement of modern Hebrew, but its dominance as a lingua franca continued to challenge these aims. Echoing the Herderian discourse on language and nation, Hebraists such as Ahad Ha-am considered Hebrew inextricably tied to Jewish nationalism and the potential for spiritual and political transformation, while German could be a model but also a competing language. Still, German language and culture remained central both as a means of communication—the Zionist movement first had its centers in Germany and Austria, and the First Zionist Congress was chiefly conducted in German—and thus a key component of the Hebrew revival.

The sixth chapter of German as a Jewish Language will be of greatest interest to students and scholars of Yiddish Studies. Until this point in the work, Volovici only briefly gestures at the strained position of Yiddish in the language debates of Jewish nationalism. This chapter considers in depth how Yiddish was understood both in terms of difference—as a deviation from German—and in terms of similarity—closely related to German and often mutually intelligible. Volovici focuses on the role of the historical-linguistic development of Yiddish in the “language quarrel” between Yiddish and Hebrew. The leaders of the Berlin Haskalah perpetuated a long-standing notion of Yiddish as “corrupted German” that deemed the language ill-suited for poetic and scholarly pursuits. Into the early twentieth century, Hebraists such as Yitzhak Volcani and Menahem Sheinkin criticized Yiddish as a relic of exile that did not reflect a Jewish creative force—ultimately reinforcing the idea that Yiddish was not its own language, but rather a form of German. This, of course, would run counter to Herderian language ideology that conceived of the intimate connection (and direct correspondence) between a nation and its language.

But there were also those who made claims for the potential of Yiddish as a national language. While the similarities between German and Yiddish were often used to attest to its foreignness, the “German pedigree” of Yiddish also demonstrated that the language was a “product and reflection of the lived experience of diaspora Jews” and that it thus had a “robust, vibrant quality” (184)—arguments that again echo a larger network of thought influenced by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century language ideologies. Most notable in this chapter is an analysis of the work done by scholars to turn these critiques of Yiddish on their head. Volovici highlights the work of Polish Jewish philologist and businessman Matthias Mieses who took anti-Yiddish rhetoric to task, arguing against the notion that German was somehow a pure language and thus that Yiddish was a deviation thereof. Mieses subverted the “traditional coordinates of linguistic romanticism” by pointing toward the “hybrid” nature of any given language, particularly one (like German) that absorbed other influences through cultural development (188). He also argued that Hebraists’ critiques of Yiddish for its ugliness, hybridity, or evidence of cultural passivity were continuing in a tradition of anti-Jewish and antisemitic rhetoric. Through his essay “The Tasks of Yiddish Philology” (1913), Ber Borokhov similarly takes on anti-Yiddish critique deriving from the perception of its relationship to German by debunking the idea that Yiddish was a variation of German; both High German and Yiddish developed from Middle High German, and thus they were more siblings than parent and child, respectively. Both, then, could be seen as “corruptions” of Middle High German, with differing influences changing their lexical and syntactic features. At the same time, Borokhov criticizes efforts to “Germanize” Yiddish by using contemporary German to accommodate the language to European forms, referring to the daytshmerish features emerging in modern Yiddish.

The study concludes by detailing the final blows to Germanic languages in the language quarrels of Jewish nationalism. The “paradoxical place” of German to which Volovici refers in the introduction is captured in the title of the final chapter, “The Language of Goethe and Hitler.” Nazism was, of course, the tragic turning point for the role of German when the “claim for the legitimacy and respectability” of the language was lost (201). The association of German with Hitler served as a “polemical vehicle” in furthering the promotion of Hebrew monolingualism; Yiddish, due to its Germanic origins, was also folded into this strategy (201). This chapter considers the many-pronged Jewish debates on German during and after the War that were concerned with the speaking, writing, hearing, and thinking in German. Volovici closes by pointing to the political motivations that shaped the discourse on German in the early years of the State of Israel: It was often not those who experienced the Nazi regime firsthand who argued for the barbarity of the German language, but rather politicians and intellectuals who mobilized the tarnished role of German for their own national-linguistic program.

Students and scholars of Yiddish Studies will find that an in-depth consideration of the role of Yiddish is confined to the sixth chapter.This is hardly a shortcoming of Volovici’s work, but rather a feature of the language politics at play, and readers interested in learning more about the language politics between Yiddish and Hebrew might turn to work by Naomi Seidman or Jeremy Dauber. 2 2 See Seidman’s A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish (1997) or Dauber’s Antonio’s Devils: Writers of the Jewish Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature (2004). Language politics, by definition, are a question of power, and Yiddish has perennially been relegated to a subordinate position in the debates on linguistic hierarchy, the notions of which this study adeptly portrays..The history of the Yiddish language is inextricably linked to German, although the nature of this relationship has long been subject of debate. Yiddish emerged, according to Max Weinreich, around the ninth century along the Rhine River, and the language to be known as Yiddish formed through encounters with Middle High German. But a large corpus of theories posits different origins and trajectories of Yiddish (for a helpful review, see Jeffrey Shandler’s new Yiddish: A Biography of a Language), including those that considered Yiddish merely a deviation from German. This attitude flourished around the time of the Enlightenment and with the crystallization of national ideology by German thinkers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Volovici attends less to Yiddish itself than to what it is, or is not, in relation to German. This work traces a network of discourses that both cast this relationship negatively—conceiving of Yiddish as a deviation of German—and positively—by emphasizing its national potential through the proximity between the two languages. In doing so, the sixth chapter shines most in its consideration of the problem of daytshmerish and the ideological obstacles in mobilizing Yiddish as a national language.

Language ideology was not the only feature of German culture that played a central role in the development of Jewish nationalism. Volovici also traces how Jewish national thought, within and beyond the German-speaking lands, was deeply indebted to German Protestant culture and used the Reformation as a central model of religious and intellectual renewal. The reader might be surprised to read how Martin Luther, notorious for his anti-Jewish writings, was frequently cited by Jewish thinkers such as Perets Smolenksin and the Galician-born rabbi and scholar Simon Bernfeld. Smolenskin, as one example, criticized Moses Mendelssohn’s influence on European Jewry but appreciated the role of Luther and the Reformation in making scripture, and knowledge more broadly, widely accessible. This study might have benefited from more thoroughly situating this interest in the Luther narrative within Jewish critiques of both the Reformation and its iconic leader. Smolenskin’s and Bernfeld’s invocation of Luther is notable not only because it draws analogies between Protestant Christian and Jewish spiritual renewal; it also identifies an investment and participation in Luther’s near-hagiography within German nationalist historiography. Through this identification, members of the European Jewish intelligentsia at once aligned themselves with broader German culture and used this alignment to begin drawing parallels with their own claims to national legitimacy—justifying their cause by taking cues from a paradigmatic moment in German nation-building.

German as a Jewish Language challenges the distinctions made between “Jewish” and “non-Jewish” languages and concurrently emphasizes the permeability between disciplinary boundaries. While the characters and debates featured in Volovici’s work may not be new to those familiar with the history of Jewish nationalism, this study skillfully brings together these many threads in order to lay out an ideological genealogy of Jewish language politics.

Greenberg, Lea. “The Place of German in the History of Jewish Nationalism: Review of German as a Jewish Problem by Marc Volovici.” In geveb, May 2021:
Greenberg, Lea. “The Place of German in the History of Jewish Nationalism: Review of German as a Jewish Problem by Marc Volovici.” In geveb (May 2021): Accessed Jun 20, 2021.


Lea Greenberg

Lea H. Greenberg recently completed her PhD in the Carolina-Duke Graduate Program in German Studies at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Starting in Fall 2021, she will be a Visiting Assistant Professor of German and European Studies at Knox College in Galesburg, IL.