German City, Jewish Memory


Book Review from the Forward:

Roemer "Roemer’s book is the most original work I have yet to read on German-Jewish intellectual history. ...A wonderfully sensitive thinker and gracious writer, Roemer has produced an utterly original study in the uses, and misuses, less of history than of memory; for beyond his thorough assessment of earlier historians’ treatments of Jewish Worms, he examines a wide array of less conventional sources."

The full review of Roemer:

The same certainly cannot be said of the oldest Ashkenazic communities of the Rhineland, which originated in the late 10th century and whose rich histories, both proud and tragic, did in fact generate a host of unique regional religious and liturgical customs, particular fast days and minor festivals. Of these, none can match the storied Jewish community of Worms. Its history — of a vibrant center of Jewish learning, and martyrdom, in the Middle Ages, that declined over the centuries into near obscurity by the early modern period — is, in many respects, the very inverse of that of Bialystok.

Worms’s long and exceedingly complex historical legacy is deftly recovered and expertly analyzed by Niels Roemer in his erudite new book, “German City, Jewish Memory: The Story of Worms.” The oldest of the three great medieval communities (Speier, Worms and Mainz are fondly referred to by the acronym “SHU’M” — literally meaning “garlic”) is the repository of the richest history, literature and geographical artifacts. After wonderfully summarizing the medieval days of devotion to Torah, pietism and unprecedented acts of martyrdom during the First Crusade of 1096, Roemer turns his attention to the long and shifting history of how the community of Worms became a central, if largely symbolic, element in German-Jewish collective memory.

Roemer’s book is the most original work I have yet to read on German-Jewish intellectual history. It is especially enlightening in exploring how the memory of Worms and its physical remnants waned and then were revived. Holy relics, such as the ancient cemetery, the synagogue, the legendary chair of Rashi (who studied in Worms) and the tombs of her many scholars, such as Eleazar ben Judah — a founder of the medieval pietistic movement known as Hasidut Ashkenaz — regained currency first with the advent of printing, which produced popular accounts of Worms’s heroic martyrs, then with the advent of Reform Judaism and finally by the modern era of tourism, during which Worms became a major pilgrimage site for both Christians and Jews.

A wonderfully sensitive thinker and gracious writer, Roemer has produced an utterly original study in the uses, and misuses, less of history than of memory; for beyond his thorough assessment of earlier historians’ treatments of Jewish Worms, he examines a wide array of less conventional sources. Indeed, among the book’s many merits is that it ignores no useful source for its subject. It would have been easy to use only “high” historical and literary sources, given the embarrassment of riches in Worms: Crusade chronicles and dirges for the martyrs of 1096 have become an integral part of the Jewish liturgy; the Av ha-Rachamim memorial prayer recited each Sabbath by Ashkenazi Jews to this day; dirges for the martyrs of the Shum communities, recited on Tisha B’Av, and, on the other hand, products of their visits to Worms of modern secular Yiddish and Hebrew writers, such as Sholem Asch and Shaul Tchernichovsky. To these sources, Roemer also adds more mundane and popular sources, from private unpublished memoirs and letters to a rich variety of tourist brochures and municipal documents.

In the Weimar period, which witnessed the height of German Jews’ optimism regarding their full integration into the “new Germany,” Worms became a symbol for many of an invented shared historical destiny, “the quintessence of Jews’ overall belonging in Germany,” as Roemer felicitously puts it. The power of this early 20th-century optimism is perhaps best represented by the Haggadah published by Siegfried Guggenheim, marked by his esteemed family’s Worms’s coat of arms. Though living in nearby Offenbach on the Rhine, Guggenheim replaced the traditional Seder declaration, “Next Year in Jerusalem” with, “Next Year in Worms-on-the-Rhine, our Heimat.” Roemer notes that when Guggenheim reprinted his Haggadah in New York after the Second World War, Jerusalem was restored to its proper place.

If there is a single lesson both of these books impart, however unwittingly, it is the crushing realization, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, that — no matter how rich and impressive their varied histories — these European Jewish communities existed only at the mercy and tolerance of Christian rulers, from Germany to Russia. Despite the Jews’ constituting a majority of the population, and withstanding Christian hatred, the notion that either Bialystok or, for example, Kiev, was ever truly a “Jewish Metropolis,” to cite the title of Natan Meir’s recent, superb history of Kiev Jewry, was finally dispelled by the orgy of modern, racist Jew hatred. In that sense, Roemer’s title, beginning with the term “German City,” is, like his book more generally, most perceptive. As only the Zionists seemed to understand on the eve of the final destruction, there could be, in the end, only one truly Jewish land, and only one Jerusalem.

Allan Nadler, a frequent contributor to the Forward, is professor of religion and director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University.

For the complete article:  http://www.forward.com/articles/138126/