Challenging, invigorating, and inspiring, Professor John M. Efron’s study opens up a swath of Jewish cultural history that is familiar to few scholars and fewer general readers. He is concerned, though he wouldn’t use such a formulation, with a special manifestation of Jewish self-hate as defined by its proposed remedy.
The setting is primarily Germany of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the time of the European Jewish Enlightenment, a movement known as the Haskalah. Those most concerned are the Ashkenazi cultural and intellectual elite, the Maskilim. They fear association with the Poles and other Eastern European Jewish communities, considered coarse on several levels: physically, linguistically, intellectually, spiritually, and creatively.
Reveling in a relatively liberal timewarp that seemed to promise acceptance into the high German mainstream, the Maskilim were at pains to capitalize on that possibility by reconstructing the image, and perhaps the reality, of Jews as individuals and as a civilization. They planned for a more dignified future by looking back to the glory days of Jewish achievement and status on the Iberian peninsula: the so-called Golden Age when Jews spoke well, looked attractive, had refined habits, and generally invited acceptance and admiration.
Efron neatly categorizes and exemplifies the concerns of these thinkers. Jews from Eastern Europe (or too many such Jews) seemed to be handicapped by ugliness in physiognomy and behavior. The Maskilim perceived an ugliness as well in the spoken languages of Yiddish and Ashkenazi Hebrew, so inferior to the crisp Sephardic soundings and rhythms.
Efron centers his discussion on the blossoming of Oriental-style Jewish synagogues in German-speaking Europe. He analyzes the influence of Moorish architecture and the iconic Alhambra in one of the most convincing proofs of the Philo-Sephardi tendency written to date, hinting that the Maskilim may have been delusionary both in how they imagined the Sephardim of past times and in how they imagined a logical connection between the means and likely ends of their self-improvement programs.
Additional subjects mine other bodies of evidence. Most compelling is the discussion of how — and how frequently — German-Jewish authors of fiction fashioned positive narratives of Sephardic Jews. These narratives were simultaneously entertaining and propagandistic. Was the Sephardic past glorious? Histories written during this period of ameliorative proposals for Jewish uplift certainly share a rosy view: Efron’s careful readings of major histories by Abraham Geiger, Heinrich Gratz, and Ignas Goldziher show that they echo such fictional presentations in several thematic ways.
The latter chapters of the book are complicated by concerns about the relationships between the Jewish Bible and the Quran — or should we say Judaism, Islam, and the relationship between the two. When the Jews of Sepharad lived under Muslim rule, they lived, for the most part, fairly well. How was this possible? Could such a coexistence come about in the twenty-first century?
A valuable scholarly book is valuable because its author perceives and fills a need. Its worth is all the more increased when it is exhaustive in its research and strongly persuasive in applying that research. Efron’s fine study, at once erudite and accessible, can be expected to appear on many lists for honors and awards.
Acknowledgments, bibliography, epilogue, index, introduction, notes.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.