Many students and scholars of German Jewish history have described the period commencing in the mid-18th century and ending tragically with the Holocaust as the “Golden Age” of German Jewry. Other historians have dismissed the positive characterization of the so-called era of “German- Jewish symbiosis” as wishful thinking, grand delusion or romanticized recollection. In any event, the 200 years between the opening of the ghetto walls and the erection of the crematoria was a period in which Jews participated wholeheartedly in virtually all of the cultural, intellectual, political and commercial institutions and enterprises that defined modern Germany and European modernity.
Professor Hahn has masterfully assembled a representative collection of prominent German Jewish women who joined in, and contributed to, this exciting and productive period in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries or who lamented its passing in the twentieth. After the German cataclysm that effectively eliminated the Jewish voice from German cultural life, the latter group of Jewish women had to look back at the nation that had expelled them and to which they would never return.
To reflect upon the exclusionary nature of German culture, Hahn discusses such personalities as Rahel Levin Varnhagen, the famous 18th century Berlin salonière; Hannah Arendt, the philosopher and commentator on the 1960 Eichmann trial; and the revolutionary Polish Jewess Rosa Luxemburg, who was assassinated in Berlin during the volatile years of the Weimar Republic. It is a tragic chronicle of failed attempts by prominent Jewish women to bridge the gap between Germans and Jews through dialogue and cultural mediation.
Hahn also considers the concept of the “Jewess,” which was radically transformed in the course of modern German history from its original connotations of salonières and exotic beauty to the pejorative meanings of the word as used by the Nazis propagandists.
The Jewess Pallas Athena is an important contribution to the growing body of scholarly works evaluating German Jewish life, as well as studies concerning theories of modernity.
Stephen H. Garrin is a past managing editor of Jewish Book World and a past assistant to the director of the Jewish Book Council.