The Jew­ess Pal­las Athena: This Too a The­o­ry of Modernity

Bar­bara Hahn
  • Review
By – August 15, 2012
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.

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