The small towns in the province of Posen became a nineteenth-century intellectual reservoir that fed German modernization. A new cultural interface had arisen where the Jewish tradition of text interpretation could interact with Enlightenment thinking and the new Bildung ideal in the spirit of von Humboldt.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic worlds 3-4, 2012, pp15-21
Published on balticworlds.com on January 9, 2013

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It was almost a standard expression. Berlin Jews sizing up a fellow Jew said with a tinge of pride, with a recognition of achievement and a sense of self-assurance: “Er kam über den Schlesischen Bahnhof.” They were referring to the main railway station for trains coming from the East.
“The East” included a good part of the province of Posen, which was a kind of reservoir for Jews in the big city. They could replenish their numbers with people who were bent on success and yet did not forget where they came from. The vibrant Jewish cultural life in this part of Germany can be traced back to the nineteenth century. In 1838, a set of prayer books for the Holidays (machzorim) was printed in the province and had subscribers in no less than forty-five cities and towns. At the beginning of the twentieth century, in the years leading up to the First World War, Jewish life was elevated to new heights in the small towns of Posen until history turned this life to ashes and wiped out all traces of Jewish existence.


Arno Herzberg looks back on his childhood in Filehne, an insignificant small town in Netzeland, a forgotten strip of land that was a sort of no-man’s-land for a long time, one of many disputed historical territories in Central Europe. Herzberg was born in Filehne in 1908. As head of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in Berlin from 1934 to 1937, he made a significant contribution to the Jewish resistance before he was finally forced to flee Germany and settled in New York. In his old age, he collected his childhood memories in an article published in the Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook for 1997.1

For many centuries,   the strip of land alongside the Netze River belonged to the Kingdom of Poland and constituted the border with Germanized Pomerania, which was part of the German Reich. But when the Polish state was erased from the political map in a series of “partitions” in the late 1700s, the area was annexed by the land-hungry Prussia. Protestant Berlin now became the political and cultural center of gravity in place of the old Catholic capitals of Warsaw and Krakow, which had been devoured by Russia and Austria. The German ethnic presence in these parts was, however, nothing new. There had been German villages here since the Middle Ages and this should not be interpreted as a manifestation of some kind of coordinated German imperialism, but rather as an offshoot of the structural peculiarities of the old Polish kingdom. Ethnic diversity, coexistence, mutual dependence — and subjugation — were all elements of a general Central European pattern.

When Prussia expanded eastwards, it also gained a large Jewish population. The conditions of Jewish life had been harshly circumscribed in the original electoral core country of Brandenburg. Jewish congregations were small, scattered, and suppressed. Jews had not been given permission to settle in Berlin until 1671, while in Poland, a fully developed Jewish community had been evolving since the late Middle Ages. In their characteristically rational way, the Prussian authorities began administering the Jewish presence: they counted and registered Jews and investigated their social, cultural, and financial circumstances. Through haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement, Prussian rationalism won passionate supporters among intellectual Jews, who believed the Enlightenment was the path to liberation and citizenship.

Filehne (the Polish Wieleń)  was, according to Prussian nomenclature, a Kreisstadt of the Bromberg (Bydgoszcz) Regierungsbezirk, which in turn belonged to the Grand Duchy of Posen (Poznań). In the new German Reich proclaimed in 1871, the region was reorganized as the Province of Posen. The little river Netze/Notec still winds through this rural landscape in modern-day northwestern Poland, of course, and eventually makes its contribution to the sometimes all too powerful currents of the Warta and the Oder. But the traditional culture of the place has been dissolved and its bearers and social structures are no more. Very few of the people who live there today have family roots in the district that go back any further than 1945. As early as the turbulent years of 1918—1919, when new states and borders were welded together in Europe’s temporarily unclaimed Zwischenraum between the Balkans and the Baltics, an exodus had begun from the mousetrap of Central European politics. The following three decades brought the total breakdown of civilization in the area. One must summon a great deal of imagination to picture nineteenth-century Filehne. Recollections of this Städtchen along the Netze have been spread across the world, embedded in the family histories of Americans, Australians, and Israelis, but most of this has remained oral history; little has been put in writing, and even less published, beyond Herzberg’s memoirs.

A small river called the Netze divided the town. It was small enough for the big boys in our gang to be able to throw a stone over to the opposite bank. I could only make it half-way, but could hit the small steamers and freighters floating down the calm waters. It was my way of resenting their going into the wide world north of the river. To the north, German peasantry and a large private estate dominated the countryside. To the south, Polish peasants lived in small villages. In between was the town, a meeting-place for north and south. Every week the peasants drove their horse-drawn carts to market to sell their products. When the day was done, they spent their money in the shops that lined the main street, Wilhelmstrasse. These shops, mostly owned by Jews, sold fabrics, shoes, hardware, clothing and the basic necessities of life.2

In the 19th century, the town had a population of somewhere between three and five thousand, mostly German-speaking Lutherans. Around 1900, the Jewish population numbered about 800. Jews had lived here since 1655 and Herzberg described a flourishing Jewish culture, which despite rather strict adherence to the rules of Halacha was wide-open to modern influences from Berlin and Breslau. One of the cornerstones of the multifaceted Jewish life in early 20th century Filehne was Frau Abraham’s restaurant, where patrons could read the Berlin papers and discuss worldly and political issues. Another was the synagogue built in 1787.

There was a minyan every morning and evening and we did not need to hunt for the tenth man. The way to the Temple led through a narrow pathway next to our house. The worshipers came, the men in their high hats, the women in their Sabbath best. The pathway opened onto a wide street and there was the Temple, in red brick with high glass windows. There was the beautiful interior with its high ceiling, and the well-polished wooden seats. There was the garden, full of lilac bushes. Children could play hide-and-seek under them. Close by was the bes hamidrash [house of study], a small building with one large room.3

Herzberg portrays the Filehne of the early 1900s, but he also speaks about the previous generations of his family. The special synthesis of tradition and modernity that seems to have been characteristic of Filehne becomes apparent in these stories. The dominant figure in the family history is Arno’s paternal grandfather Abraham Herzberg, who achieved a certain level of affluence as the town’s Königlicher Spediteur, but who was also a traditional observant Jew.

When my grandfather built our house, he saw to it that the flat roof was fenced in as required by the Jewish Law. He built the house with a permanent sukkah. It was a unique arrangement. The roof over one of the upstairs rooms could be opened by pulling on a strong cord attached to a weight. The ceiling of this room was thatched with a layer of straw. We could see the light through it and, at night, the stars. When it rained, we just lowered the roof. When it was too cold, a little stove gave the desired heat. We decorated the room with strings of chestnuts, flowers and lavish greenery.4

The Talmud and Kulturwissenschaft

Abraham Herzberg’s relative affluence probably arose after Filehne was connected to the rapidly expanding Prussian rail network, which likely occurred shortly after 1850. During the rapid urbanization process in nineteenth-century Prussia — which accelerated after the unification of Germany in 1871 — Berlin became one of the spearheads of European modernity. Berlin took on this role because of the strong tradition of Enlightenment (in the minds of German and German-Jewish liberals, Prussia was the guarantor of political rationalism and progressiveness) and the intellectual synergies that arose through the emancipatory reforms that created the culture-bearing social stratum of Bildungsbürger. This article sheds light on the role of the Jewish reform movement in German nineteenth-century culture and in particular its significance to the establishment of modern Kulturwissenschaft — the cultural and social sciences — after 1850. There is a wide body of literature on Jewish reform efforts, but the phenomenon is often portrayed as an internal process within the Jewish minority, with a focus on changes in liturgy and religious practice. More recent research on the epoch, however, emphasizes the affinity of Jewish reform with and its impact on general social development in Germany and Europe. In this context, I would like to mention in particular Simone Lässig’s inspiring work on the Jewish minority’s successful path from exclusion to the educated middle class.5

Filehne and similar towns in the province of Posen were the jumping-off point for many ascents up social and academic ladders. But one must understand that the young Jews who took the train to Berlin were not only leaving something behind. They also brought something important with them to the newspaper editorial offices and academic lecture halls of the big city. In premodern Europe, two confessionally defined traditions of learning had existed side by side since the Middle Ages, each with its specific institutions and forms of expression. The university system had evolved under the protection of the Church, and non-Christian believers were thus denied access to its lecture halls and libraries, where Latin was the lingua franca. The Jewish system of learning had its own network of small beth midrashes (houses of learning/study) and yeshivas (Talmudic schools) and had — despite the often far-reaching and inconsistent restrictions to which communities of the Jewish Diaspora were subjected in the Christian states — preserved an intense tradition of text interpretation and text processing, with Hebrew and Aramaic the languages of learning.

In the traditional   Jewish community, social status was connected to study and learning. These were studies pursued for their own sake, which had inherent value as a mitzvah, an ethical-religious decree or duty. It is the story of this special tradition of intellectualism and its social resonance that Moritz Lazarus, a scholar of societies and cultures, tells in his memoirs of his youth, which are an interesting correlate to Arno Herzberg’s slightly naïve and nostalgic depiction.6 Lazarus, born in Filehne in 1824, came to play an important role in the emergence of the modern cultural and social sciences in German-speaking Europe.7 He is in many ways characteristic of the generation of Jewish intellectuals born into the old world of Jewish learning, but who could, through the offices of social change, be “reborn” into the modern academy.

“Die Haushaltung war ausserordentlich charakteristisch”, he writes. Two older ladies, Lazarus’s paternal aunts Esther and Gitel (called Esterchen and Gitelchen), were the true sovereigns of the large household. They were also owners of the property and the family’s trading company. The elder of the two sisters managed the day-to-day business and dealt with customers, while the younger kept the books and managed the correspondence. And what did the men do? They studied.

Lazarus’s father Aaron was the Dayan, chairman of the town’s beth din, the rabbinical court, and a prominent Talmudist. As was customary, he brought his son into the tradition of learning when the boy was only six years old. Every weekday morning, the hours between six and eight were devoted to studies of the Talmud at home. After the boy’s bar mitzvah his studies were pursued in the beth midrash in Filehne, where Lazarus got to know many bocherim, wandering beggar students.

My occupation was as follows: every morning, except for Fridays and Saturdays, studies of the later rabbinic texts and codices and their commentators between five and seven o’clock (six and eight in the winter), together with my father and my uncle. Thereafter, until dinnertime, study of the Talmud, which was usually general once a week, otherwise strict. To be meaningful, these studies demanded all of these hours of attention. They had to be pursued with the utmost precision. Every aspect of the Talmud must be traced through all the centuries up to the most recent commentators. The strict study consisted of Talmudic law. Preparations for this began as afternoon or evening studies during my early years of study, under the guidance of another student of the Talmud. On Thursday evenings, we repeated the week’s lesson in the absence of the teacher; this was how it was usually done at all higher yeshivas. These Thursday evenings were often rather pleasant assemblies. During the breaks, we ate simple meals, or on occasion some delicacy, which were spiced with lively and entertaining conversation until the walls of the school echoed with laughter …8

In 1833, the Prussian government instituted compulsory German-speaking elementary schools for the Jewish population in the province of Posen. The primary task of this new school system (beyond imprinting the High German language) was to spread the educational canon of German idealism: Leibniz, Kant, Goethe, and Schiller. This centralized push towards cultural homogenization was not directed solely at the Jews. The goal was essentially the same as that which applied in the Protestant (German) and Catholic (Polish) elementary schools also found in Filehne — Hochdeutsch und Bildung. One can interject that schooling in High German was certainly just as important for Protestant children as for Jewish children, as the vernacular of the town was very dialectical and Low German, and perhaps just as far removed from the standard High German language as the Yiddish spoken by the Jews of Filehne.

In his memoirs, Lazarus implies that his youthful observations of the interplay among the three ethnic, linguistic, and religious affiliations practiced in Filehne became an important source of inspiration for his later work as a scholar of societies and cultures.9 What was it that created and maintained boundaries between different social collectives? What was a nation, actually? Or a religion?

At the age of sixteen,   after ten years of study, the young Lazarus had mastered the foundations of the Talmudic tradition. A career as a rabbi seemed foreordained, but the family could not afford further studies. Lazarus secured an apprenticeship in Posen, but continued his intensive independent study of the German classics. As a consequence of the secularization process in the first half of the 19th century, certain German universities had been opened to Jewish students. Lazarus’s goal now was admission to the University of Berlin, founded in 1810 by the linguist and educational reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt, which had through its modern research profile become an engine of intellectual life in Germany and a model for many European universities.

In 1844, at the age of twenty, Lazarus was able by means of philanthropic assistance to secure a place at the secondary school in Braunschweig. In his autobiographical notes, he implies that it was because of the extensive memory training entailed by his Talmudic studies that he was able to complete the secondary course in two years, thus opening his path to the University of Berlin.10 The times were characterized by feverish development in the field of human sciences. A variety of special disciplines were spun off from philosophy and history, such as psychology, art history, ethnology, and musicology. Lazarus, along with another Jewish Berlin academic, the linguist Heymann Steinthal (1823—1899), became the founder of a new discipline, but its subject was not any particular form of art or category of object, but rather human interaction itself.

“People are asked  by us who they are” On the nature of affiliation

The fundamental starting point was the simple question: How is society possible? They called their new research orientation Völkerpsychologie. In 1860, Lazarus was offered a professorship in his new discipline at the University of Berne, Switzerland, and from this seat of learning and through the journal Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaft, which he co-founded with Steinthal in 1859, he engaged in a discussion about cultural identity that is considered to have laid the foundation for the emergence of modern cultural and social sciences in German-speaking Europe.

The name that Lazarus and Steinthal chose for their discipline caused some misunderstandings and misinterpretations in the 20th century, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. The German word Volk sounds rather worrisomely Teutonic to our ears, but to Lazarus, it stood only for the collective aspect of cultural identity and is entirely liberated from the metaphysical notions associated with romantic rhetoric on the “soul of the people”. If one could speak of individual psychology, one should also be able to talk about the manifestations of psychological phenomena on the collective level, according to Lazarus and Steinthal. But it has been difficult to find apt translations of the term Völkerpsychologie. It has been called folk psychology, national psychology, anthropological psychology, and ethnic psychology. Social psychology is, however, probably the most adequate English equivalent.11

Alongside the general intellectual-historical background to Lazarus and Steinthal’s endeavors, there is also a political impetus. In the atmosphere of increasingly acute national agitation that characterized the decades after 1848 in Central Europe, there was a need to objectively respond to the essentialist zealots of purity who spoke of biologically determined common destinies. In a lecture entitled “Über das Verhältniß des Einzelnen zur Gesammtheit”, which Lazarus held in Berne in 1861, he develops his views on what we would today call the nature of ethnic affiliation:12

Spiritual or mental closeness or difference is independent of genetic kinship. The concept of a people is based on the interplay of spiritual and historical circumstances on the one hand, and nature-given conditions on the other, the intervention of the culture in nature. That which first and foremost constitutes a people is not certain objective characteristics, such as origins, language, etc., but rather the subjective beliefs among the individual members of the people, the individuals who together constitute a people. The concept of a people rests upon the subjective understandings of individual members about themselves, about their similarity, and affiliation. When we study plants and animals, it is the natural scientist who classifies and systematizes on the basis of objective, distinctive traits — people, on the other hand, are asked by us who they are, among which people they count themselves. [Menschen aber fragen wir, zu welchem Volke sie sich zählen.]
[…] One should not be surprised by the subjective nature to which we ascribe the concept of a people. The people is entirely a mental entity: it has no corporeal existence, even if it is not independent of material conditions. A people is a mental creation of the individuals that belong to it. They are not a people — they continuously create the people.

We see that Lazarus here comes very close to the fashionable concept in cultural anthropology regarded by many as an advance of the 1980s: the imagined community. His insight into the continuous creation of affiliation leads him to an interest in the media and forms of this creation and thus to a radically new understanding of the social relevance of the aesthetic phenomena.

Imagination into power The Jewish reform movement

One of the most interesting historic architectural sights in Berlin is the Neue Synagoge on Oranienburger Straße, consecrated in 1866. The domed frontage reconstructed in the 1990s is seen by many as an expression of a Jewish tradition rooted in the Middle East, but the building is actually entirely divorced from tradition. The eighteenth-century Alte Synagoge, which was located a few blocks away on Heidereutergasse, on the other hand, was a typical representative of the traditional European synagogue, a building in a very simple, classical style whose design did not in any way depart from the surrounding buildings.

The Neue Synagoge was the foremost architectonic expression of the Jewish reform movement in Berlin. In his design idiom, the architect, Eduard Knoblauch, makes a connection to the epoch in Jewish cultural history that those striving towards reform perceived as the Golden Age of Jewish culture in Europe: medieval Al-Andalus.13 The “rediscovery” and renewed appreciation of pluralistic Muslim rule in Spain is largely the result of research by Jewish philologists in the 19th century. In the early days, when Jewish intellectuals were allowed into the halls of academia, the “Oriental” languages — Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic — often became their field of research. They had the Hebrew and Aramaic from their Talmudic studies, while they acquired the closely related Arabic so that they could study and translate medieval Jewish philosophy (mainly Maimonides), much of which was written in that language. As Jews, they could not expect to gain academic positions, but Semitic philology was a good qualification in the competition for rabbinic positions (for which a PhD eventually became a requirement).

Scholar and rabbi Abraham Geiger (1810—1874) became a dominant figure in the field and also came to play a central role in the Jewish reform movement. Geiger was born in a traditional Jewish milieu in Frankfurt am Main, but after his studies at the University of Bonn in the 1830s, he got involved in the Jewish identity project.14 The emancipation process had torn down many social barriers, but had also problematized the formerly clearly demarcated Jewish identity. In the old, confessionally and strictly separated Europe it was certainly difficult to be a Jew, but it was not difficult to know who was a Jew. The difference between the Christian and Jewish collectives was fundamental to the system and was emphasized through segregating decrees and external signs. The emancipation was euphoric, but it also brought a kind of loss of identity, and the reform movement may be seen as a reaction to this perception of ethnic vagueness. As a rabbi in Breslau and later in Frankfurt am Main, Geiger created the paradigm for what would later be called liberal Judaism.

Through the long   centuries of confessional oppression, rigorous adherence to the national religious aspects of Judaism had been an understandable defense mechanism, without which the Jewish people would have been vanquished. The radically changed conditions brought by the Enlightenment and emancipation had, Geiger believed, fundamentally changed the circumstances.15 Jerusalem and the nation of Israel were historical phenomena, a kind of finished phase in the evolution of Jewish culture as ethnicity: in the present, their only significance was symbolic. In contrast, the ethical and intellectual core of the religious tradition was timeless and universal. The role of Judaism in contemporary social development was to make this cultural heritage available to modern nation-building processes. The identification with the idea of progress was fundamental. Some scholars hold that traditional Jewish messianism, faith in an age of delivery and liberation, was channeled into this secular identification with modernity. People had the sense that they were living in a time when anything was possible and when the unchained power of creativity had let Andalusia rise again along the Spree.

Geiger was installed as the rabbi of the Neue Synagoge in Berlin in 1869. Here he came to work with Moritz Lazarus, who had returned to Berlin, where as professor of philosophy at the Military Academy he instilled the classical German ideals of Bildung in the minds of future Prussian officers. Lazarus and Geiger had been interacting for a long time within the emerging reform movement, for instance in connection with a series of rabbinical synods convened in order to iron out considerable differences of opinion on the religious, political, and cultural issues of the day. Lazarus initiated the legendary Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, founded in 1872; Geiger wrote the curriculum. Wissenschaft des Judentums may be regarded as the scholarly or academic aspect of the Jewish reform movement. The philologist and rabbi Leopold Zunz (1794—1886) is regarded as one of its most prominent figures. The concept should be understood as “Jewish studies”, embracing every conceivable aspect of Jewish culture, but with no specific theoretical or methodological aim.16 The new college was a non-confessional institution. Its primary aim was not to educate rabbis and other Jewish officials, but to offer all comers (including non-Jews) advanced study in Jewish history, religion, linguistics, and philosophy. Many people were indeed interested and the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums became, despite its limited financial resources, an important address in the intellectual landscape of Berlin. Geiger, Lazarus, and Steinthal all taught at the institute.

The founding of the Hochschule must be seen in the context of nineteenth-century national strivings towards unity. Geiger and Lazarus considered the creation of a unified German state on liberal grounds a progressive project. In this sense, they were dedicated German nationalists. Lazarus’s professorship at the Prussian Military Academy is an eloquent example of this dedication. Doing away with the relics and privileges of feudalism and the emergence of a sound and secularized educated middle class were seen as unquestionable emancipatory advances. For these liberals, there was thus no conflict between intense cultivation of the Jewish tradition of learning and dedicated participation in German culture. They were shaped by the ideas of the liberal revolution of 1848, but the German unification of 1871 was, as is known, accomplished with blood and iron, not Kultur und Bildung. Populist, anti-Semitic propagandists saw their chances in the Wilhelmian empire, and the establishment of a Jewish institution, incorporated into the German academic system, was thus seen as an important marker.

As professors   and lecturers at the University of Berlin, Lazarus and Steinthal also taught several prominent students who would later make significant contributions in the social sciences and humanities. Perhaps the most important among them was Georg Simmel, who is considered one of the founders of German sociology. Through Simmel (whose parents had arrived a generation before at Schlesischer Bahnhof), the ideas of Lazarus and Steinthal were spread to other important thinkers, including Max Weber, Leopold von Wiese, Alfred Vierkandt, and Karl Mannheim. In his legendary lectures and essays, Simmel takes up and elaborates on many of the central arguments of Völkerpsychologie. In Simmel’s thinking, Lazarus’s concept of objektiver Geist, which referred to the legacy of symbols and beliefs inherited from foregoing generations to which every new member of society is inevitably socialized in the creation of his individual identity (subjektiver Geist), developed into Kultur,  that is, the broad, anthropological concept of culture. For Simmel, media and aesthetics became keys to understanding the social. In the process of gathering material for his thesis, Psychologische und ethnographische Studien über die Anfänge der Musik, Simmel was already engaged in ethnomusicological fieldwork in 1879, most likely inspired by Lazarus. Simmel had intended to defend this thesis for his doctoral degree, but as he had ventured into such an untried academic borderland, his professors became doubtful and rejected the work.17 Instead, his doctorate was conferred in 1881 for a thesis on Immanuel Kant’s understanding of the essence of matter. The ethnomusicological study was published the following year in Lazarus and Steinthal’s Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaft.18

Lazarus/Steinthal, and later Simmel, became well-known outside the German language sphere early on and their thinking influenced other scholars including the French sociologist Celestin Bouglé (1870—1940), who had studied in Berlin, and the American William Isaac Thomas (1863—1947) of the Chicago School. But the scholar who was informed most strongly by Völkerpsychologie was the founder of American cultural anthropology, Franz Boas (1858—1942), who grew up in a liberal Jewish home in Germany. In his paper “The History of Anthropology”, published in Science in 1904, Boas refers to “folk psychology” as his most important source of inspiration for linguistic-anthropological study, research that must include language as well as myths, religion, and aesthetics. Students of Boas who went on to become prominent scholars include Alfred Kroeber, Edward Sapir, and Ruth Benedict.19

Posen in Sweden

The small towns in the province of Posen, seemingly backwaters in an eastern border province, thus became a nineteenth-century intellectual reservoir that fed German modernization. A new cultural interface had arisen where the Jewish tradition of text interpretation could, in a way never before possible, interact with Enlightenment thinking and the new Bildung ideal in the spirit of von Humboldt. The result of this cross-pollination had, as we have seen, international reach. The lively communication via Schlesischer Bahnhof had a powerful influence on the emergence of Swedish modernity, for example. Jewish Göteborg of the 19th century, with the synagogue consecrated in 1855 as its foremost monument, stands out in cultural respects as something that can be most closely likened to a suburb of liberal Jewish Berlin. Several of the congregation’s leading figures in the latter half of the 19th century had roots in the province of Posen: the president of the congregation and patron of the arts Isaac Philip Valentin, the rabbi Moritz Wolff, and the cantor and musicologist Abraham Baer. Valentin came from Inowrocław in the vicinity of Bromberg, Wolff from Meseritz/Miedzyrzecz in the western part of the province, and Baer from what can be called, in this context, the emblematic town of Filehne. They maintained their connections with family and colleagues in their area of origin and acted as connecting links between the peripheral and provincial — from a European standpoint — Göteborg milieu and the seething intellectual landscape of Berlin and the surrounding countryside. Their roles as communicators of culture were not confined to the Jewish context. In Göteborg, they were heavily involved in the emerging cultural public sphere of the city and were part of the social circle of the publisher, politician, and advocate of popular education S. A. Hedlund. Moritz Wolff’s expertise and writings in religious studies became an important source of inspiration to the writer Viktor Rydberg’s politically important stances on the issue of religious freedom. This milieu was of vital importance to the development of Swedish cultural studies and social sciences because, at an early stage, it conveyed new insights into the social and political relevance of the aesthetic media. Its foremost describer (and virtual archetype), the literary scholar Karl Warburg, is considered one of the founders of modern Swedish literary studies.

One result of this Swedish-Jewish collaboration that received international attention was Cantor Abraham Baer’s remarkable book Baal t’fillah oder der practische Vorbeter (1877), a grandiose documentation of the traditional Jewish liturgy and its music based on Baer’s experiences as a wandering apprentice cantor in the province of Posen around 1850. The incentive for the book project was the intense debate in Göteborg in the 1850s and 1860s on the aesthetic form of the Reform Jewish service. The work, whose publication was ultimately made possible through Hedlund’s support, is a milestone in Jewish cultural history and is still used as a manual in the education of cantors in the US. While he was working on the book, his congregation sent Cantor Baer to Germany for further education, where he interacted with the circles around the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. As a surprisingly professional, for its time, documentation of the oral musical tradition of a world religion, Baer’s collection must also be regarded as a milestone in Swedish ethnomusicology.

While the texts of the Jewish service have been fixed in scripture for millennia, its musical format (melodies, recitatives, etc.) has long been a flexible and orally transmitted medium of communication that allowed the individual Vorbeter (the person leading the prayers) to put his personal stamp on liturgical song. Interest in this liturgical expression as Jewish music arose in the 19th century. Unlike his contemporary folkloristic and ethnological chroniclers, Baer rejects all too far-reaching conclusions about the ethnic symbolism of aesthetic expressions. His primary intent was not to parade the ancient, unique, and ethnically specific; he wanted to show what was actually used and how it was used. His interest is thus directed at the medium, at the communication itself and its mutable forms, in the spirit of Lazarus, Steinthal, and Simmel.20 ≈


  1. Arno Herzberg, “The Story of Filehne: A Memoir”, in Yearbook XLII (1997), Leo Baeck Institute, pp. 327—336.
  2. Herzberg, op. cit., p. 328.
  3. Herzberg, op. cit., p. 332.
  4. Herzberg, op. cit., p. 337.
  5. Simone Lässig, Jüdische Wege ins Bürgertum: Kulturelles Kapital und sozialer Aufstieg im 19. Jahrhundert, Göttingen 2004.
  6. Moritz Lazarus, Aus meiner Jugend: Autobiographie von M. Lazarus, Frankfurt 1913.
  7. Klaus Christian Köhnke has written about this in an interesting and clarifying way in the preface to his new edition of some of Lazarus’s central texts (Moritz Lazarus, Grundzüge der Völkerpsychologie und Kulturwissenschaft, Klaus Christian Köhnke (ed.), Hamburg 2003).
  8. Lazarus, op. cit., 1913, p. 41
  9. Lazarus, op. cit., 1913, p. 32.
  10. Lazarus, op. cit., 1913, p. 80.
  11. See Egbert Klautke, “The Mind of the Nation: The debate about Völkerpsychologie, 1851—1900”, in Central Europe, vol. 8:1 (2010), pp. 1—19.
  12. Lazarus, Grundzüge… pp. 88—89.
  13. Harold Hammer–Schenk, “Baugeschichte und Architektur der Neuen Synagoge”, in “Tuet auf die Pforten”: Die Neue Synagogoge 1866—1995. Hermann Simon and Jochen Boberg, Berlin 1995.
  14. A detailed glimpse into Geiger’s life and works is provided in the anthology published by his son Ludwig Geiger, Abraham Geiger: Leben und Lebenswerk, Berlin 1910.
  15. Abraham Geiger, Das Judenthum und seine Geschichte: in vier-unddreissig Vorlesungen. Unveränderter Abdruck der ersten Ausgabe, Breslau 1910. See also Abraham Geigers nachgelassene Schriften, Vols. 1—5, Ludwig Geiger (ed.), Berlin 1875—1878.
  16. See also, for example, Moritz Lazarus, Was heisst und zu welchem Ende studiert man jüdische Geschichte: Populärwissenschaftliche Vorträge über Juden und Judentum 1, Leipzig 1900.
  17. This is according to Köhnke’s “Editorischer Bericht” in Georg Simmel Gesamtausgabe, pp. 447—452.
  18. Georg Simmel, “Psychologische und ethnologische Studien über Musik”, in Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaft, Lazarus and H. Steinthal (eds.) , vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 261—305, Berlin 1882.
  19. Klautke, op. cit., pp. 10—11.
  20. The founder of Swedish ethnomusicology, the composer, director, and public educationist Karl Valentin (son of Isaac Philip Valentin) also works in this spirit. His thesis of 1885 on Swedish folk melodies is the pioneering work of Swedish musical ethnology.
  • Leslie Leipziger

    Interesting information. I found this article while research a family tree. The person I was looking for was a Rabbi in the latter part of the 1800s (in Poland?). He was fanatical and probably had problems with the charges occurring at the time. Thanks.

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