When a civilization nearly two millennia in the building comes to an end, common decency requires that the world take note of its passing. For if ordinary people, born only to die in much less than a century, deserve a proper burial, what obsequies arc owing to a way of forming society and living life that took 20 centuries to shape but only a dozen years utterly to wipe out? In this elegant account, Ruth Gay has given the English language a worthy candidate for the epitaph for German Jewry—a great and beautiful book in words and pictures. Here closes a 2,000-year-old chapter of Western civilization, concluded in our own time.
Mrs. Gay’s wit and wisdom, taste and judgment, have produced a volume rich in insight and beauty, and the only appropriate praise can be that her book is worthy of its subject and of the task she has taken for herself. What is at stake in her perspective comes to expression in Peter Gay’s introduction: “To reduce German Jewish history to an unrelieved sequence of outrages is to slight the times of tranquility and the reality of Jewish achievement.” From the beginnings of Jewish settlement in the Rhine, in Roman times, to the first Crusade, a period of 700 years, Jews in the German lands enjoyed a normal and ordinary life, within the context of normality that then prevailed. It was only with the mass killings at the time of the plague of 1348- 1349, when Jews were blamed for the black death and whole communities were wiped out, that large numbers of German Jews fled to the tolerant pioneering territories of the East—Poland, for example. Mrs. Gay notes, “There were only nine Jewish settlements in Poland at the end of the 14th century; in the next century, 50 more were established. . . . German Jews were the dominant clement and formed the basis of Jewish life in Eastern Europe for the next five centuries.” Even from the Crusades through the black death and on to the theological anti-Semitism of Luther and the ideological anti-Semitism of Hitler, as Peter Cay notes, “Jews managed to build a sturdy culture in their German settlements, partly independent of their gentile neighbors, partly intertwined with them. Jewish learning, however isolated; Jewish prosperity, however precarious; Jewish public service, however limited; even Jewish participation in the wider society, all claim our attention. After all, even the language they developed—Yiddish—wrongly despised as a mere dialect and ridiculed as a debased version of German, was a remarkable venture in adaptation in its own right, with an impressive literature to its credit.”
It is to that long and deeply human history of ordinary people living commonplace lives that Mrs. Gay devotes most of her pictures and gentle, factual narratives. With words, maps, but—especially—with illustrations of all kinds, she works her way through the long story, covering such topics as the origins and institutions of Jewish life; German Jewish history from the Middle Ages to the Court Jews; the return to history; the struggle for emancipation; the 50-year empire; and the end. What is fresh in her account is the balance—seven chapters of approximately equal length. Other books on the same subject, like holocaust museums bound between covers, set forth a perfunctory survey of everything down to the National Socialists, with attention given mostly to the rehearsal of the tragic denouement. Mrs. Gay defies the obsession with the holocaust that has captured American Jewish consciousness, insisting on the contrary that everything must be seen in perspective and with a certain balance. A great life that ends with cancer is not rightly captured by a brief resume listing the deceased’s jobs, followed by a day-today detailed reproduction of the doctor’s medical records complete with blood counts and urine samples; Mrs. Gay dwells on each segment in a long history, according to them all proper appreciation.
Her chapters follow a simple pattern: narrative introduction interspersed with extensive illustrations, themselves fully explained; the book makes its impact both verbally and visually. Mrs. Gay not only narrates public and political history, but portrays the private and inner life of the people, their devotion to God, and their shaping of every day in response to the Torah. What happened in the world beyond takes place as if on a distant planet; the views of Israel at home remind us of the purpose of its shared, enduring community. Mrs. Gay’s touch is so sure that anyone who wants to know what it has meant, and now means, to live the Judaic life will find here, in words and in pictures, as authentic an account of Judaism as a living religion as today exists in print. Theology, philosophy, learning, and mysticism—these take their rightful place in the narrative, alongside massacre, repression, and, ultimately, extermination. The final chapter—mercifully, if unstylishly, brief—is all the more depressing because by then we know the people. In these pages the holocaust happened to real people, whom Mrs. Gay has made us esteem: “When the counting stopped, it was clear that 170,000 German Jews had been killed in the camps. Sixteen hundred years of German Jewish history were over.”
[The Jews of Germany: A Historical Portrait, by Ruth Gay (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) 336 pp., $35.00]