Rezension über:

Jutta Braden / Rotraud Ries (Hgg.): Juden - Christen - Juden-Christen. Konversionen in der Frühen Neuzeit (= Aschkenas. Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Kultur der Juden. Beiheft; Heft 2), Tübingen: Niemeyer 2006, IV + 348 S., ISBN 978-3-484-98533-9
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Rezension von:
Elisheva Carlebach
Department of History, Queens College, Flushing
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Stephan Laux
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Elisheva Carlebach: Rezension von: Jutta Braden / Rotraud Ries (Hgg.): Juden - Christen - Juden-Christen. Konversionen in der Frühen Neuzeit, Tübingen: Niemeyer 2006, in: sehepunkte 7 (2007), Nr. 2 [15.02.2007], URL:

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Jutta Braden / Rotraud Ries (Hgg.): Juden - Christen - Juden-Christen

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In his moving and incisive memoir "Five Germanys I Have Known" [1], the eminent historian of Germany, Fritz Stern, makes two observations that are germane to the issue of Aschkenas under review. The first: "Conversion to Christianity appears at the beginning of the modern phase of German Jewry and remained a theme in German Jewish life to the very end." (20) The second observation concerned his two sets of grandparents: "The converted Sterns were more conscious of their Jewishness than the unconverted Briegers." (23). These statements encapsulate two truths about converts from Judaism in German lands: that they played a central rather than a marginal role in the history of German Jewry, and that far from erasing prior Jewish identity, baptism often intensified it in new and curious ways.

A cluster of articles in this issue of the periodical Aschkenas, devoted to the history of Jews in German lands, centers on the theme of conversion between Judaism and Christianity in the early modern period. The volume opens with an overview by Jörg Deventer, who traces the development of the study of converts and conversion from the realm of theology, where it was once firmly ensconced, to that of history and sociology. Conversion is now studied as a form of cultural interaction, superceding the older religious conceptions. [2] In the more recent scholarship, factors such as class and gender replace the role formerly played by inner religious conviction. By using these categories of analysis we learn how conversion often stems from a complex combination of personal and historical forces rather than simply religious motives. The work presented in this volume contributes to several fields. Deventer sees the studies here providing new research into confessional identity formation; into social historical, historical, anthropological, and cultural history, as well as to discussion of self fashioning (autobiography), gender, family, emotion, and the history of the body.

Rotraud Ries continues along the path opened by Deventer with a rich and multi-faceted analysis of the role of converts and conversion in historiography. Recent scholarship has come to value the periphery along with the center, the frontiers along with the long settled spaces, privileging the borders, the margins, the liminal. That is where the lines are drawn, the friction between shifting plates occasionally erupts, it is the site of movement rather than stasis. No group had been so marginalized from the historiography of Jewish and Christian Europe as the converts. Historians tended to take note only of those whose literary output contained vitriolic anti-Judaism, contributing to the store of Christian anti Jewish polemic negative arguments and images.

Cilli Kasper-Holtkotte provides a richly detailed and painstakingly documented case study in which all the human and social trauma of a single conversion are illuminated. Moses Goldschmidt was 26, married and had two children when he converted in 1646. Because of his prominence, his conversion aroused interest in the clergy of Frankfurt, but also in the city because of his upper social class. Kasper-Holtkotte asks about the consequences of his conversion for his personal interests, for his family and for the Jewish community. Her article is a model of how a social history of conversion can be written based on archival records. She details the difficult struggle over property and child custody between converted husband (and the magistrate) and Jewish wife (and her family and community). By teasing out the network of family and community affected by this single conversion, Kasper-Holtkotte provides eloquent evidence that no conversion in small Jewish communities could have remained marginal. Conversions often affected a wide circle of people, directly or indirectly. It also proved to be a source of conflict between Jews and the local authorities where no tension existed earlier.

Unlike Casper-Holtkotte, Christine Schmidt's portrait of a conversion is drawn from the memoir of convert Paul Georg (1745-1826). Her analysis of this rich literary text leaves us with many questions, and in some cases, they cannot be answered. While historians can only work with the materials that survive, the literary text that depicts Georg as a model convert and follows a rather predictable course should be treated with more skepticism. In both articles, the predicament of the wife could be more fully explained: if the woman refused to follow her husband to Christianity, and he did not provide her with a Jewish divorce, she remained bound to him by Jewish law and could not marry another man. The courts almost always granted custody of children to the converting parent. Thus many women would have held on to their Jewish identity only at the gravest expense, leaving them bereft of husband and children. Georg's wife wrote him an impassioned plea to remain in Judaism and at first she refused to follow his example. Only after several years did she acquiesce. They then lived for many years in peace and prosperity in Vreden as model Christians, raising two sons to become Franciscan monks.

Maria Diemling studies conversion from the perspective of the history of perceptions of the body. Jews had been described in medieval polemic as dark and ugly, and many internalized the sense that gentiles looked different from them. How do these perceptions alter with the conversion of a Jew? If Jews were members of an impure race, what is the status of converts? (On the notion of Jewish impurity, see Kenneth Stow's recent book, Jewish Dogs [3]). Diemling raises fascinating questions that historians have just begun to study, questions that touch on the difference between religious anti-Judaism and racial antisemitism.

Wolfgang Treue writes the only article in the volume devoted to conversion in the reverse direction, from Christianity to Judaism. Treue uncovers some of the difficulties involved in conversion from a majority religion to that of a despised minority. In some cases, Christians who publicized a desire to convert were regarded as insane; the recommended treatment for the condition was involuntary hospitalization with daily megadoses of religious persuasion. This was a far kinder diagnosis than the criminal charge of blasphemy which, certainly through the sixteenth century, would have resulted in a death sentence. Treue notes that in many such cases, the desire to convert does not result so much from much contact with Jews or knowledge of Judaism but from the desire to separate from Christian society and its values. Jews often had great difficulty accepting the converts. They were suspicious of their motives, mocked their ignorance of Judaism, and were gravely endangered by accepting these 'blasphemers.' It is no surprise that with the exception of Amsterdam as a haven for such converts, most conversions of German Christians to Judaism occurred far from the hometown of the convert, most likely in the Islamic world.

Finally, a word about another article in this volume that does not fall under the main theme, but is somewhat related to it: Daniel Jütte has contributed a detailed study of the life and contacts of an Italian Jew, Abramo Colorni, who became court alchemist in the court of Herzog Friedrich I in late sixteenth century Württemberg. Jütte's study shows the multi-faceted nature of this position, a combination of engineer of scientific projects, finance minister, and court diplomat. His characterization of the many roles played by Colorni meshes nicely with recent work into the true functions of "court alchemists." [4] This position entailed far more than we might think at first. The alchemist's role was to help the state move towards technological, financial and political pre-eminence. The conversions they were expected to perform exceeded that of mere chemical change. In illuminating the difference between the reality and expectation bound up in conversions of all kinds, this volume's detailed explorations of aspects of conversion have made a notable contribution.


[1] New York 2006.

[2] Deventer credits the volume edited by Kenneth Mills and Anthony Grafton, Conversion: Old Worlds and New (Rochester 2003) for notable formulations of this change.

[3] Kenneth Stow: Jewish Dogs: An Image and its Interpreters. Continuity in the Catholic Jewish Encounter, Stanford 2006.

[4] An excellent recent example is Pamela H. Smith: The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire, 1994.

Elisheva Carlebach