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Confronting Misconceptions about Anti-Semitism in the 19th Century

In a recent talk, Jonathan Hess, professor of Jewish History and Culture at UNC-Chapel Hill, sought to disprove the idea that Jews were portrayed in an entirely negative light in the nineteenth century. Though German intellectuals like Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner promoted anti-Semitism, there developed simultaneously a “nexus between theatricality and Jewishness” within German popular culture that led to a “celebration of Jewishness.” For Hess, this celebration came through the popularity of plays that forced audiences to sympathize with Jewish suffering, which Nietzsche had argued was impossible.
Hess’ talk is rooted in the arguments of his forthcoming book, Deborah and Her Sisters: How One Nineteenth Century Melodrama and a Host of Celebrated Actresses Put Judaism on the World Stage. Deborah was a play that premiered in Germany in 1849 and was the most popular German drama in the late 19th century despite being widely panned by critics for its nonsensical plot structure. Deborah’s story was so “malleable” that it became widely disseminated across the world, including the United States, where it made an impact in New York City especially.
In brief, the play is about forbidden love. A Christian man falls in love with a “Jewess,” but due to familial pressure chooses to marry a Christian woman instead. Deborah puts a curse on the man and the town, but returns five years later to see that it had no effect.
But what she does discover is that the town is much more tolerant of Jews than it had been previously. And perhaps most telling of all, the Christian man and woman had named their one daughter “Deborah.” The play ends with Deborah meeting her namesake, and then leaving the town for good, either to die or to set sail for America depending on the version of the play.
The emotional effects of Deborah were so tremendous that they forced people to identify with Jewish suffering. According to Hess, the play had become the “litmus test for liberal humanism” at a time when anti-Semitic thoughts were rising in Germany. The theater had thus become a unique place where Jews and non-Jews alike could go to identify with Jewish suffering. This might explain, in part, why those such as Wagner wanted Jews to be banned from theater, as it was one of the few venues where they were portrayed in a positive light.
But Hess makes it clear that he does not believe that Deborah was ever intended to be an “inherently political performance.” Its significance lies in how it created a “shared space of compassion” for Jews, which nineteenth-century German anti-Semites claimed was impossible.
But that is not to say that plays like Deborah had a lasting political influence. Hess says that, though the play caused people to sympathize with Jewish suffering, it also led to a sense of “smugness and complacency” that led people to believe they were helping to combat anti-Semitism by merely attending the play, when in reality little progress was being made in regard to the political or social status of Jews in Germany.
In the end, Hess’ talk, and the book it is based on, are about exploring how popular culture can contrast with the opinions of intellectuals. While elites like Nietzsche and Wagner might espouse a particular worldview, it may, in reality, be far from what was actually believed or experienced by the general public.
Hess’ book, Deborah and Her Sisters: How One Nineteenth Century Melodrama and a Host of Celebrated Actresses Put Judaism on the World Stage, will be released on November 8th, 2017.
–Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History

This page was last updated: April 24, 2017



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