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Emil Fackenheim on His Jewish Education in the 1920s (Retrospective Account)

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I once wrote an essay, as a Pesach gift for my father, in which God „considered the End.“ Even then I was moved less by my father’s piety than by its simplicity: he knew enough Hebrew to read the prayers, but not enough to understand them. What impressed me permanently was this: what treasures they contain, for one who understands.

My mother’s piety was different. Cantor Kaufmann’s devoutness would reach a climax, during Shabbat-eve services, when he recited the Hashkivenu. [ . . . ] This was my mother’s favorite prayer, or so I always assumed. I put it this way, because she communicated this much of her piety, but not much more. Hers was not a simple faith. Women did not attend university in her time, but she would have fit naturally in any philosophy or literature seminar. [ . . . ] My mother wrestled with Judaism, with Germany, with modernity, with all these things in light of the Great War. My father had a copy of Kant’s first Critique (which I have inherited), but there was never any doubt she was the thinker in the family. My mother’s books [ . . . ] are carefully inscribed. The earliest is Schopenhauer’s Aphorisms on Wisdom for Living, dated November 29, 1917. Next is Schopenhauer’s On the Vanity of Existence, dated December 1, 1917. Thereafter is Schopenhauer’s magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation, dated December 16, 1917. That permanently depressed and depressing philosopher must have struck a chord with her, and she herself must have been depressed; no wonder. Her father had died young, her sole sibling, Willy, was killed in the war, and, with my father presumably at the front, she must have bought the Schopenhauer—which was unsigned by a donor—herself. During that time, she was, except for the inevitable maid, alone with Alexander, aged five, and me, aged one and a half, and pregnant with Wolfgang. The Nietzsche set, dated September 30, 1920 (her birthday), was a present from my father, and the Rosenzweig volume was probably acquired on a visit to Kassel. But the Spengler work tells the most revealing story. Volume one, bought for Easter 1920, looks read and reread so much she had to have it rebound. Volume two, acquired in June 1922, in contrast, looks hardly read at all. In 1920 there was still political unrest. But by 1923 Stresemann was almost in power, peace seemed assured: perhaps the West was not “in decline” after all. Not to mention that my father was back at his profession—which he had always loved—and, with Alexander ten years old, myself six, and Wolfgang four, we were a happy family.

Source: Emil L. Fackenheim, An Epitaph for German Judaism, From Halle to Jerusalem. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007, pp. 13-14, 18-19.

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