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A Jewish Child’s Memories of his Family’s "Conversion" from Orthodox to Reform Practices (1880s)

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German custom. The Reform parish was small, but it was comprised almost exclusively of members of the upper class, rich and educated businessmen, physicians, lawyers, and scholars from all disciplines. The parish had to remain small by necessity, and I really ask myself how it actually managed to last for a century, before it became pointless in the Third Reich and collapsed. After all, it lacked a younger generation, because the members’ children quite often married Christians or converted to Christianity themselves. So it goes without saying that “Reform” looked like a community of heretics to all orthodox Jews. In truth, the rift between liberal Jews and orthodox secessionists was greater than that between Protestants and Catholics. Officially, and in issues of administration, “Reform” may have been an independent annex of the “Greater Jewish Community” of Berlin. Actually, though, it was a completely isolated entity, viewed by other Jews with indifference at best. In the general Jewish cemetery in the northern suburb of Weißensee, there is an honorary row reserved for the graves of clergymen: “Reform” preachers were not admitted. And had they wished to leave their office during their lifetime, they would never have found a different pulpit.

So it was this religious community, with the purely German form of worship, to which father had applied for the position of assistant preacher. If he got it, it would mean relief from all the distress, pure bliss – at least back then he could not know that it would not quite be pure bliss; if he did not get it, he would be ostracized and forced to carve out a livelihood somewhere else. But at the time he was already over 50 years old, he was suited to no job other than the one he had, and he was responsible for five children who were not otherwise provided for. All his life, my father seemed to me to have been a vacillating, often overly opportunistic character. Today I realize how, at a crucial moment, he courageously put his bourgeois existence on the line for the sake of his ideal. Despite my little bit of Flanders, I have nothing comparable to show for in my own life. In 1933, I swore the oath of allegiance to Hitler’s government, using sophistry to calm my clairvoyant conscience; I clung to my university position, which had meanwhile become so debased, until they threw me out – so who am I to sit in judgment of my father’s breakfast on Yom Kippur?

He was, as I have already mentioned, a strapping man, a magnificent pulpit preacher, particularly for an educated audience. He was rich – if not in his own thoughts, then in the virtue of being extraordinarily well read and applying it tastefully; the word flowed effortlessly from his lips; his voice carried far and was supple and complete. And so he was hired and telegraphed his “thank God” from the depths of his heart.

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