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Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance
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Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance

by Michael Goldfarb, Kyoko Watanabe (Designed by)

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For almost 500 years the Jews of Europe were kept apart, confined to ghettos or tiny villages in the countryside. Then, in one extraordinary moment in the French Revolution, the Jews of France were emancipated. Soon the ghetto gates were opened all over Europe. The era of Emancipation had begun. What happened next would change the course of history.


For almost 500 years the Jews of Europe were kept apart, confined to ghettos or tiny villages in the countryside. Then, in one extraordinary moment in the French Revolution, the Jews of France were emancipated. Soon the ghetto gates were opened all over Europe. The era of Emancipation had begun. What happened next would change the course of history.

Emancipation tells the story of how this isolated minority emerged from the ghetto and against terrible odds very quickly established themselves as shapers of history, as writers, revolutionaries, social thinkers, and artists. Their struggle to create a place for themselves in Western European life led to revolutions and nothing less than a second renaissance in Western culture.

The book spans the era from the French Revolution to the beginning of the twentieth century. The story is told through the lives of the people who lived through this momentous change. Some are well-known: Marx, Freud, Mahler, Proust, and Einstein; many more have been forgotten. Michael Goldfarb brings them all to life.

This is an epic story, and Goldfarb tells it with the skill and eye for detail of a novelist. He brings the empathy and understanding that has marked his two decades as a reporter in public radio to making the characters come alive. It is a tale full of hope, struggle, triumph, and, waiting at the end, a great tragedy.

This is a book that will have meaning for anyone interested in the struggle of immigrants and minorities to succeed. We live in a world where vast numbers are on the move, where religions and races are grinding against each other in new combinations; Emancipation is a book of history for our time.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is a fascinating book that describes how the French Revolution and then Napoleon's military excursions throughout Europe brought about the liberation of Jews from the segregated ghettos that had constrained them for half a millennium. Ironically, the ghetto experience enabled the Jews to play a dramatic role in a changing European economy as the power of land ownership diminished and money and trade began to rule and was echoed by the American immigrant experience and the push for assimilation and identity. But hatred of the Jews led Theodor Herzl, among others, to conclude that only a Jewish state could provide for the security of the Jews. In today's environment, this is a must-read." — MORT ZUCKERMAN

"The experience of the Jewish people has been so darkened by horror for them and shame for humanity that the brighter chapters and themes of their story are sometimes eclipsed. In this book, Michael Goldfarb offers a corrective that is brilliant, concise, and vigorously argued, while at the same time suffused with one of history's cruelest ironies: the Jews were beneficiaries of — and contributors to — the Age of Reason in the 18th and 19th centuries only to become the principal victims of genocidal madness in the 20th." — STROBE TALBOTT, author of The Great Experiment

"In Emancipation, Michael Goldfarb offers a well-researched and beautifully written masterwork that reveals the liberating impact that the French Revolution and Napoleon's forces had on the Jews of Europe. Once the legal barriers that had confined them were torn down, ossified, isolated communities became laboratories of human creativity, brimming with knowledge and learning. No longer disconnected from the wider world, Jews were able to make extraordinary contributions in the realms of science, ideology, culture, philosophy, education, and more. In turn, the Jewish religion was itself transformed, creating new branches that quickly intertwined with mainstream societies and social movements. At a time when global xenophobia is too much with us, it is rewarding and even nourishing to read about how the closed doors of divisiveness can be opened wide, even when the key turns out to be held in unexpected hands." — VARTAN GREGORIAN, President, Carnegie Corporation of New York

"One of those marvelous books that not only illuminates an important chain of historical events, but provides timeless — and especially timely — lessons for our own age." — The Washington Times

"Masterful." — St. Louis Post Dispatch

Publishers Weekly
French Jews gained full citizenship during the Revolution, and as Napoleon conquered territories across Europe, ghetto gates were thrown open and Jewish emancipation became an unstoppable force, writes NPR correspondent Goldfarb. Emancipation set off an explosion of Jewish achievement, and Jews played an increasingly important if still conflicted role in Europe. For instance, Heinrich Heine, who converted to Christianity in 1825 to further a law career, worked out his Jewish identity crisis through poems that mirrored the national identity crisis of his young German contemporaries. When Damascus Jews were tortured during an 1840 blood libel, the Rothschilds successfully interceded, involving the British Parliament and forcing a French prime minister to resign. The forced baptism and abduction of the Bolognese Jewish child Edgardo Mortara helped catalyze the movement for Italian unity, while the Dreyfus affair ultimately led to the creation of Israel. Goldfarb's history of European Jewish persecution and assimilation (after Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace) is lively and perceptive, but also becomes unfocused and uneven, biting off more than it can chew as he tries to fathom the meaning of emancipation, its causes and its price. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Goldfarb (Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace) has written a compelling history of one of the most important social and cultural phenomena of modern times: the emancipation of the Jews from the ghettos of Europe and their subsequent rise to influence in a variety of contexts, including commerce, banking, industry, government, the arts—and the art of revolution. Stating that his book is an act of familial piety as well as a history, he argues that the Jewish emancipation following the French Revolution released a burst of energy and creative tension that helped impel Europe toward modernity. Goldfarb narrates the odyssey of the signal figures in this critical progression from 1789 to roughly 1920, organizing his text around a series of Jews from the precursor philosopher Spinoza to such prophets of modernity as Marx, Freud, Bergson, and Proust, whose mother was a Jew. He writes well, and his judgments are on the mark throughout. VERDICT Good, popular history, this timely look at an important topic should appeal to the lay reader who is interested in how we got where we are today.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
Kirkus Reviews
Longtime London-based journalist Goldfarb presents a wide-ranging survey of Jewish self-empowerment since the French Revolution. After their dispersion with the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, the Jews migrated across the globe, enduring enforced isolation and marginalization in the lands they inhabited. As a result, they kept their religion, dress and mores largely intact, and often did not speak the language of the host country. Goldfarb looks at the leap in Jewish assimilation and integration since the Jews were awarded "active" citizenship at the time of French Revolution. Under Napoleon, who further effected emancipation as his army made its way into Prussia, Poland and Russia, the Jews were nonetheless subjected to a series of "infamous decrees" that imposed religious restrictions, fees and even rules about choosing names. While traditionally Jews were relegated to trades of tinkering and money lending-they were also barred from owning property and entering academia-they were now allowed into fields such as medicine and the arts. Some became influential in defining a new Jewish identity, as evinced by the "Jewish salon" flourishing in Berlin in the 1790s. Goldfarb offers mini-biographies of many of the significant figures of the 18th and 19th centuries-including Moses Mendelssohn, Heinrich Heine, Gabriel Riesser, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud-most of whom were writing in the face of fierce anti-Semitism breaking out in Germany, Russia and elsewhere. Some, like Moses Hess, became convinced that Jews could never safely live among Europeans, and Zionism took root. Goldfarb concludes with a consideration of the ramifications of growing anti-Semitism and theDreyfus Affair. A simple, accessible popular history. Agent: Kathleen Anderson/Anderson Literary Management

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
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6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

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For almost half a millennium, starting in the time of the Black Death, the Jews of Europe lived in enforced segregation. They were sequestered in rural hamlets or locked away at night in restricted areas of towns and cities. The laws applying to them were as varied as the number of states on the continent. One of the last places to segregate its Jews was Venice. In 1516, the city-state's government ordered the seven hundred or so Jews residing there to live in a quarter locally known as the ghèto. Current scholarship generally agrees ghèto is a corruption of the Italian word for foundry. There had been a number of ironworks on the site. Ghetto quickly became a generic term for a place of segregation.

As centuries passed the isolation deepened. Then, in one remarkable act during the French Revolution, the Jews of France were given full citizenship. They were "emancipated." The ghetto gates were opened.

For the next century, as modern nation-states were created around the continent, the question of what to do with the Jews became intimately tangled up in the birth of each new state. Just as the question of race has had to be reanswered in each phase of America's development, the Jewish Question had to be asked and answered at each stage of European development.

It was not a smooth process. Rights were given, then taken away.But from that first action in France, Jewish Emancipation became an unstoppable force.

Something quite remarkable happened once the ghetto gates were thrown open. During the centuries of segregation Jewish community life had developed a separate existence to the surrounding society. There were points of contact in commerce and trade but the Jewish community had turned in on itself. Customs, clothes, almost all aspects of life were different inside the ghetto. Yet now, within a few short decades Jews were not only integrating but playing an increasingly important role in the life of Europe.

The transformation was startling to those who lived through it. In the early nineteenth century, Isaac D'Israeli, whose family had been expelled from Spain, lived for centuries in Venice, and then wandered north to England via the Netherlands, noted that prior to Emancipation he could count all the "Jewish men of genius or talent on his fingers...The previous ten centuries have not produced ten great men." But now everything was changing fast. His son, Benjamin, would become one of the great men of this new era, first as a popular novelist, then as British prime minister.

The events remain extraordinary to look back on. As he approached his ninetieth birthday, the historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose Austrian Jewish family lived the Emancipation story, wrote, "After many centuries during which the intellectual and cultural history of the world...could be written with little reference to the contribution of any Jews, we almost immediately enter the modern era where Jewish names are disproportionately represented."

This rapid transformation came at a heavy price. Equal rights rocked the foundations of Jewish religious practice and Jewish community life. Salo W. Baron, who was born at the end of the Emancipation era in Galicia, the easternmost extent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and who spent the bulk of his life writing and teaching Jewish history at Columbia University, compared "the internal crisis in Jewish life generated by the new equality with the crisis of the First Exile." He meant the first Babylonian exile, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the city's inhabitants were marched to Babylon to hang up their harps by the riverside, sit down, and weep. The Emancipation era was an equally shattering dislocation.

In writing this book I wanted to answer two simple questions: Why? Why was there this enormous explosion of Jewish achievement, particularly in the areas of culture and intellectual life? And, what price? What was the price paid by the Jewish community and European society for the process of integrating?

These two questions had been at the back of my mind for a long time and I occasionally did some reading to look for answers. But the decision to write a book about them came out of my work as a journalist. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, I found myself reporting on radical Islam. My ears filled with the complaints of angry Muslims everywhere from Cairo to Tehran to just outside my front door in London. A year before the London bombings of 2005 I did an hour-long radio documentary on British jihadis. One of the young Muslims I interviewed was involved in a grassroots organization that held regular meetings in London's East End, once a ghetto for Jewish immigrants, now a neighborhood of Muslim immigrants mostly from Bangladesh. At these forums we debated what it meant to be a Muslim in Britain. A panel of prominent Muslims and white Britons would discuss the issues of identity and religious faith, then take questions from the floor. Almost all the queries elided into one great question: To whom did a Muslim owe first allegiance — his country or his faith? Especially when that faith posits the idea of a single nation of the Muslims.

Over and over I heard younger members of the community, most of them born in Britain, pledging allegiance to the idea of the Muslim state. Many had come to Islam in late adolescence and early adulthood. Their experience of integration and assimilation had been disappointing. Their response had been to embrace the more radical interpretation of their religion. They were Muslims first and last, and to prove they were not of the society into which they had been born, they began to make themselves outwardly different. The young men grew beards and put on traditional dress and skullcaps; the young women voluntarily wore the veil and segregated themselves from the men.

This was not unique to London's East End. It was happening in Amsterdam, Paris, and Hamburg. When the French government began to make a fuss about Muslim girls wearing the hijab to school, I knew that the laws and traditions they invoked could be traced back to statutes passed in the early days of Emancipation to hasten Jewish integration into French society. When the Dutch government passed laws giving it the right to license imams who had to prove their fluency in Dutch, it was merely dusting off a law passed by Napoleon in 1808 and applied to French rabbis, many of whom, having lived their entire lives in the ghetto, spoke virtually no French.

I realized then that it was worth going through the agony of writing a book that answered the questions "why" and "what price" because the story of Jewish Emancipation had relevance today outside the Jewish community, and not just for the developed world's immigrant Muslim communities but for other racial and ethnic minority groups in this second age of mass immigration. The story of Jewish Emancipation is not just about a religious minority's struggles to integrate, it is about a group regarded as an ethnic and racial minority fighting for its place in society.

When, early in the presidential primary campaign of 2008, some African-Americans questioned whether candidate Barack Obama was authentically black, they were raising a question that Jews raised about themselves throughout the Emancipation period (and continue to think about). Ghetto oppression had completely defined the community, so now, in an integrated world, who was authentically Jewish?

As I began researching this book, I found additional motivation for writing it. The Holocaust hangs across Jewish history like an iron curtain. It sometimes seems that the story of the Jewish community leaps from the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and the beginnings of the Diaspora to Kristallnacht, with only a few incidents, such as the expulsion from Spain and the mass immigration of our grandparents and great-grandparents to America, in between.

That's because the black weight of the Holocaust cut the connection to the era of Emancipation. The whole world knows the names of Marx, Freud, and Einstein but very few people have an understanding of how the process of leaving the ghetto behind shaped them.

The Holocaust also erased the memory of a great many fascinating figures who did not achieve the fame of that trio but whose lives and works were significant in their time and should be remembered now. This is particularly true of those who wrote in German. One of the main tasks I set myself was to rescue these forgotten people. I don't reclaim them for Jewish history alone. Their lives and achievements belong to the history of all men.

There is one other reason I wanted to tell this story. The Talmud tells us there are 613 mitzvoth, commandments mentioned in the Torah, that Jews must perform. Without violating the sanctity of the Five Books, I think there is one more: those of us born after the Holocaust have a responsibility to reclaim and retell one part of the history of our people, not just in honor of those who lived it and were murdered for it, but to help guide us to a renewed understanding of who we are.

Copyright © 2009 by Michael Goldfarb


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