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

The integration or assimilation of Jews into German society was not just a matter decided between Jews and non-Jews. As this excerpt from Victor Klemperer’s (1881-1960) memoirs reveals, liberal Jews faced difficulties within their own religious community as they tried to maneuver between Orthodox Judaism and the assertion of their own Germanness. When Klemperer’s family moved to the city of Bromberg in 1884, this tension came to the fore; but it also provided the perfect opportunity to “convert” – not to Christianity but to the liberal Jewish reform movement.

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[ . . . ]

If I recall correctly, the decisive and concluding event of this first period followed immediately after this wedding celebration.

Father has gone away somewhere. Occasionally he travels to neighboring hamlets for weddings and funerals, but he always returns in the evening. This time he is supposed to be away for three days; his departure is surrounded by secrecy and commotion, and mother stays behind, noticeably anxious. Then a telegram arrives, is torn open with the utmost excitement, and read aloud with delight. The five words are etched in my mind forever, like a verdict of fate: “Went well, thank God – Wilhelm.”

The most important of these five [words] were “thank God.” There were times when I regarded them merely as an automatic, mechanical interjection on the part of the sender; there were also rebellious times when I deemed them a form of inherent hypocrisy. Both were definitely wrong. Surely, my father’s own thinking and the positivist current of the times, in addition to the sarcastic skepticism of his eldest sons, had encroached upon his childlike faith even in those days. Any individual immortality, a hereafter adorned with worldly attributes, would have hardly existed for him anymore. But almost as certainly, the anthropomorphized image of a personal creator – an inconceivable and severe, yet fundamentally kind old man somewhere above the clouds – never left his heart and always consoled him. His religious credo, however, like that of the moderate rationalists among the eighteenth-century philosophes, was already completely exhausted when it came to the point of believing in a personal God – and that’s what fully justifies the deep religious sigh in his telegram. The Jewish religion was dear to him because it did not demand from him any belief in miracles. Yet he regarded the external commitments it imposed on him – holiday rites and dietary regulations – as remnants of an earlier stage of mankind that had since become devoid of meaning, as tiresome shackles in the modern world. These shackles must have rubbed him the wrong way considerably more in Bromberg than earlier on in Landsberg. Landsberg was located in the province of Brandenburg. There, he was the “Preacher Dr. Klemperer.” Bromberg belonged to the province of Posen (Posznán) and was essentially more “eastern” in character. Here, he was the rabbi of a community with Polish leanings, isolated from his fellow German citizens, forced into orthodoxy by the members of his parish, and closely monitored in his observance of it. I can still see my father in the kitchen: in his left hand he holds a goose stomach up to his near-sighted eyes, in his right hand a prodding pocket knife normally used to cut the ends of cigars. A nail is stuck in the stomach, its tip gleaming visibly through the outer skin. If the stomach is pierced, the goose is considered impure and inedible. A shabby woman, frightened, waits for the rabbi’s decision. Father keeps on

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