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Heinrich Heine And Judaism Post by :amabaie Category :Essays Author :Gustav Karpeles Date :November 2011 Read :3233

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Heinrich Heine And Judaism

I

No modern poet has aroused so much discussion as Heinrich Heine. His works are known everywhere, and quotations from them--gorgeous butterflies, stinging gnats, buzzing bees--whizz and whirr through the air of our century. They are the vade mecum of modern life in all its moods and variations.

This high regard is a recent development. Within the last thirty years a complete change has taken place in public opinion. Soon after the poet's death, he was entirely neglected. The Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, whose columns had for decades been enriched with his contributions, took three months to get up a little obituary notice. Then followed a period of acrimonious detraction; at last, cordial appreciation has come.

The conviction has been growing that in Heine the German nation must revere its greatest lyric poet since Goethe, and as time removes him from us, the baser elements of his character recede into the background, his personality is lost sight of, and his poetry becomes the paramount consideration.

What is the attitude of Judaism? Does it acknowledge Heine as its son? Is it disposed to accept cum beneficio inventarii the inheritance he has bequeathed to it? To answer these questions we must review Heine's life, his relations to Judaism, his opinions on Jewish subjects, and the qualities which prove him heir to the peculiarities of the Jewish race.

Heine's family was Jewish. On the paternal side it can be traced to Meyer Samson Popert and Fromet Heckscher of Altona; on the maternal side further back, to Isaac van Geldern, who emigrated in about 1700 from Holland to the duchy of Jülich-Berg. He and his son Lazarus van Geldern were people of importance at Düsseldorf, and his other sons, Simon and Gottschalk, were known and respected beyond the confines of their city. Simon van Geldern was the author of "The Israelites on Mount Horeb," a didactic poem in English, and on his trip to the East he kept a Hebrew journal, which can still be seen. His younger brother Gottschalk was a distinguished physician, and occupied a position of high dignity in the Jewish congregations in the duchies of Jülich and Berg. It is said that he provided for the welfare of his brethren in faith "as a father provides for his children." His only daughter Betty (Peierche) van Geldern, urged by her family and in obedience to the promptings of her own heart, married Samson Heine, and became the mother of the poet. Heine himself has written much about his family,(95) particularly about his mother's brother. Of his paternal grandfather, he knew only what his father had told him, that he was "a little Jew with a great beard." On the whole, his education was strictly religious, but it was tainted with the deplorable inconsistency so frequently found in Jewish homes. Themselves heedless of religious ceremonies, parents exact from their children punctilious observance of minute regulations. Samson Heine was one of the Jews often met with in the beginning of this century who, lacking true culture, caught up some of the encyclopædist phrases with which the atmosphere of the period was heavy. Heine describes his father's extraordinary buoyancy: "Always azure serenity and fanfares of good humor." The reproach is characteristic which he addressed to his son, when the latter was charged with atheism: "Dear son! Your mother is having you instructed in philosophy by Rector Schallmeier--that is her affair. As for me, I have no love for philosophy; it is nothing but superstition. I am a merchant, and need all my faculties for my business. You may philosophize as much as you please, only, I beg of you, don't tell any one what you think. It would harm my business, were people to discover that my son does not believe in God. Particularly the Jews would stop buying velvets from me, and they are honest folk, and pay promptly. And they are right in clinging to religion. Being your father, therefore older than you, I am more experienced, and you may take my word for it, atheism is a great sin."

Two instances related by Joseph Neunzig, one of his playmates, show how rigorously Harry was compelled to observe religious forms in his paternal home. On a Saturday the children were out walking, when suddenly a fire broke out. The fire extinguishers came clattering up to the burning house, but as the flames were spreading rapidly, all bystanders were ordered to range themselves in line with the firemen. Harry refused point-blank to help: "I may not do it, and I will not, because it is Shabbes to-day." But another time, when it jumped with his wishes, the eight year old boy managed to circumvent the Law. He was playing with some of his schoolmates in front of a neighbor's house. Two luscious bunches of grapes hung over the arbor almost down to the ground. The children noticed them, and with longing in their eyes passed on. Only Harry stood still before the grapes. Suddenly springing on the arbor, he bit one grape after another from the bunch. "Red-head Harry!" the children exclaimed horrified, "what are you doing?" "Nothing wrong," said the little rogue. "We are forbidden to pluck them with our hands, but the law does not say anything about biting and eating." His education was not equable and not methodical. Extremely indulgent towards themselves, the parents were extremely severe in their treatment of their children. So arose the contradictions in the poet's character. He is one of those to whom childhood's religion is a bitter-sweet remembrance unto the end of days. Jewish sympathies were his inalienable heritage, and from this point of view his life must be considered.

The poet's mother was of a different stamp from his father. Like most of the Jews in the Rhenish provinces, his father hailed Napoleon, the first legislator to establish equality between Jews and Christians, as a savior. His mother, on the other hand, was a good German patriot and a woman of culture, who exercised no inconsiderable influence upon the heart and mind of her son. Heine calls her a disciple of Rousseau, and his brother Maximilian tells us that Goethe was her favorite among authors.

The boy was first taught by Rintelsohn at a Jewish school, but his knowledge of Hebrew seems to have been very limited. It is an interesting fact that his first poem, "Belshazzar," which he tells us he wrote at the age of sixteen, was inspired by his childhood's faith and is based upon Jewish history. Towards the end of his life he said to a friend:(96) "Do you know what inspired me? A few words in the Hebrew hymn, Wayhee bechatsi halaïla, sung, as you know, on the first two evenings of the Passover. This hymn commemorates all momentous events in the history of the Jews that occurred at midnight; among them the death of the Babylonian tyrant, snatched away at night for desecrating the holy Temple vessels. The quoted words are the refrain of the hymn, which forms part of the Haggada, the curious medley of legends and songs, recited by pious Jews at the Seder." Ay, the Passover celebration, the Seder, remained in the poet's memory till the day of his death. He describes it still later in one of his finest works:(97) "Sweetly sad, joyous, earnest, sportive, and elfishly mysterious is that evening service, and the traditional chant with which the Haggada is recited by the head of the family, the listeners sometimes joining in as a chorus, is thrillingly tender, soothing as a mother's lullaby, yet impetuous and inspiring, so that Jews who long have drifted from the faith of their fathers, and have been pursuing the joys and dignities of the stranger, even they are stirred in their inmost parts when the old, familiar Passover sounds chance to fall upon their ears."

My esteemed friend Rabbi Dr. Frank of Cologne has in his possession a Haggada, admirably illustrated, an heirloom at one time of the Van Geldern family, and it is not improbable that it was out of this artistic book that Heinrich Heine asked the Mah nishtannah, the traditional question of the Seder.

Heine left home very young, and everybody knows that he was apprenticed to a merchant at Frankfort, and that his uncle Solomon's kindness enabled him to devote himself to jurisprudence. But this, of important bearing on our subject, is not a matter of common knowledge: Always and everywhere, especially when he had least intercourse with Jews, Jewish elements appear most prominently in Heine's life.

A merry, light-hearted student, he arrived in Berlin in 1821. A curious spectacle is presented by the Jewish Berlin of the day, dominated by the salons, and the women whose tact and scintillating wit made them the very centre of general society. The traditions of Rahel Levin, Henriette Herz, and other clever women, still held sway. But the state frustrated every attempt to introduce reforms into Judaism. Two great parties opposed each other more implacably than ever, the one clutching the old, the other yearning for the new. Out of the breach, salvation was in time to sprout. In the first quarter of our century, more than three-fourths of the Jewish population of Berlin embraced the ruling faith. This was the new, seditious element with which young Heine was thrown. His interesting personality attracted general notice. All circles welcomed him. The salons did their utmost to make him one of their votaries. Romantic student clubs at Lutter's and Wegener's wine-rooms left nothing untried to lure him to their nocturnal carousals. Even Hegel, the philosopher, evinced marked interest in him. To whose allurements does he yield? Like his great ancestor, he goes to "his brethren languishing in captivity." Some of his young friends, Edward Gans, Leopold Zunz, and Moses Moser, had formed a "Society for Jewish Culture and Science," with Berlin as its centre, and Heinrich Heine became one of its most active members. He taught poor Jewish boys from Posen several hours a week in the school established by the society, and all questions that came up interested him. Joseph Lehmann took pleasure in repeatedly telling how seriously Heine applied himself to a review which he had undertaken to write on the compilation of a German prayer-book for Jewish women.

To the Berlin period belongs his Almansor, a dramatic poem which has suffered the most contradictory criticism. In my opinion, it has usually been misunderstood. Almansor is intelligible only if regarded from a Jewish point of view, and then it is seen to be the hymn of vengeance sung by Judaism oppressed. Substitute the names of a converted Berlin banker and his wife for "Aly" and "Suleima," Berlin under Frederick William III. for "Saragossa," the Berlin Thiergarten for the "Forest," and the satire stands revealed. The following passage is characteristic of the whole poem:(98)


"Go not to Aly's castle! Flee
That noxious house where new faith breeds.
With honeyed accents there thy heart
Is wrenched from out thy bosom's depths,
A snake bestowed on thee instead.
Hot drops of lead on thy poor head
Are poured, and nevermore thy brain
From madding pain shall rid itself.
Another name thou must assume,
That if thy angel warning calls,
And calls thee by thy olden name,
He call in vain."


Such were Heine's views at that time, and with them he went to Göttingen. There, though Jewish society was entirely lacking, and correspondence with his Berlin friends desultory, his Jewish interests grew stronger than ever. There, inspired by the genius of Jewish history, he composed his Rabbi von Bacharach, the work which, by his own confession, he nursed with unspeakable love, and which, he fondly hoped, would "become an immortal book, a perpetual lamp in the dome of God." Again Jewish conversions, a burning question of the day, were made prominent. Heine's solution is beyond a cavil enlightened. The words are truly remarkable with which Sarah, the beautiful Jewess, declines the services of the gallant knight:(99) "Noble sir! Would you be my knight, then you must meet nations in a combat in which small praise and less honor are to be won. And would you be rash enough to wear my colors, then you must sew yellow wheels upon your mantle, or bind a blue-striped scarf about your breast. For these are my colors, the colors of my house, named Israel, the unhappy house mocked at on the highways and the byways by the children of fortune."

Another illustration of Heine's views at that time of his life, and with those views he one day went to the neighboring town of Heiligenstadt--to be baptized.

Who can sound the depths of a poet's soul? Who can divine what Heine's thoughts, what his hopes were, when he took this step? His letters and confessions of that period must be read to gain an idea of his inner world. On one occasion he wrote to Moser, to whom he laid bare his most intimate thoughts:(100) "Mentioning Japan reminds me to recommend to you Golovnin's 'Journey to Japan.' Perhaps I may send you a poem to-day from the Rabbi, in the writing of which I unfortunately have been interrupted again. I beg that you speak to nobody about this poem, or about what I tell you of my private affairs. A young Spaniard, at heart a Jew, is beguiled to baptism by the arrogance bred of luxury. He sends the translation of an Arabic poem to young Yehuda Abarbanel, with whom he is corresponding. Perhaps he shrinks from directly confessing to his friend an action hardly to be called admirable.... Pray do not think about this."


And the poem? It is this:

TO EDOM

"Each with each has borne, in patience
Longer than a thousand year--
Thou dost tolerate my breathing,
I thy ravings calmly hear.

Sometimes only, in the darkness,
Thou didst have sensations odd,
And thy paws, caressing, gentle,
Crimson turned with my rich blood.

Now our friendship firmer groweth,
Daily keeps on growing straight.
I myself incline to madness,
Soon, in faith, I'll be thy mate."


A few weeks later he writes to Moser in a still more bitter strain: "I know not what to say. Cohen assures me that Gans is preaching Christianity, and trying to convert the children of Israel. If this is conviction, he is a fool; if hypocrisy, a knave. I shall not give up loving him, but I confess that I should have been better pleased to hear that Gans had been stealing silver spoons. That you, dear Moser, share Gans's opinions, I cannot believe, though Cohen assures me of it, and says that you told him so yourself. I should be sorry, if my own baptism were to strike you more favorably. I give you my word of honor--if our laws allowed stealing silver spoons, I should not have been baptized." Again he writes mournfully: "As, according to Solon, no man may be called happy, so none should be called honest, before his death. I am glad that David Friedländer and Bendavid are old, and will soon die. Then we shall be certain of them, and the reproach of having had not a single immaculate representative cannot be attached to our time. Pardon my ill humor. It is directed mainly against myself."

"Upon how true a basis the myth of the wandering Jew rests!" he says in another letter. "In the lonely wooded valley, the mother tells her children the grewsome tale. Terror-stricken the little ones cower close to the hearth. It is night ... the postilion blows his horn ... Jew traders are journeying to the fair at Leipsic. We, the heroes of the legend, are not aware of our part in it. The white beard, whose tips time has rejuvenated, no barber can remove." In those days he wrote the following poem, published posthumously:(101)


TO AN APOSTATE

"Out upon youth's holy flame!
Oh! how quickly it burns low!
Now, thy heated blood grown tame,
Thou agreest to love thy foe!

And thou meekly grovell'st low
At the cross which thou didst spurn;
Which not many weeks ago,
Thou didst wish to crush and burn.

Fie! that comes from books untold--
There are Schlegel, Haller, Burke--
Yesterday a hero bold,
Thou to-day dost scoundrel's work."


The usual explanation of Heine's formal adoption of Christianity is that he wished to obtain a government position in Prussia, and make himself independent of his rich uncle. As no other offers itself, we are forced to accept it as correct. He was fated to recognize speedily that he had gained nothing by baptism. A few weeks after settling in Hamburg he wrote: "I repent me of having been baptized. I cannot see that I have bettered my position. On the contrary, I have had nothing but disappointment and bad luck." Despite his baptism, his enemies called him "the Jew," and at heart he never did become a Christian.

At Hamburg, in those days, Heine was repeatedly drawn into the conflict between reform and orthodoxy, between the Temple and the synagogue. His uncle Solomon Heine was a warm supporter of the Temple, but Heine, with characteristic inconsistency, admired the old rigorous rabbinical system more than the modern reform movement, which often called forth his ridicule. Yet, at bottom, his interest in the latter was strong, as it continued to be also in the Berlin educational society, and its "Journal for the Science of Judaism," of which, however, only three numbers were issued. He once wrote from Hamburg to his friend Moser: "Last Saturday I was at the Temple, and had the pleasure with my own ears to hear Dr. Salomon rail against baptized Jews, and insinuate that they are tempted to become faithless to the religion of their fathers only by the hope of preferment. I assure you, the sermon was good, and some day I intend to call upon the man. Cohen is doing the generous thing by me. I take my Shabbes dinner with him; he heaps fiery Kugel upon my head, and contritely I eat the sacred national dish, which has done more for the preservation of Judaism than all three numbers of the Journal. To be sure, it has had a better sale. If I had time, I would write a pretty little Jewish letter to Mrs. Zunz. I am getting to be a thoroughbred Christian; I am sponging on the rich Jews."

They who find nothing but jest in this letter, do not understand Heine. A bitter strain of disgust, of unsparing self-denunciation, runs through it--the feelings that dictate the jests and accusations of his Reisebilder. This was the period of Heine's best creations: for as such his "Book of Songs," Buch der Lieder, and his Reisebilder must be considered. With a sudden bound he leapt into greatness and popularity.

The reader may ask me to point out in these works the features to be taken as the expression of the genius of the Jewish race. To understand our poet, we must keep in mind that Heinrich Heine was a Jew born in the days of romanticism in a town on the Rhine. His intellect and his sensuousness, of Jewish origin, were wedded with Rhenish fancy and blitheness, and over these qualities the pale moonshine of romanticism shed its glamour.

The most noteworthy characteristic of his writings, prose and verse, is his extraordinary subjectivity, pushing the poet's ego into the foreground. With light, graceful touch, he demonstrates the possibility of unrestrained self-expression in an artistic guise. The boldness and energy with which "he gave voice to his hidden self" were so novel, so surprising, that his melodies at once awoke an echo. This subjectivity is his Jewish birthright. It is Israel's ingrained combativeness, for more than a thousand years the genius of its literature, which throughout reveals a predilection for abrupt contrasts, and is studded with unmistakable expressions of strong individuality. By virtue of his subjectivity, which never permits him to surrender himself unconditionally, the Jew establishes a connection between his ego and whatever subject he treats of. "He does not sink his own identity, and lose himself in the depths of the cosmos, nor roam hither and thither in the limitless space of the world of thought. He dives down to search for pearls at the bottom of the sea, or rises aloft to gain a bird's-eye view of the whole. The world encloses him as the works of a clock are held in a case. His ego is the hammer, and there is no sound unless, swinging rhythmically, itself touches the sides, now softly, now boldly." Not content to yield to an authority which would suppress his freedom of action, he traverses the world, and compels it to promote the development of his energetic nature. To these peculiarities of his race Heine fell heir--to the generous traits growing out of marked individuality, its grooves deepened by a thousand years of martyrdom, as well as to the petty faults following in the wake of excessive self-consciousness; which have furnished adversaries of the Jews with texts and weapons.

This subjectivity, traceable in his language and in his ancient literature, it is that unfits the Jew for objective, philosophic investigation. It is, moreover, responsible for that energetic self-assertiveness for which the Aramæan language has coined the word chutspa, only partially rendered by arrogance. Possibly it is the root of another quality which Heine owes to his Jewish extraction--his wit Heine's scintillations are composed of a number of elements--of English humor, French sparkle, German irony, and Jewish wit, all of which, saving the last, have been analyzed by the critics. Proneness to censure, to criticism, and discussion, is the concomitant of keen intellect given to scrutiny and analysis. From the buoyancy of the Jewish disposition, and out of the force of Jewish subjectivity, arose Jewish wit, whose first manifestations can be traced in the Talmud and the Midrash. Its appeals are directed to both fancy and heart. It delights in antithesis, and, as was said above, is intimately connected with Jewish subjectivity. Its distinguishing characteristic is the desire to have its superiority acknowledged without wounding the feelings of the sensitive, and an explanation of its peculiarity can be found in the sad fate of the Jews. The heroes of Shakespere's tragedies are full of irony. Frenzy at its maddest pitch breaks out into merry witticisms and scornful laughter. So it was with the Jews. The waves of oppression, forever dashing over them, strung their nerves to the point of reaction. The world was closed to them in hostility. There was nothing for them to do but laugh--laugh with forced merriment from behind prison bars, and out of the depths of their heartrending resignation. Complaints it was possible to suppress, but no one could forbid their laughter, ghastly though it was. M. G. Saphir, one of the best exponents of Jewish wit, justly said: "The Jews seized the weapon of wit, since they were interdicted the use of every other sort of weapon." Whatever humdrum life during the middle ages offered them, had to submit to the scalpel of their wit.

As a rule, Jewish wit springs from a lively appreciation of what is ingenious. A serious beginning suddenly and unexpectedly takes a merry, jocose turn, producing in Heine's elegiac passages the discordant endings so shocking to sensitive natures. But it is an injustice to the poet to attribute these rapid transitions to an artist's vain fancy. His satire is directed against the ideals of his generation, not against the ideal. Harsh, discordant notes do not express the poet's real disposition. They are exaggerated, romantic feeling, for which he himself, led by an instinctively pure conception of the good and the beautiful, which is opposed alike to sickly sentimentality and jarring dissonance, sought the outlet of irony.

Heine's humor, as I intimated above, springs from his recognition of the tragedy of life. It is an expression of the irreconcilable difference between the real and the ideal, of the perception that the world, despite its grandeur and its beauty, is a world of folly and contradictions; that whatever exists and is formed, bears within itself the germ of death and corruption; that the Lord of all creation himself is but the shuttlecock of irresistible, absolute force, compelling the unconditional surrender of subject and object.

Humor, then, grows out of the contemplation of the tragedy of life. But it does not stop there. If the world is so pitiful, so fragile, it is not worth a tear, not worth hatred, or contempt. The only sensible course is to accept it as it is, as a nothing, an absolute contradiction, calling forth ridicule. At this point, a sense of tragedy is transformed into demoniac glee. No more is this a permanent state. The humorist is too impulsive to accept it as final. Moreover, he feels that with the world he has annihilated himself. In the phantom realm into which he has turned the world, his laughter reverberates with ghostlike hollowness. Recognizing that the world meant more to him than he was willing to admit, and that apart from it he has no being, he again yields to it, and embraces it with increased passion and ardor. But scarcely has the return been effected, scarcely has he begun to realize the beauties and perfections of the world, when sadness, suffering, pain, and torture, obtrude themselves, and the old overwhelming sense of life's tragedy takes possession of him. This train of thought, plainly discernible in Heine's poems, he also owes to his descent. A mind given to such speculations naturally seeks poetic solace in Weltschmerz, which, as everybody knows, is still another heirloom of his race.

These are the most important characteristics, some admirable, some reprehensible, which Heine has derived from his race, and they are the very ones that raised opponents against him, one of the most interesting and prominent among them being the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. His two opinions on Heine, expressed at almost the same time, are typical of the antagonism aroused by the poet. In his book, "The World as Will and Idea,"(102) he writes: "Heine is a true humorist in his Romanzero. Back of all his quips and gibes lies deep seriousness, ashamed to speak out frankly." At the same time he says in his journal, published posthumously: "Although a buffoon, Heine has genius, and the distinguishing mark of genius, ingenuousness. On close examination, however, his ingenuousness turns out to have its root in Jewish shamelessness; for he, too, belongs to the nation of which Riemer says that it knows neither shame nor grief."

The contradiction between the two judgments is too obvious to need explanation; it is an interesting illustration of the common experience that critics go astray when dealing with Heine.


II

When, as Heine puts it, "a great hand solicitously beckoned," he left his German fatherland in his prime, and went to Paris. In its sociable atmosphere, he felt more comfortable, more free, than in his own home, where the Jew, the author, the liberal, had encountered only prejudices. The removal to Paris was an inauspicious change for the poet, and that he remained there until his end was still less calculated to redound to his good fortune. He gave much to France, and Paris did little during his life to pay off the debt. The charm exercised upon every stranger by Babylon on the Seine, wrought havoc in his character and his work, and gives us the sole criterion for the rest of his days. Yet, despite his devotion to Paris, home-sickness, yearning for Germany, was henceforth the dominant note of his works. At that time Heine considered Judaism "a long lost cause." Of the God of Judaism, the philosophical demonstrations of Hegel and his disciples had robbed him; his knowledge of doctrinal Judaism was a minimum; and his keen race-feeling, his historical instinct, was forced into the background by other sympathies and antipathies. He was at that time harping upon the long cherished idea that men can be divided into Hellenists and Nazarenes. Himself, for instance, he looked upon as a well-fed Hellenist, while Börne was a Nazarene, an ascetic. It is interesting, and bears upon our subject, that most of the verdicts, views, and witticisms which Heine fathers upon Börne in the famous imaginary conversation in the Frankfort Judengasse, might have been uttered by Heine himself. In fact, many of them are repeated, partly in the same or in similar words, in the jottings found after his death.

This conversation is represented as having taken place during the Feast of Chanukka. Heine who, as said above, took pleasure at that time in impersonating a Hellenist, gets Börne to explain to him that this feast was instituted to commemorate the victory of the valiant Maccabees over the king of Syria. After expatiating on the heroism of the Maccabees, and the cowardice of modern Jews, Börne says:(103)

"Baptism is the order of the day among the wealthy Jews. The evangel vainly announced to the poor of Judæa now flourishes among the rich. Its acceptance is self-deception, if not a lie, and as hypocritical Christianity contrasts sharply with the old Adam, who will crop out, these people lay themselves open to unsparing ridicule.--In the streets of Berlin I saw former daughters of Israel wear crosses about their necks longer than their noses, reaching to their very waists. They carried evangelical prayer books, and were discussing the magnificent sermon just heard at Trinity church. One asked the other where she had gone to communion, and all the while their breath smelt. Still more disgusting was the sight of dirty, bearded, malodorous Polish Jews, hailing from Polish sewers, saved for heaven by the Berlin Society for the Conversion of Jews, and in turn preaching Christianity in their slovenly jargon. Such Polish vermin should certainly be baptized with cologne instead of ordinary water."

This is to be taken as an expression of Heine's own feelings, which come out plainly, when, "persistently loyal to Jewish customs," he eats, "with good appetite, yes, with enthusiasm, with devotion, with conviction," Shalet, the famous Jewish dish, about which he says: "This dish is delicious, and it is a subject for painful regret that the Church, indebted to Judaism for so much that is good, has failed to introduce Shalet. This should be her object in the future. If ever she falls on evil times, if ever her most sacred symbols lose their virtue, then the Church will resort to Shalet, and the faithless peoples will crowd into her arms with renewed appetite. At all events the Jews will then join the Church from conviction, for it is clear that it is only Shalet that keeps them in the old covenant. Börne assures me that renegades who have accepted the new dispensation feel a sort of home-sickness for the synagogue when they but smell Shalet, so that Shalet may be called the Jewish ranz des vaches."

Heine forgot that in another place he had uttered this witticism in his own name. He long continued to take peculiar pleasure in his dogmatic division of humanity into two classes, the lean and the fat, or rather, the class that continually gets thinner, and the class which, beginning with modest dimensions, gradually attains to corpulency. Only too soon the poet was made to understand the radical falseness of his definition. A cold February morning of 1848 brought him a realizing sense of his fatal mistake. Sick and weary, the poet was taking his last walk on the boulevards, while the mob of the revolution surged in the streets of Paris. Half blind, half paralyzed, leaning heavily on his cane, he sought to extricate himself from the clamorous crowd, and finally found refuge in the Louvre, almost empty during the days of excitement. With difficulty he dragged himself to the hall of the gods and goddesses of antiquity, and suddenly came face to face with the ideal of beauty, the smiling, witching Venus of Milo, whose charms have defied time and mutilation. Surprised, moved, almost terrified, he reeled to a chair, tears, hot and bitter, coursing down his cheeks. A smile was hovering on the beautiful lips of the goddess, parted as if by living breath, and at her feet a luckless victim was writhing. A single moment revealed a world of misery. Driven by a consciousness of his fate, Heine wrote in his "Confessions": "In May of last year I was forced to take to my bed, and since then I have not risen. I confess frankly that meanwhile a great change has taken place in me. I no longer am a fat Hellenist, the freest man since Goethe, a jolly, somewhat corpulent Hellenist, with a contemptuous smile for lean Jews--I am only a poor Jew, sick unto death, a picture of gaunt misery, an unhappy being."

This startling change was coincident with the first symptoms of his disease, and kept pace with it. The pent-up forces of faith pressed to his bedside; religious conversations, readings from the Bible, reminiscences of his youth, of his Jewish friends, filled his time almost entirely. Alfred Meissner has culled many interesting data from his conversations with the poet. For instance, on one occasion Heine breaks out with:(104)

"Queer people this! Downtrodden for thousands of years, weeping always, suffering always, abandoned always by its God, yet clinging to Him tenaciously, loyally, as no other under the sun. Oh, if martyrdom, patience, and faith in despite of trial, can confer a patent of nobility, then this people is noble beyond many another.--It would have been absurd and petty, if, as people accuse me, I had been ashamed of being a Jew. Yet it were equally ludicrous for me to call myself a Jew.--As I instinctively hold up to unending scorn whatever is evil, timeworn, absurd, false, and ludicrous, so my nature leads me to appreciate the sublime, to admire what is great, and to extol every living force." Heine had spoken so much with deep earnestness. Jestingly he added: "Dear friend, if little Weill should visit us, you shall have another evidence of my reverence for hoary Mosaism. Weill formerly was precentor at the synagogue. He has a ringing tenor, and chants Judah's desert songs according to the old traditions, ranging from the simple monotone to the exuberance of Old Testament cadences. My wife, who has not the slightest suspicion that I am a Jew, is not a little astonished by this peculiar musical wail, this trilling and cadencing. When Weill sang for the first time, Minka, the poodle, crawled into hiding under the sofa, and Cocotte, the polly, made an attempt to throttle himself between the bars of his cage. 'M. Weill, M. Weill!' Mathilde cried terror-stricken, 'pray do not carry the joke too far.' But Weill continued, and the dear girl turned to me, and asked imploringly: 'Henri, pray tell me what sort of songs these are.' 'They are our German folk songs,' said I, and I have obstinately stuck to that explanation."

Meissner reports an amusing conversation with Madame Mathilde about the friends of the family, whom the former by their peculiarities recognized as Jews. "What!" cried Mathilde, "Jews? They are Jews?" "Of course, Alexander Weill is a Jew, he told me so himself;--why he was going to be a rabbi." "But the rest, all the rest? For instance, there is Abeles, the name sounds so thoroughly German." "Rather say it sounds Greek," answered Meissner. "Yet I venture to insist that our friend Abeles has as little German as Greek blood in his veins." "Very well! But Jeiteles--Kalisch--Bamberg--Are they, too.... O no, you are mistaken, not one is a Jew," cried Mathilde. "You will never make me believe that. Presently you will make out Cohn to be a Jew. But Cohn is related to Heine, and Heine is a Protestant." So Meissner found out that Heine had never told his wife anything about his descent. He gravely answered: "You are right. With regard to Cohn I was of course mistaken. Cohn is certainly not a Jew."

These are mere jests. In point of fact, his friends' reports on the religious attitude of the Heine of that period are of the utmost interest. He once said to Ludwig Kalisch, who had told him that the world was all agog over his conversion:(105) "I do not make a secret of my Jewish allegiance, to which I have not returned, because I never abjured it. I was not baptized from aversion to Judaism, and my professions of atheism were never serious. My former friends, the Hegelians, have turned out scamps. Human misery is too great for men to do without faith."

The completest picture of the transformation, truer than any given in letters, reports, or reminiscences, is in his last two productions, the Romanzero and the "Confessions." There can be no more explicit description of the poet's conversion than is contained in these "confessions." During his sickness he sought a palliative for his pains--in the Bible. With a melancholy smile his mind reverted to the memories of his youth, to the heroism which is the underlying principle of Judaism. The Psalmist's consolations, the elevating principles laid down in the Pentateuch, exerted a powerful attraction upon him, and filled his soul with exalted thoughts, shaped into words in the "Confessions":(106) "Formerly I felt little affection for Moses, probably because the Hellenic spirit was dominant within me, and I could not pardon the Jewish lawgiver for his intolerance of images, and every sort of plastic representation. I failed to see that despite his hostile attitude to art, Moses was himself a great artist, gifted with the true artist's spirit. Only in him, as in his Egyptian neighbors, the artistic instinct was exercised solely upon the colossal and the indestructible. But unlike the Egyptians he did not shape his works of art out of brick or granite. His pyramids were built of men, his obelisks hewn out of human material. A feeble race of shepherds he transformed into a people bidding defiance to the centuries--a great, eternal, holy people, God's people, an exemplar to all other peoples, the prototype of mankind: he created Israel. With greater justice than the Roman poet could this artist, the son of Amram and Jochebed the midwife, boast of having erected a monument more enduring than brass.

As for the artist, so I lacked reverence for his work, the Jews, doubtless on account of my Greek predilections, antagonistic to Judaic asceticism. My love for Hellas has since declined. Now I understand that the Greeks were only beautiful youths, while the Jews have always been men, powerful, inflexible men, not only in early times, to-day, too, in spite of eighteen hundred years of persecution and misery. I have learnt to appreciate them, and were pride of birth not absurd in a champion of the revolution and its democratic principles, the writer of these leaflets would boast that his ancestors belonged to the noble house of Israel, that he is a descendant of those martyrs to whom the world owes God and morality, and who have fought and bled on every battlefield of thought."

In view of such avowals, Heine's return to Judaism is an indubitable fact, and when one of his friends anxiously inquired about his relation to God, he could well answer with a smile: Dieu me pardonnera; c'est son metier. In those days Heine made his will, his true, genuine will, to have been the first to publish which the present writer will always consider the distinction of his life. The introduction reads: "I die in the belief in one God, Creator of heaven and earth, whose mercy I supplicate in behalf of my immortal soul. I regret that in my writings I sometimes spoke of sacred things with levity, due not so much to my own inclination, as to the spirit of my age. If unwittingly I have offended against good usage and morality, which constitute the true essence of all monotheistic religions, may God and men forgive me."

With this confession on his lips Heine passed away, dying in the thick of the fight, his very bier haunted by the spirits of antagonism and contradiction....


"Greek joy in life, belief in God of Jew,
And twining in and out like arabesques,
Ivy tendrils gently clasp the two."


In Heine's character, certainly, there were sharp contrasts. Now we behold him a Jew, now a Christian, now a Hellenist, now a romanticist; to-day laughing, to-morrow weeping, to-day the prophet of the modern era, to-morrow the champion of tradition. Who knows the man? Yet who that steps within the charmed circle of his life can resist the temptation to grapple with the enigma?

One of the best known of his poems is the plaint:


"Mass for me will not be chanted,
Kadosh not be said,
Naught be sung, and naught recited,
Round my dying bed."


The poet's prophecy has not come true. As this tribute has in spirit been laid upon his grave, so always thousands will devote kindly thought to him, recalling in gentleness how he struggled and suffered, wrestled and aspired; how, at the dawn of the new day, enthusiastically proclaimed by him, his spirit fled aloft to regions where doubts are set at rest, hopes fulfilled, and visions made reality.

 

FOOTNOTES:


(95) Cmp. Memoiren in his Collected Works, Vol. VI., p. 375 ff.

(96) Ludwig Kalisch, Pariser Skizzen, p. 331.

(97) Collected Works, Vol. IV., p. 227.

(98) Ibid., Vol. III., p. 13.

(99) Ibid., Vol. IV., p. 257 ff.

(100) Ibid., Vol. VIII., p. 390 ff.

(101) Ibid., Vol. I., p. 196.

(102) Vol. II., p. 110. Cmp. Frauenstädt, A. Schopenhauer, p. 467
ff.

(103) Collected Works, Vol. VII., p. 255 ff.

(104) Alfred Meissner, Heinrich Heine, p. 138 ff.

(105) Ludwig Kalisch, Pariser Skizzen, p. 334.

(106) Collected Works, Vol. VII., 473 ff.


(The end)
Gustav Karpeles's essay: Heinrich Heine And Judaism

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