Jewish Wit, Zionist Satire, and Humane Humor: Conference on the Life and Works of Sammy Gronemann

Jewish Wit, Zionist Satire, and Humane Humor: Conference on the Life and Works of Sammy Gronemann

Jan Kühne, The Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Fand statt
Vom - Bis
05.07.2022 - 06.07.2022
Deborah Karrer, Department of Literature, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The name of the German-Jewish lawyer and satirist writer Sammy Gronemann (1875 Strasburg/West-Prussia-1952 Tel Aviv) has disappeared from cultural memory in both countries of his residence, Germany and Israel. Despite his seminal contributions to German and Hebrew literature and theater, Gronemann remained largely absent from scholarship until 2000. He remains however a persistent and conspicuous lacuna due to his decisive function as one of the highest authorities in the German Zionist movement, as noted by the conference’s organizer JAN KÜHNE (Jerusalem) in his introductory remarks. For two consecutive days, scholars of various fields engaged with Gronemann’s uniquely humorous penmanship, acknowledging and questioning his historical and literary importance. Jewish Wit, Zionist Satire, and Humane Humor is a kaleidoscopic academic lens, forged through the multiplicity of disciplinary approaches, and it succeeded in highlighting the widely differing aspects of Gronemann’s achievements. The conference’s aim can be subsumed under a comment made by keynote speaker Jakob Hessing (Jerusalem), who remarked that the conference was successful in “bringing Gronemann out of his isolation.”

JAKOB HESSING opened the conference with a keynote lecture on “Jewish Wit – In the Original, and in Translation.” For Hessing, ‘Jewish Wit’ was situated before the Shoah at the threshold between the Yiddish- and German-speaking worlds. His talk discussed how Gronemann’s novel Tohuwabohu (1920) locates its satire in this liminal space. He claimed that Tohuwabohu has to be understood figuratively as a work of translation from Yiddish, with narrative elements rooted in a long tradition of Eastern European Jewish folklore. Hessing focused on the irony in the dialectics between notions of “original” and “translation,” which characterizes the reception of Gronemann’s work in Israel. There, despite or because of his outstanding success on the Hebrew stage, Gronemann’s name had disappeared under that of his translator (described by DAN LAOR in his closing lecture, see below).

The second panel fused two groundbreaking approaches to Gronemann’s work. MERON PIOTRKOWSKI (Princeton) engaged Gronemann from the perspective of law and law-as-literature. Scholarship had focused mainly on the author’s literary production rather than his acclaimed career as a lawyer and chief judge of the Zionist Congress Court (1921-1946). Piotrkowski’s research fills this gap and, drawing upon hitherto unknown archival material, makes a convincing case for understanding Gronemann’s judicial context as paradigmatic for his literary and dramatic writings. REBEKKA GROSSMANN (Jerusalem) ventured to read Gronemann, the man and his work, through the history of photography in the context of the visual and iconic turn. Drawing upon a wide range of archival material, Grossman claimed that Gronemann used photography to stage his persona as part of a political and cultural Zionist scene. In various forms, visual representations of Gronemann even found expansion in the form of trading cards and caricatures, suggestive of an iconic status during his lifetime akin to a celebrity in Germany, Mandatory Palestine, and later Israel. The ease with which Gronemann engaged with the camera from various angles and perspectives, Grossman explicated, may be read in conjunction with the vivid visuality of his realistic writings.

The third panel showed concern with social criticism in the context of Gronemann’s German theater critiques and by situating his satiric writings in a matrix of European-Jewish humorous writers influential for Israeli humor. Coming from theater and performance studies, PETER W. MARX (Cologne) examined Gronemann’s engagement with contemporary German theater as a Jewish spectator, critic, and playwright. For example, his unique interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice led him to intervene dramaturgically in Leopold Jessner’s production of Habimah (which he had legally represented during its decisive Berlin period, whence it transformed into the Zionist national theater). Marx traces how on the Zionist stage in Mandate Palestine, Gronemann pleaded for the reinvention of Jewish theater in a “Hebrew Salzburg Festival” to “decolonize” German bourgeois Jewish identity. Bringing his historical expertise to bear on the subject, MOSHE ZIMMERMANN (Jerusalem) examined Gronemann’s comedic writings as a showcase of Israeli humor. Zimmermann took a closer look at the cultural transfer of humor to Mandatory Palestine. He claimed that the style of the central European humorist became the backbone of ‘Israeli humor.’ Zimmermann drew parallels between Gronemann’s humoristic method and other more famous comedians like Ephraim Kishon. Due to various similarities in comic techniques, Zimmermann grouped the Israeli humorists of central European background as one influential and hitherto unacknowledged school of humor.

The initial day’s fourth and last panel shed light on one of the most critical aspects of Gronemann’s public life: his life-long commitment to the Zionist project. In her dissertation project, FRANZISKA WEINMANN (Munich) focuses on representations of a Jewish maritime consciousness. Starting with Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland, wherein the Zionist project is conceptualized as a ship, Weinmann traced this metaphor to Gronemann’s short story “Theodor Herzl’s Heimkehr”. She argued that the Zionist “ship” symbolized a liminal space where nation-making can be rehearsed before arrival. Gronemann turned it into a sacred space wherein the religious text is substituted for territory, indicating an apotheosis of Jewish nationhood. Closing with her analysis of a mock trial against the Mediterranean Sea that Gronemann was part of in Tel Aviv in 1938, Weinmann further exposed the centrality of the maritime question to the Zionist consciousness. JAN KÜHNE (Jerusalem) examined Gronemann’s correspondence. On account of newly unearthed material, Kühne depicted Gronemann as having matured from a radical to a moderate Zionist after developing an ironic distance from his political and religious ‘idols.’ However, in the course of this development, he appears to have come to his wit’s end. Drawing upon Gronemann’s theory of Jewish Wit and Humor from 1945 in light of his correspondence with Theodor Heuss from 1949, Kühne suggested an explanation for why Gronemann’s ubiquitous humor disappeared in a late text of his oeuvre written in a critique of the violent implementation of Herzl’s Zionist vision in Mandatory Palestine.

The fifth panel, which commenced on the second day of the conference, started with a talk by ALFRED BODENHEIMER (Basel), who offered a close reading of one of Gronemann’s little-known short stories: “Der himmlische Lohn.” Bodenheimer revealed the rich texture of Gronemann’s literary style and focused on his humoristic reflection of Halakhic issues. Bodenheimer explained how German Rabbis during his time often found themselves in deadlocks between their pastoral responsibilities and their role as interpreters of the law, at times forced to make decisions against ritual law. Bodenheimer’s analysis foregrounded Gronemann as a neo-orthodox Jew and exposed the religious exegesis underlying his oeuvre. ANNA ROSA SCHLECHTER (Vienna) likewise focused on religious aspects. Her presentation traced Gronemann’s influence on the German writings of the Israeli aphorist and orthodox Rabbi Elazar Benyoëtz. Schlechter’s talk analyzed reading traces in Benyoëtz’s copy of Gronemann’s Hawdoloh und Zapfenstreich. She showed how Benyoëtz identified with Gronemann’s ironic critique of German Jewry through the perspective of Eastern European Jews and pointed to specific aphorisms that some of Gronemann’s witty maxims might have inspired.

The sixth panel comprised two professional translators of Gronemann’s work. Literary scholar PAOLA DEL ZOPPO (Viterbo) spoke about the obstacles she encountered while translating the novel Tohuwabohu into Italian. At the same time, her discussion partner PENNY MILBOUER (Houston) explained the processes behind her translation of Tohuwabohu into American English. Del Zoppo focused on the difficulties of relating Gronemann’s novel to an Italian audience largely unfamiliar with its German literary subtexts. Intertextual references such as to Goethe’s Faust and allusions to Jewish culture or the Hebrew Bible were in danger of getting lost in translation. Del Zoppo’s solution to this problem suggests a creative fusion of translation with cultural adaptation by undermining the monolingual paradigm. Penny Milbouer, in turn, found Tohuwabohu to be reflective of a specific American Jewish experience described, among others, by Gronemann’s avid reader Albert Einstein. In discussing the contentions surrounding her translation of the title Tohuwabohu into Utter Chaos, Milbouer emphasized the subtleties that a literary translation, as opposed to algorithmic translation, requires. Recalling her challenges, Milbouer described translating as a unique learning process that enhances rather than diminishes the value of the source text.

The seventh and last panel harkened back directly to the introductory remarks of the conference. Therein, Kühne had introduced Gronemann as a twofold German and Israeli “Ruhestörer” following Reich-Ranicki’s depiction of German-Jewish writers as outsiders and provocateurs, on account of their marginal status able to offer privileged and challenging insight. Similarly, SIDRA DEKOVEN-EZRAHI (Jerusalem) and SEBASTIAN SCHIRRMEISTER (Hamburg) explored the literary figure of the Schlemihl known for its comic transgression of cultural boundaries. DeKoven-Ezrahi presented the Schlemihl as an Eastern European diasporic Jewish figure initially unable to find an Israeli audience, despite attempts by various authors, including Gronemann. As one of the most elastic and multi-faceted characters in Jewish comedy, DeKoven-Ezrahi’s reading of the Schlehmil presented an empty signifier that served to ventriloquize ideas about finding oneself at the margins of society. Her genealogy followed Heinrich Heine’s attempt to trace the Schlemihl back to a biblical figure. Still, she depicted it primarily as a modern cultural construct in which a presumed simplicity of Jewish life in Eastern Europe was both mocked and celebrated. While Schirrmeister likewise relates to the Schlemihl as a cipher, he employed this construct as a lens that allows for new insights into Gronemann’s work. For Schirrmeister, attempts to trace the Schlemihl back to the Hebrew Bible reflect endeavors to create rather than continue a literary tradition. As an example of how the Schlemihl was used as a slate to express contemporary ideas, Schirrmeister discussed Gronemann’s verse parody “Der erste Schlemihl,” in which this pseudo-biblical figure is presented as a contemporary Zionist.

The conference concluded with a closing lecture by DAN LAOR (Tel Aviv) that elicited questions regarding the collaboration underlying Nathan Alterman’s Hebrew translation of Sammy Gronemann’s legendary biblical comedy Der Weise und der Narr (King Shlomo and Shalmai the Sandlar). Since its premiere in 1942 at the Tel Aviv Ohel-Theater (Dir. Moshe Halevy), Gronemann’s play has become a milestone in Hebrew theater as its first successful comedy-drama and, in later adaptations, musical. However, Gronemann’s name as its author had disappeared under that of his translator during its Israeli reception. Laor corrected this impression during his lecture delivered in Hebrew at the Leo Baeck Institute Jerusalem, followed by a scenic reading of excerpts from Gronemann’s play in German and Hebrew.

The hybrid and multilingual framing of the conference allowed for discussing its rich and varied insights with international academic and local non-academic audiences. Throughout the entire conference, short humoresque passages quoted from Gronemann’s oeuvre frequently provoked laughter. While managing to deepen and broaden the discourse on Gronemann, to “bring him out of isolation,” as it were, the conference closed with a call for addressing persisting lacuna in the research discourses enveloping his work.1

Conference Overview:


Benjamin Pollok (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)/ Jan Kühne (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Panel 1: Keynote

Jakob Hessing (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): Jewish Wit - In the Original, and in Translation

Panel 2: Contexts and Perspectives

Meron Piotrkowski (Princeton University): Lawyer, Literate and Legislator - Gronemann’s Profession, Self-Perception, and Place in Modern Scholarship

Rebekka Grossman (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): Images, Illustrations and Illusions: Sammy Gronemann and Photography

Panel 3: Criticism and Humor

Peter W. Marx (University of Cologne): Sammy Gronemann’s “Theatralische Sendung”: Gronemann’s Reviews as Cultural Criticism

Moshe Zimmermann (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): Central European Contributions to Israeli Humor - From Gronemann to Kishon

Panel 4: Public Spheres and Personal Connections

Franziska Weinmann (Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich): Mock Trials and Ship Metaphors. Episodes of Gronemann’s Maritime Consciousness

Jan Kühne (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): From Theodor Herzl to Theodor Heuss - Gronemann’s Correspondences

Panel 5: Reading Gronemann

Alfred Bodenheimer (University of Basel): Questions of Belief. Sammy Gronemann’s Short Story “Der himmlische Lohn”

Anna Rosa Schlechter (University of Vienna): Elazar Benyoëtz Reads Sammy Gronemann’s “Howdoloh und Zapfenstreich”

Panel 6: Translating Gronemann

Paola del Zoppo (Tuscia University): Between Faust and the Law: Liminal Isotopies in “Tohuwabohu”

Penny Milbouer (Translator, Houston): Sammy Gronemann’s “Little Mirror”: Translating “Tohuwabohu” into “Utter Chaos”

Panel 7: Tracing Gronemann

Sidra DeKoven-Ezrahi (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): From Zurishaddai to Menachem Mendel: The Shlemiel in Israel

Sebastian Schirrmeister (Hamburg University): A Not so Hidden Tradition. Gronemann and Schlemiel

Closing Event:

Dan Laor (Tel Aviv University): When Gronemann meets Alterman

1 The conference proceedings are scheduled to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Naharaim Journal for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History.

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