B. Steiner: Die Inszenierung des Jüdischen

Die Inszenierung des Jüdischen. Konversionen von Deutschen zum Judentum nach 1945

Steiner, Barbara
Göttingen 2015: Wallstein Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
352 S.
€ 29,90
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Dani Kranz, Bergische Universität Wuppertal

Barbara Steiner offers the single most comprehensive analysis of the conversion of German non-Jews to Judaism post-1945. She ventured into rather unchartered territory and outlines convincingly why this is the case: conversion is a hotbed, her requests for fieldwork access, data, and interviews met with rejections. Fortunately, instead of faltering she used the rejections to support her analysis of the issue at stake.

Conversion – in general – constitutes the switching of one religious status to another one. While this phenomenon is historically and currently as common on a global scale as within specific societies, most often the latter and more so the personal motives remain shrouded in mystery. Conversion to Judaism of German non-Jews is shrouded in a thick veil: the past is at stake, the present, love, guilt, philosemitism and also antisemitism. Steiner uncovers the phenomenon of allosemitism[1] amongst converts, without mentioning it. The public sphere is replete with competing images of Jews, and the converts have very different ideas of Judaism, Jewishness, Jews and becoming a convert too. In other words, Steiner discards of the simplified notion of Germans not converting to Judaism but to Jewishness – they shift from the perpetrator to victim group as part of the on-going conflicts about the German – more so German/Jewish – past. The reasons of converts, the courses of conversion and the identities of the converts post-conversion debunk this idea: conversion is an escape route from an untenable identity for some, for most it is not. But then, and it is beyond the scope of the book, one might ask if ‘converts’ in a very wide sense and regardless of their biographies do not always wish to shed an old/outgrown/undesired ‘thing’ be it an identity, an ethnicity, or a citizenship. Have not Jews converted to Christianity for exactly this reason? This side line should not deflect from the very serious issues that apply to the different groups of converts – non-Jewish family members, ‘coming to term with the past converts’ and ‘home seekers’ – some of whom harbour attitudes which can even be defined as anti-Semitic, and anti-Zionist (pp. 201–215). Germans – in the widest sense, as the sample also includes the daughter of Italian immigrants, and an ethnic German from a country of the former Soviet Union – choose to become converts for very different reasons, evidencing that Judaism and in consequence Jewishness is malleable enough to accommodate individuals from all walks of life who arrive at the destination ‘convert to Judaism’, and that Judaism and Jewishness are so multifaceted that they are indeed allosemitic.

Problematically, conversion to Judaism infers the crossing of an ethnic boundary as Judaism constitutes an ethno-religion, and Jews themselves tend to agree with the notion in their majority.[2] The notion of Jewish ethnicity becomes all the clearer by the dominant definition of birth Jews as children of Jewish mothers and of converts to Judaism as occupying the specific position of gerim, converts, a ‘caste’ of Jews with lesser rights than – matrilineal – birth Jews. At the same time, birth Jew as well as gerim have the right to ‘return’ to the Jewish homeland. Claims to the Jewish inroad into Israeli citizenship and Israeliness (whatever that might be) are also at stake, turning conversion to Judaism into a transnational issue that grants specific rights to those who are deemed Jewish enough to fall within the bracket of Jews. Thus, whether a Jewish ethnicity is biologically based and religiously and legally recognised as with matrilineal birth Jews, biologically and legally but not necessarily religiously as in the case of all those covered under the Law of Return (1950/1970) or achieved by way of ‘performances’ as in the case of gerim has become irrelevant as a matter of historical course as all these – possible – Jewishnesses have long been reified, and enshrined into the legal cannon that regulates access to the ultimate evidence of belonging to the Jewish people: Israeli citizenship, which for Jews is always related to a recognised Jewish status.

Within this murky territory of intersecting categories, the ultimate strengths of Steiner’s contributions lie in the appreciation of the multi-facettedness of conversion, and the different meanings given to it. While conversion is generally an area afloat with research of psychology, sociology and anthropology, Steiner’s account, which is situated within oral history and which takes a transdisciplinary approach is refreshingly new. Steiner contextualises conversion empathetically and reflexively, she never pathologises the conversion of the individuals or credits their way into Judaism to one single source. Granted, it is highly problematic that Steiner speaks of obtaining a ‘Jewish identity’ when referring to conversion, which constitutes the obtainment of a quasi-ethnicity as a convert is organised as part of a wider ethnic group that knows different statuses. An identity is ‘something’ individuals might see as their property, but generally speaking the concept of identity lacks repercussions in the legal sphere. Her insistence of ‘identity’ is the more surprising as she outlines the fall traps of the concept ‘identity’ and juxtaposes it with ‘ethnicity’, and the – potential – legal consequences that can follow from having or obtaining Jewish (quasi) ethnicity (as indicated above), or, in the case of one patrilineal Jewess, from failing to obtain the permission to join the – religiously defined – ingroup (pp. 137–144).

A convert, as she rightly outlines, becomes exactly that, a ger, and not a Jew. The ger status enables him or her to join the ethno-nationalistically based Jewish state as a Jew, and furthermore, to marry within the Jewish bracket, all be it with restrictions. In as much using the concept ‘identity’ is too weak to describe the change of status, as it is not a purely personal change but allows an individual to realise rights within a wider collective. How strongly converts experience this ‘change’ is evidenced throughout the book and most poignantly in some of the individual case studies. The aversion of one, female, convert in particular to be reminded that she is not a birth Jew is emblematic for converts to Judaism who had no prior family connection to it. They found, actually or metaphorically, a new family. The converts with partial Jewish backgrounds or who had already undergone social conversion as part of a Jewish/non-Jewish couple prior to their formal conversion did not explicate this pattern, they only adjusted imbalances between the individual members of the family.

It is exactly here where Steiner’s contribution is stellar: not only did she go through the great lengths of the religious and social history of conversion to Judaism, but she covers different kinds of converts, and gets rid of some long-established assumptions about converts – a much needed, and a good riddance. Furthermore, she covers conversion of individuals in Germany, and in Israel and depicts the increasing interdependence of the conversions conducted in Germany on the Israeli rabbinate, and the power struggles in both, Germany and Israel, that at times turn converts into pawns at the mercy of higher powers. By way of her in-depth study she uncovers changing transnational Jewish relations, and evidences that conversion to Judaism is thus really much more than just the carving out of a modified identity, it constitutes the very serious crossing of limits, boundaries, and legal statuses with multiple stakeholders.

Chronologically, the book begins with a historical overview of conversion to Judaism. The second chapter is dedicated to the actors: the rabbis and the converts in both Germany, and Israel. The third chapter focusses on non-Jewish family members of Jews who convert to Judaism. Like chapter six that covers conversion of German non-Jews to Judaism in Israel it is replete with gems, which map out the individual complexity of conversion, and the widely different logic of the converts. Contrary to the assumption that conversion is a way out of – the still existing – German guilt (chapter five) converts of the ‘non-guilty’ camp become Jews out of a range of reasons, from deeply held desires that base on divine intervention, to wanting to create a holistic family – and act of love towards their fellow Jews, one might say – to motives which border the therapeutic. The description of these major groups of converts is rounded off by two excursuses, conversion as a defence mechanism of one’s own antisemitism, which is wedged between the chapters covering conversion to Judaism to grapple with the past, and conversion to Judaism in Israel as a means to creating, and finding a home, and fake Jews, individuals who assumed Jewish biographies without actually converting. Of course, in the light of the performative nature of identity (as opposed to categorical ethnicity) one might ask why these Jews are fake: does one really need a rabbinic certificate to feel Jewish, to perform Jewish or to belong Jewish? Going by what Steiner found the certificate is just the official document that – legally – evidences an already existing, personal, identity – and thus affirmative of having become a recognised member of a categorical ethnic group, which grants special rights to its members.

Following this tour de force Steiner engages in her final analysis, which very much focuses on borders, boundaries and limits. It is here where a non-identity, as an ethnic approach to Jewishness would have been commendable as identity is something anybody can develop or assume as the fake Jews show forcefully. An identity can be performed as she outlines throughout her book when she engages in the various facets of performing Jewish identity. Ethnicity, a categorical vehicle in the first place, a physical reality especially if it comes attached with citizenship, is a mental construct[3] or an internally stratified ‘thing’ only in the second place, once the requirements to fit the categorical mould have been satisfied to the extent that those in power grant access to the ‘new ethnic’ status. Yet, becoming Jewish as a ‘new ethnic status’ remains a promise unfulfilled. One can feel Jewish, have a Jewish identity (whatever that is), and do Jewish, one can perform Jewish but only a matrilineal birth Jew is ever the embodiment of Jewish life in the purest sense.[4] This issue is what disturbs the identities and in consequence the ‘Jewish biographies’ of Steiner’s interview partners. They have become gerim but not yehudim (Jews), give or take their orthodox performance and Israeli citizenships. To understand the pain that this ‘quasi-status’ brings to their heartfelt identities and identity needs, and how upsetting this incompleteness is whenever it becomes tangible is an issue which will hopefully be explored in follow up studies that draw on narrative studies, the psychology of threatened identities as well as socio-legal studies. But even if these studies will come forward, Steiner should be credited with being a harbinger, and with paving the way – and furthermore with opening the gates to understanding, as opposed to judging or justifying, the conversion to Judaism in Germany, and of German and other non-Jews to Judaism.

[1] Zygmunt Bauman, Allosemitism: Premodern, Modern, Postmodern, in: Bryan Cheyette / Laura Marcus (eds.), Modernity, Culture, and “the Jew”, Cambridge 1998, pp. 143–156.
[2] Shlomo Sand (2009) stands out on this regard, he argues against the ethnic component of Jews as a distinct group. However, his criticism is directly pointed at studies that seek to find Jewish genes to evidence Jews are a bio-genetic ethnic group. Both camps, the anti-geneticists like Sand and the geneticists need to be seen in discursive context as part of an on-going struggle concerning the boundaries of the Jewish people as opposed to Jewishness, or Jewish identity. At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, Sand (2014) harbours a deep, emotional, and nearly mystical investment in his own Israeliness. See Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People, London 2009 and Shlomo Sand, I wish to resign and cease considering myself a Jew, in: The Guardian, 10.10.2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/10/shlomo-sand-i-wish-to-cease-considering-myself-a-jew (27.01.2017).
[3] See Dani Kranz, Quasi-Ethnic Capital vs. Quasi-Citizenship Capital: Access to Israeli citizenship, in: Migration Letters, 13 (2016) 1, pp. 64–83, http://www.tplondon.com/journal/index.php/ml/article/viewFile/557/437 (02.02.2017) and Rogers Brubaker, Ethnicity Without Groups, Cambridge 2006.
[4] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford 1998.

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