Coping with Disruptive Change

Jews, Middle Class Culture, and Social Transformation in Germany, 1800-1860

Simone Lässig

On the eve of the French Revolution, most Jews in German-speaking Central Europe lived in rural areas. The great majority of them were poor, had little education aside from religious training, and had only minimal contact with non-Jews. A century later, a significant portion of German Jewry belonged to the new urban middle class that had taken shape in the decades after 1815. The book length project “Coping with Disruptive Change” analyzes the multifaceted role religion played in the astounding change in the social and economic standing and, above all, in the cultural profile of Jews in the German territories in the period 1770–1870.

Before the upheavals of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Jews of Central Europe had created a Lebenswelt that centered around Jewish law. The challenges that came with the Enlightenment and the advent of modernity posed a deep threat to the Jews’ existence as a distinctive and cohesivesocial group. Traditional, largely religiously defined orders of knowledge and frames of reference increasingly seemed incapable of providing responses to rapidly changing circumstances. What it meant to be Jewish was no longer defined solely by Jewish law. It became a matter of discussion, decision and individual choice, and it was influenced by ideas developed by non-Jews, who drew – as did some Jews as well – a sharp contrast between traditional Jewish life and new notions of civility and cultivation, of Bürgerlichkeit and Bildung. Both Reformed and Orthodox Judaism took shape as Jewish communities across Central Europe tried to take stock of new, unprecedented political, social, and economic opportunities. In this context, religion played a dual role: religion and religious knowledge were resources for grappling with disruptive social and cultural change, and they were also means of bringing change about.

“Coping with Disruptive Change” focuses on the experiences of lay men and women as participants in the transformation of traditional Jewish religious knowledge and of Jewish life in Central Europe. It draws on personal documents such as letters, diaries, and memoirs as well on periodicals, religious texts, and educational materials produced for lay audiences. “Coping with Disruptive Change” was developed in the context of the German-Israeli research project “Innovation through Tradition? Jewish Educational Media and Cultural Transformation in the Face of Modernity."

Related Publications

Simone Lässig. "A 'Jewish Sattelzeit'? Recasting an Era of Upheaval and Transformation." In Special Issues "Forum The Vanishing Nineteenth Century in European History? A Comparative Exploration," edited by Karen Hagemann and Simone Lässig. Central European History 51.4 (2019): 42-47.

Simone Lässig and Miriam Rürup, eds. Space and Spatiality in Modern German-Jewish History. Oxford/New York: Berghahn 2017; Paperack ed. 2019.

Simone Lässig. "Religious Knowledge and Social Adaptability in the Face of Modernity." History of Knowledge: Research, Resources, and Perspectives, July 21, 2017. Available Online

Simone Lässig. "The History of Knowledge and the Expansion of the Historical Research Agenda." Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 59 (Fall 2016): 29-58. Available Online

Simone Lässig. "Systeme des Wissens und Praktiken der Erziehung. Transfers und Übersetzungen im deutschen Judentum des 19. Jahrhunderts." In Kommunikationsräume des Europäischen – Jüdische Wissenskulturen jenseits des Nationalen, edited by Hans-Joachim Hahn et. al. Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag 2014, 7-34.

Simone Lässig. "'Als der Talmud peinlich wurde …' Über die Bildung der Sinne im Judentum des 19. Jahrhunderts." In Sinngeschichten, edited by Christian Frey et. al. Köln, Weimar, Wien: Böhlau Verlag 2013, 139-151.