Leaving the Jewish Fold: Conversion and Radical Assimilation in Modern Jewish History
By Todd Endelman
Princeton, 425 pages

There are many Jewish sociologists, fewer sociologists of the Jews, and hardly any historical sociologists of that anomaly among an exceptional people, the Jews of Britain. There is only one Todd Endelman. His specialty is the Jews who “prefer not to” be Jewish: the Tribe of Bartleby. For decades, Endelman, a professor at the University of Michigan, has measured the “radical assimilation” of Jews from Jewishness, first among the genteel Sephardim of Georgian London, and then among British Jews as a whole. In Leaving the Jewish Fold, Endelman pursues his lost sheep across a thousand years of Western history.

Most of them chose to get lost and wanted to cover their tracks. In our enlightened times, it is possible to identify as a person of no fixed principles. But for most of the past millennium, to cease being Jewish meant to start being Christian. Endelman identifies two forms of conversion from Judaism: “conversions of conviction” and “conversions of convenience.” The convicts are more spectacular, but the convenient are more numerous. For every sincere conversion on St. Paul’s road to Damascus, there have been thousands on the road to jobs in London and Paris, Berlin and Vienna, New York, and Washington. Heine justified this kind of conversion as a “passport to civilization”: an escape from prejudice, an entry into high culture. Others simply resigned from a club that they never asked to join. Such converts did not need to be threatened with a sword, only with a carrot and stick: economic opportunity and “conversionary pressures.”

Such pressures were light in the first Christian millennium. St. Augustine had advised that Jews be maintained in a degraded but living state, to confirm their error in rejecting Jesus. This changed around 1000 c.e. As the Latin kingdoms of Western Europe grew stronger, their rulers accumulated debt. In the Rhineland riots that preceded the First Crusade of 1096, suicide and baptism were the only ways to avoid massacre or expulsion. The numbers are unclear, but Endelman doubts the legend of a medieval Jewish embrace of pious mass suicide. Certainly, the massacres precipitated rabbinic rulings sacralizing kiddush ha-Shem, death in “sanctification of the Divine Name.” But other rulings facilitated the return of a meshamed, a “destroyed one” or forced convert, to Judaism.

The advent of organized proselytizing in the 13th century achieved only “modest results” and few converts of conviction. Occasionally, a young woman converted to escape an arranged or abusive marriage, or to pursue an interfaith romance. But most converts were men from the extremes of Jewish society: the poorest and least integrated, or the wealthiest and most integrated. A tenth of England’s 3,000 Jews lived in Henry III’s domus conversorum, (“house of the converts”), but most came for a free lunch. Many “rogues and rascals” converted each time they arrived in a new town, to obtain certificates of conversion and charitable accommodation. Later, these Ponzi schemers of the soul traded the certificates to other beggars, Jewish and Christian.

Only in Spain did medieval conversion reach great proportions. The massacres of 1391 “swept Jews by the thousands to the baptismal font.” In 1492, following a century of intense pressures, perhaps half of Spain’s Jews preferred conversion to expulsion. Yet Endelman hurries past this scene of mass apostasy in a couple of pages. Worse, he shrugs off the “knotty” question of motivation in a single paragraph. “Whatever the case,” he announces, “the debate about the internal collapse of Spanish Jewry in the face of external pressure need not detain us.” Of course it should. The question is not just why half of Spain’s Jews converted, but why the other half did not. A full answer must inevitably address individual belief and communal psychology. Endelman raises only the first half of the question, but prefers not to answer either half.

The modern Western paradigm of conversion as a middle-class lifestyle choice originated among the Sephardim of 17th-century England and Holland. In a liberal state, Jews moved on to a tolerably uncomfortable middle ground. The Sephardi man of letters Isaac d’Israeli relocated to it in high dudgeon, after a spat over synagogue fees. His son Benjamin Disraeli remained there and turned his ambiguity to romantic use by calling himself “the blank page between the Old Testament and the New.” In Germany, Jews could write Konfessionlos on that page: “without religion.”

The century between the French Revolution and the Dreyfus Affair was a golden age for Jews who described themselves as being of the “Mosaic persuasion.” The political power of the Church was waning, but the new cult of racial science had not taken hold. The Christians were still discovering that they were Aryans. The Jews could persuade themselves that they were not Semites. Endelman supplies an endless parade of tormented and cynical converts, and he makes fascinating use of their private correspondence. Almost all of it suggests the inadequacy of his “radical assimilation” theme.

In Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1836), Teufelsdröckh’s spiritual journey leads from an “everlasting No” to an “everlasting Yes” through a “Center of Indifference.” Most Western apostates seem to have begun in that Center, and remained there until dislodged by the race laws. Their Jewishness had already been hollowed by assimilation in education, language, dress, and patriotism. If they converted, their Christianity tended to be similarly shallow. In Poland, Jews often chose a quick Lutheran conversion over a more rigorous Catholic one. It had also become possible to marry out without conversion, or declare for socialism and the other religions of humanity.

Swann, the Jewish protagonist of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, becomes “one of the most distinguished members of the Jockey Club, a particular friend of the Comte de Paris and the Prince of Wales,” writes Endelman.

Endelman’s paradigm, always weak, fails in the transition to the horrors of the 20th century. There is nothing “radical” about modern Western assimilation. The assimilators followed the universalist flow of their times and went out with a whimper, not a bang. The real radicals went against the flow. Theodor Herzl considered converting to Christianity but converted instead to Jewish nationalism. The composer Arnold Schoenberg, who converted to Lutheranism in 1898 to announce himself a member of the larger culture, returned to Judaism in 1933.

Again: If all Jews were subject to pressures to convert, why did only some convert? Endelman refuses to address what William James called the “psychology of self-surrender.” Yet only the psychology of humiliation and self-hatred can explain the projections of conspiratorial Jewish power in Jacob Brafman’s The Book of the Kahal (1869), a winner in the crowded field of Czarist-era propaganda; or Max Blumenthal’s Goliath (2013), with its malign fantasy of Israel as fascist and genocidal.

Nor does Endelman pursue his “dismal” subject among his sociological “in-group,” his fellow academics. Like Proust’s Albert Bloch, “at home now in drawing rooms into which 20 years ago he would never have been able to penetrate,” American Jews have scaled the heights of the Ivy League. But the academy is discomfited by Jewish peoplehood, and many Jewish academics are prepared to reduce their heritage to an “ethical tradition,” compatible with the intellectual fashions of their time and place. Increasingly, the ritual disavowal of Zionism is the “radical assimilation” of our age.

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