Polemic about the Premiere of the Jewish Kulturbund
(July 25, 1933)
Why Nathan the Wise?
We have already reported on governmental approval for the founding of the Cultural League for German Jews. The founders have tried to secure the participation of all Jewish groups since such an undertaking can only succeed if it unites all Jews.
Generally, we agree on this point. But it seems that a certain difficulty has already arisen at this early stage. The heads of the Cultural League give appeasing assurances to all sides but this merely demonstrates that discussion of the Jewish question among Jews has not advanced beyond first steps. One is forced to ask what is in fact Jewish about the events held by the Cultural League. On the one hand, one attempts show that the Jewish viewpoint is affirmed, while on the other hand one avoids appearing too Jewish. Some people want to hear nothing about Jewish matters, and one wishes to convince them that it is about time that Jewish themes be discussed within a Jewish League.
Zionists, by contrast, are often seen by others as though they satisfy the entirety of their cultural needs with Jewish works. One thus feels the need to excuse oneself for the fact that works of non-Jewish authors and composers are also presented at concerts and in the theater. But this attitude stems from a completely misguided assumption. It is obvious to us Zionists that we wish to enjoy the works of great artists and poets as such, and prefer these to any inferior work of Jewish origin. It would seem ridiculous for instance, if only operas by Jewish composers were to be performed. In our opinion, the Jewishness of such a League should not be expressed in an investigation of a given artists lineage. But the League must be aware that we are united Jews, and that it is as Jews that we receive works of art and culture. This awareness, furthermore, should be brought to its members. It does not accord with our Zionist sensibility to list the accomplishments of Jewish composers or virtuosos. To do that is in fact a remnant of apologetic assimilationism, according to which Jews are thought to be able to secure their place in a non-Jewish environment by boasting of their achievements in all spheres of life.
What distinguishes the new Jewry from the old assimilated Jewry is an openness to the world, but one in which Jewish identity is maintained. Mr. Julius Bab for example, one of the heads of the Cultural League, made an embarrassing claim in his speech at the latest event. While pointing to the Jewish cemetery in Worms, he stated that Jews have been living in Germany longer than the Germans themselves. In response, one must point out that these Jews in Germany never had any pretense to be Germans and certainly not to represent Germans and their art. If Mr. Bab had stood at the Jewish Cemetery in Worms, he might well have read the Hebrew inscriptions on the stones from which he could have learned how many centuries ago people were buried there. There are only a few places in Germany where, when one looks at the town walls and the high dome overlooking the city, one gets such a strong impression that here (both architecturally and sociologically) two worlds lie next to each other. Surely if we will there can be peaceful co-existence. But the worlds to which Mr. Bab refers were alien to one another.... This has to be said because one could have gotten the impression from Mr. Babs speech that there are tendencies in the League that we must reject for the sake of our Jewish cause .
There can be no objection to Mr. Babs announcement that Lessings Nathan, the Wise will be performed at the opening of the Jewish theater, so long as one does not turn the cultural performance into a political act.
We Jews regard Nathan the Wise as a great work of art and an expression of humanistic ideals. But we also consider it to be a period piece, and we do not want to create the impression that the Kulturbund...sees this as the real German spirit, as opposed to another spirit, which we label as inauthentic; we are not entitled to instruct the Germans. And since Mr. Babs speech raises the concern that the Cultural League may be losing its way, we consider it important to point out that we Jews must also look to the future instead of to the past. Rather than comforting ourselves with the knowledge that Lessing wrote Nathan the Wise 150 years ago, it is our desire to cope with the current plight of Jews. Should the performance of Nathan the Wise, which we welcome as an artistic event, have the explicit or implicit intention of segregating the Jews in an old world of illusions, then we would have to object to such a performance.
Letter to the editor by Kurt Singer
Judging by the fervor with which the Zionists defend their ideals, I had expected this call for reflection. Given the openness with which assimilated Jews also acknowledge the Jewish Question, but do so as Jews who owe their achievements, their education and their knowledge to German Culture, one cannot demand a radical change in mind and body from one day to the next. Should the tolerance for which Nathan preaches be lost among Jews?
I see no cause for polemics regarding our commitment to serving Jews. The Cultural League has no intention of engaging in politics. We intend only to perform art.... There can be no doubt that Nathan should be the very first play to produce, precisely because it is a modern, combative work. Its language, its dramatic qualities...and its purely human, timeless spiritual nature are all chords that resonate in harmonic unity.
The artist in the Jew finds his way into the hearts of the Jewish audience. If the Jew were to triumph over the artist, then liturgy and Chassidic folk song would be the sole focus of our musical events. But that would be to cut off the branch that bears the fruits.
Our fate as Jews in the year of the national revolution unites us without question. The question is no longer one of Zionists vs. assimilated Jews, but one of affirming Jews vs. deserters. All affirming Jews should join hands in the Cultural League, receiving and giving.
Source: "Juedische Rundschau," 25 July 1933.
Source: Yad Vashem