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Friday, July 31, 2009

Heine, the non-Jewish Jew

Heine, a double life [1]

Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), the great poet of 19th-century German romanticism, has always been a most controversial figure. A Jew self-converted to Protestant Christianity, heavily influenced by French culture, and sharply critical of the semi-feudal Germany of his own time, Heine was rejected by German Jews and Christians alike. Heine played no small role in forging this polemic: his biting sarcasm was bestowed upon friends and enemies alike.

Heine had a flair for making enemies, as dramatic as his genius for composing poetry in the lyric vein—verses that made him, justly, the idol of millions of readers. As an essayist, literary critic, political analyst, arts and theater journalist, philosopher and music connoisseur, Heine bequeathed his singular prophetic vision to the German literary scene.

During his lifetime and posthumously, Heine suffered the slings and arrows of anti-Semitism. The Nazis tried to erase him from German history, but the popularity of his song, the “Lorelei,” was too great; though in the end, it was attributed to an anonymous source.

Whenever the Jewish intellectual contribution to world culture is discussed, Heine’s own Judaism comes in for questioning. Whenever the thorny question of Jewish identity is raised, Heine’s name is bandied about interminably.

Heinrich Heine was born into a well-to-do business family. His mother, Piera van Geldern, envisioned a great future for her offspring, and sent young Heinrich to a Roman Catholic finishing school. Despite his mother’s assimilationist tendencies, the family’s own Jewish tradition was quite strong, exerting a strong influence on Heine’s life. His uncle, the rich Hamburg banker Salomon Heine, supported Heine financially from the cradle to the grave. This gross dependency inevitably led to a love-hate relationship, and periodic explosions were the rule between the two. In Heine’s youth, his uncle set him up in a business framework that ended, as was to be expected, in total bankruptcy.

Though Heine considered himself a steadfast opponent of society’s hypocrisy, he frequently submitted, albeit unwillingly, to norms that he inwardly rejected. Though an enemy of institutionalized religion, he made sure to be married in a Parisian Catholic church; while proclaiming the delights of hedonism and free love, the woman he married was a near-illiterate Paris merchant, and their life together was the height of “middle-class” existence. He did all this while preaching the ideas of Jewish pride, and decrying the servile attitude of Jews who converted to Christianity for social advancement. Heine was the epitome of self-contradiction: converting was exactly what he did.

A vocal critic of organized Jewish community life, Heine was emphatic in his condemnation of the more reactionary aspects of Jewish faith. He clashed with the fanaticism of Orthodox sects, while simultaneously opposing the crass opportunism of the upwardly mobile assimilationists. Of all the elements in Heine’s life that shaped his Judaism most clearly, his membership in “The Jewish Society for Science and Culture,” in his youth, had the greatest impact upon him.

No less important, however, was his return to Judaism following his own apostasy, in his later years of illness and paralysis. It would be fitting indeed to remember Heine’s celebrated response to a friend who inquired about the poet’s desire to re-join the Jewish people: “There is no need to return, for in fact I have never left.”

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