The Making of the Jewish Middle Class

Kaplan - Jewish Middle Class

Kaplan, Marion A. The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, and Identity in Imperial Germany. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

In this entertaining cultural history, Marion Kaplan explores the ways in which Jewish women were instrumental in the formation of the Jewish middle class in the German Kaiserreich (1871-1918). Her study highlights the ways in which these women navigated their lives in a manner that shaped religious, national, gender, and class identities for their entire families. This book calls into question the notion that Jews in imperial Germany simply assimilated into German culture. Instead, Jewish identity was renegotiated and reconstructed during this period, and Kaplan shows that this negotiation took place largely in the private sphere thanks to these Jewish women.

The dynamic of separate spheres is important to Kaplan’s work, and she shows that the private and public spheres were actually only rarely separate. While Jewish men went into new professions to earn more income, and thus position their family more firmly in the middle class, “it was in the household and family…that the most marked embourgeoisement took place” (4). Jewish women were expected to reign over the bourgeois realm of domesticity, and keep up appearances of respectability. They were meant to rear good, cultured German children who knew good manners and would conform to the expected bourgeois standards. In essence, the home and family members were supposed to display the family’s Bildung, or “authentic respectability” gained through self-cultivation (9). Kaplan argues that too many historians have focused only on men in their studies of Bildung because, until the twentieth century, women were barred from higher education and most jobs. But, this focus overlooks the central role that women played in setting the tone for the family’s Bildung: teaching manners, exuding Gemütlichkeit, and steadying support of her husband and family (25).

The home was an important site for another reason; this is where the mothers practiced acculturation, rather than the full-scale assimilation that has been suggested in other studies. By looking only at the public sphere, one gets the impression of assimilation, of Jews trying to become as “German” as possible. But turning one’s gaze to the private sphere, one sees that many women “continued to perform rituals, cook special Jewish dishes, and think and act in terms of Jewish life cycles, family networks and the Jewish calendar” (63). Women picked and chose how “German” their families would become, and by no means did they intend to give up their Jewish heritage. In fact, Kaplan argues that as the number of men going to synagogue and sticking to Jewish rituals steadily declined, women increasingly became the sole guardians of Jewish traditions in the German middle class (64). With the development of “optional ethnicity” for Jews, the “significance of women’s religious practices moved from periphery to core” (84).

The second half of Kaplan’s book describes the difficulty Jewish women faced when trying to enter the public sphere by entering higher education or the work force. In both of these ventures, they faced double discrimination as women and as Jews. These chapters remind readers that anti-Semitism was an everyday aspect of life in imperial Germany. One area that Jewish women were able to flourish in was social work. This endeavor explicitly connected the private and public spheres by extending the feminine (private) care of the sick, impoverished, or hungry in the public arena. “They then insisted that their traditional household duties extended, with the blessings of religion, to local and then national benevolent duty” (226). Kaplan sees this as a secularization of Jewish philanthropy, a transformation from religious to national duty.

Ultimately, Kaplan shows how these developments shaped not only Jewish middle class life, but also German middle-class life in general. Bourgeois Jewish leisure activities, higher average marriage ages, expanded role of domesticity and motherhood, and other factors all impacted German culture at large.

For more books on the history of modern Germany, see my full list of book reviews here.  

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Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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