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Nina Caputo, Mitchell B. Hart, eds., On the Word of a Jew: Religion, Reliability, and the Dynamics of Trust

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 31, Numbers 1-2

Nina Caputo and Mitchell B. Hart, editors. On the Word of a Jew: Religion, Reliability, and the Dynamics of Trust. Indiana University Press, 2019, 336 pp.

This book emerged from an Oxford Seminar in Advanced Jewish Studies at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in 2013-14. The book discusses issues of trust and mistrust in the history of Jewish-Christian relations. According to its editors, Nina Caputo and Mitchell B. Hart, in our time we take it for granted that being Jewish should not matter while acting and engaging in the public realm, which certainly was not always the case. The volume consists of 14 essays that explore how and when Jews came to be recognized as reliable and trustworthy in areas such as politics, culture, finance, business, medicine, and jurisprudence, and convincingly reveals how caricatures of Jews play a role in religious, political, and legal systems.

The editors aptly divided the volume into four sections related to trust: “To Swear an Oath”; “The Business of Trust”; “Intimacy of Trust”; and “The Politics of Trust.” As a consequence, the book provides an excellent compendium on how to employ a major concept – trust – while offering new material as well as insights. It makes for interesting reading and is a valuable contribution to Jewish studies.

Two essays offer scholarly insight deserving of special emphasis. Stefanie Fischer’s “Jewish Businessmen in the Public Rhetoric around the ‘Trustworthy Businessman’ in Post-World War I Germany” sheds light on business rituals and the significance of Jews in Germany’s rural commerce. “Jews were a crucial and accepted part of rural business culture: they were trusted business partners, despite the fact that the stereotypical Jew was widely stigmatized as utterly untrustworthy” (170). The essay is fascinating and closes a gap in the literature. Also noteworthy is Joshua Teplitsky’s chapter on “‘A Kind of Republic and Neutral Nation’: Commerce, Credit, and Conspiracy in Early Modern Europe,” which focuses on the level of perceived value and trustworthiness of the court Jew.

The book’s main contribution, however, is Ephraim Shoham-Steiner’s brilliant essay on “Jews and Oaths in the [Franco-German] Commercial Arena in Medieval Europe.” Revealingly, data demonstrates that in their attempt to earn the trust of non-Jewish business liaisons, Jews in the Middle Ages swore oaths by invoking the names of Christian saints despite the biblical injunction against such behavior.

Unfortunately, Derek Jonathan Penslar’s essay on “Zionism as Theodor Herzl’s Life Project” does not directly deal with the issue of trust and mistrust and makes one wonder why the editors decided to include it at all among the otherwise excellent chapters. There are, moreover, scholarly issues with the text that must be addressed. Despite not having any training in psychology, Penslar’s “approach to Herzl is somewhat more psychological than psychoanalytical” (278) while “Freudian categories, I fear, may obscure more than they reveal” (278-79). Yet he writes that for Herzl, “Zionism became a means by which he could expose his genitals” ( 287).

Superficial statements that could describe numerous individuals are presented as academic insight: “[Herzl was in] an ongoing struggle to find meaning in life and to win recognition, which was the only way he could allay chronic and powerful depression” (279); “Herzl was psychologically exoskeletal, constructed from the outside in” (290).

Without explanation, Penslar also rejects any notion of Herzl’s homosexuality: “Yet the marriage to Julie quickly soured, and after that, Herzl never found (or, apparently, sought) sexual satisfaction with individuals of either gender” (280); “he gave up on erotic love, marital or otherwise, and contented himself with fantasies of virginal and unattainable girls” (286). Penslar further calls Heinrich Kana a “platonic friend” (280) of Herzl, despite an established scholarly consensus that Kana and Herzl were deeply in love with one another.

Peter Loewenberg, former director of the Training School of the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute and of the New Center for Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles, depicts Herzl’s homosexuality in his brilliant work Decoding the Past: The Psychohistorical Approach (130). Ernst Pawel discusses Herzl’s homosexuality, too, in The Labyrinth of Exile: A Life of Theodor Herzl, where he describes “jealousy and sexual tension” between Kana and Herzl. And psychologist Avner Falk discusses a “homosexual relationship” in Herzl, King of the Jews: A Psychoanalytical Biography of Theodor Herzl.1

After Herzl sent Kana his wedding invitation, Kana’s response was heartbroken, telling Herzl he would be emotionally unable to attend:

I do not go out, so hard it is for me…. Without you I would have drifted through life, and my great longing for love, whose power few people appreciate, would always have remained unsatisfied. I thank you today, which I have never done till now, out of this silly shamefulness from which I can never free myself, for all the Zärtlichkeit [tenderness, caresses] you have given me, and shall gladly see how the far greater part of the love of which your heart is capable now takes another direction.2

Jacob Press noted in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction  that: “Three months into his marriage, [Herzl] began writing a play about the fundamental incapability of men and women – a memorable line of dialogue: ‘What a happy man I’d be, if only I had the courage to run away from her.’”3 But he did not, and Heinrich Kana eventually killed himself on February 6, 1891.

It is hard to understand why Penslar decided to downplay Herzl’s homosexuality. After all, the author states that “understanding Herzl requires engaging not only his writings but also a vast body of scholarly literature on Herzl’s life, thought, and Zionist activities” (278). Possibly Penslar was not aware of the full literature in English and struggled with the original German material. The language barrier indeed seems to have been a problem; when translating from Herzl’s German to English, the author seems to miss the nuances. Herzl’s Projekt fürs Leben becomes “life project,” which is much too literal a translation and, unfortunately, as the title indicates, became the focus of Penslar’s chapter. Translating it in such technical fashion misses the irony of the German original: “A life project is a set of goals and practices that endow a person’s life with meaning and direction. It is both more specific and more all encompassing than careerist ambition, a desire to accumulate wealth or objects, or a yearning for personal fulfilment through romantic relationships” (276).

Herzl’s novel Altneuland, then, becomes “Old New Land” ( 277) instead of “old unknown territory”; Neuland is a word of its own, not neues Land, the “new land” in English. Altneuland is a novel, after all, and the German language is not as technical as history might indicate. More crucially, the novel Der Judenstaat gets translated as “The Jewish State,” not “The State of the Jewish People.” This is not merely a minor translation error, but significant and of current political relevance. Herzl had precisely in mind a state for the Jewish people, not a state of Jewish character, a Jüdische Staat. Evident here are not only translation issues and the author’s difficulty in conducting research in German, but also gaps in understanding of the fundamentals of early Zionist thought.

This is all very unfortunate, as On the Word of a Jew is otherwise an excellent book and highly recommended. It would, however, be much stronger without the Penslar chapter. If there is ever, as I hope, a reprint edition, it should certainly be left out.

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1 University Press of America, 1993, 68-70.

2 Kana to Herzl, Central Zionist Archives, File H-VIII-424a-43.

3 Duke University Press, 1997, 317.