Assimilated Jews

For several centuries, the Jews of western and central Europe had been forced to live in confined quarters (Ghetto, Judengasse), were excluded from most sectors of the economy and society, barred from owning land, from becoming member of a guild, from attending university. Dress codes even forced them to stand out in their appearance.
These regulations were no longer strictly enforced during the period of the enlightenment, and individual Jews could make a career as Hofjuden (literally 'court Jew', i.e. banker of a prince).
The Era of Napoleon brought the legal emancipation of the Jews of western and central Europe. All restrictions were suddenly cancelled. The Jews of western and central Europe strove to assimilate into society, in most cases into the Bourgeoisie. They dressed accordingly, lived in appropriate houses, most notably, they sent their children to institutions of higher learning. Still, despite their attempt trying to fit in, Jews still encountered obstacles on their career path - not legal obstacles, but collective prejudice. In order to further their career, German poet Heinrich Heine and English politician Benjamin Disraeli converted to protestantism; even conversion did not completely eliminate the prejudice they encountered. Still, a number of Jews succeeded in becoming university professors, celebrated writers and artists, medical doctors; the changing society opened numerous opportunities.
An interesting case of assimilation is provided by the Rothschild family. The founder, Amschel Meyer Rothschild, was a typical resident of the Frankfurt Ghetto, dressing according to the enforced dress code, speaking an imperfect German with a Ghetto accent. He became court banker of Duke Wilhelm of Hessen-Kassel (the richest monarch of his time); his sons established branches of the Rothschild banking dynasty in London, Paris, Vienna and Naples. The Paris, London and Vienna branches assimilated into the local nobility - living in palaces, assuming the lifestyle of noblemen (hunting, attending balls, collecting art), and even succeeded in officially being ennobled.

The Rothschilds were an extreme case, indicating that national or religious identity, for a significant number of Jews in the 19th century, was secondary to the desire to be accepted, not by society in general, but by the 'inner circle'. Assimilation meant having to make sacrifices in order to reach the goal.
These sacrifices were justifiable and limited; the Rothschilds preserved their Jewish identity and would, in the years after 1880, use the wealth they accumulated in order to improve the lot of those Jews who had to suffer from pogromes (in the Russian Empire), and they contributed greatly to the Zionist movement.

Seen from the perspective of a 19th century Jew, the obstacles he encountered on his career path, the concessions they felt they had to make, are indicators of a discrimination they strove so hard to overcome. Collectively, the assimilated Jews were so successful in using their career opportunities that they soon gained a disproportionate share of the student bodies of universities, of prestigious professions, the success puzzling the remainder of society. The removal of residence restrictions also resulted in the appearance of Jews in areas where people were not accustomed to them. The comvination of these factors caused envy and rejection on the side of a number of their contemporary gentile co-citizens, which expressed itself in a growing Anti-Semitism.

Jewish Encyclopedia, especially articles France, Germany, England, Austria, Italy
REFERENCE Frederic Morton, The Rothschilds, NY : Kodansha 1961, pp.33-36, on 1804 Danish state loan

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on October 30th 2003, last revised on November 16th 2004

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