The Jewish Decadence or the Decadence of Jews?

By Natan M. MeirJanuary 25, 2022

The Jewish Decadence or the Decadence of Jews?

The Jewish Decadence: Jews and the Aesthetics of Modernity by Jonathan Freedman

IN 2013, I went to a sumptuous exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, entitled Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929. As I wandered through the galleries, luxuriating in the exquisite costumes and set designs, names like Léon Bakst, Ida Rubinstein, and René Blum triggered my Jewish historian’s sixth sense. You see, whenever I have a hunch that Jews are involved in some historical phenomenon in a significant way, I am often right. I think this has deep roots in that old Jewish pastime called “Is s/he Jewish?” (My grandmother used to do this when watching television: “See that actor? Jewish.”)

That this is not just ethnic self-congratulation is proved, I think, by Jonathan Freedman’s The Jewish Decadence, which confirms — almost a decade later, but never mind — my suspicion that Jews had a role to play, and not a small one, in the efflorescence of modernist, decadent art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries of which the Ballets Russes was one expression. As a historian of the modern Jewish experience, I knew the backstory to this particular episode very well: Jews in Western and Central Europe — a mobile minority, nimble, always ready for the next change in circumstance — were well positioned to take full advantage of the opportunities that a rapidly modernizing economy and society began to offer them in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Eagerly embracing their newly conferred political and civic rights — or anticipating the granting of those rights in the near future — they entered the German, French, Dutch, and other middle classes in large numbers, shedding many elements of traditional Jewish lifeways and adapting others to the Christian milieu. The modicum of social acceptance and integration that they achieved, however, left them mostly unprepared for the backlash that emerged in the 1870s and 1880s with the rise of political antisemitism. But by that time, they had become fully European, fully identified with the hegemonic culture. It is this moment of tension, when the hoped-for integration of Jewish and European identities was clearly no longer possible, that Freedman seeks to limn in The Jewish Decadence. But it was not only Jewish integration that was being cast into doubt — it was the achievements of European civilization as a whole. The fin-de-siècle was a period of skepticism, of gnawing anxiety, of fears of decline and degeneracy.

Decadence was the cultural expression of those fears, but also a response to them, as writers and artists — such figures as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Oscar Wilde — strove to articulate in their art a sense of ennui and anomie, a weariness with Progress and bourgeois morality, an opposition to Nature, and a fascination with art for art’s sake. Memorably, Max Nordau — soon to be a leader of the Zionist movement — condemned the movement in his Degeneration (1892), hinting at a meaningful intersection between Decadence and Jewish modernity. Indeed, one of Freedman’s primary goals in this book is to show that the real story of Decadence may in part be a story of how Jews engaged the crisis of modernity.

But the crisis was also, in some sense, a personal one, for Freedman’s protagonists were orphans of the Jewish integrationist project. Having been bequeathed by their parents’ generation the birthright of Europeanness (and, to some extent, deprived of any meaningful Jewish cultural heritage or identity), they now confronted a Europe that was, at the very least, undecided about whether and to what extent they belonged. To this circumstance, “they responded dynamically, indeed transformatively,” Freedman writes. It is that response, in all its forms and variations, that Freedman seeks to understand. The chapters of the book treat moments of cultural tension and dynamism in which Jews sought to work through their own relationship with modernity and European culture.

So far, so good. There is a serious problem, however, with Freedman’s chronology of Jewish modernity. Setting the stage for his analysis, Freedman writes, “[D]ecadence formed a vital […] part of the landscape Jews encountered as they sought to enter the mainstream of European cultural life.” But Jews had, in fact, begun to enter that mainstream at least a generation before the Age of Decadence, in the early and middle decades of the 19th century. Heinrich Heine, Felix Mendelssohn, and Fromental Halévy, for example, were all active from the 1820s to midcentury.

There is no doubt that Jews continued to struggle to find their place in European society in the last decades of the 19th century and into the early decades of the 20th, just as (mutatis mutandis) their forebears did in an earlier era. Indeed, one clear strand in Freedman’s argument is the way that Jewish artists and writers played with and remade central themes in European culture as part of their own struggle to find their own identity. Some of the figures Freedman discusses were so determined to make German or French (the primary national cultures under discussion) philosophy and literature their own that they embraced and adapted for their own use the work of antisemites such as Schopenhauer and Baudelaire.

In the Age of Decadence, animated in part by metaphysical despair, Schopenhauer’s pessimism was wildly popular, even and perhaps especially among Jews. Freedman shows that Freud, the Italian Jewish writer Italo Svevo, I. B. Singer, and Saul Bellow were all deeply informed by Schopenhauer’s worldview and incorporated aspects of it into their own writing, thus transforming it (and redeeming it, perhaps?). Walter Benjamin — whose inclination to dismiss French antisemitism would ultimately kill him — attempted to explain away Baudelaire’s antisemitism but also, according to Freedman, incorporated Jewish thought — aspects of Kabbalah, to be precise — into his analysis of the great poet’s work.

The decadent fascination with “perverse” sexuality (as it was known then) generated much artistic expression on same-sex love and eroticism, and thus it comes as no surprise that queerness and Jewishness play off of and inform each other throughout Freedman’s narrative. In a chapter on Jews’ relationship to Oscar Wilde as a cultural icon, for example, Freedman shows the fascination with and sympathy toward Wilde on the part of various groups of Jews, including Jewish members of the English social elite and Yiddish-speaking intellectuals (and to some extent the Yiddish-speaking public) in Eastern Europe and the United States — because of what he calls their “shared status as outsiders.”

Similarly, in Freedman’s reading of In Search of Lost Time — which both represented and critiqued Decadence — Proust uses “Jew” as a metaphor for homosexual, and vice versa: “Throughout the Recherche both Jewishness and perversion return over and over as topics of mystery and interrogation.” Though at first blush it might seem as though it is Jewishness that is the more fixed identity of the two, ultimately, Freedman argues, the figure of the Jew is actually more complex and “more ultimately unknowable than its Sodomitical twin” (this last phrase, by the way, is an excellent example of Freedman’s unrestrained prose, often witty and at times sublime). The “Jewish” protagonists in Recherche are both Jews and not Jews: they transform and transmogrify from “stigmatized outsiders […] to fully assimilated members of aristocratic gentile families.” Freedman links this unstable Jewishness to Proust’s own tortured identity: born of a Jewish mother, raised Catholic, and for much of his adult life distancing himself from his Jewish origins (just as he at times denied his attraction to men), Proust’s stereotypical Jewish physical features marked him, Freedman asserts, as “identifiably, indeed powerfully Jewish,” even though his identity as a Jew is “undecidable in the technical sense.”

The central argument of The Jewish Decadence is probably best summed up by the following statements in Freedman’s chapter on Walter Benjamin:

[O]ut of this encounter between Jews and the culture of aestheticism and decadence, something like modernity emerged […] [T]he writers and artists I mention in this book and many more besides fused their Jewishness with the ambient modalities of aestheticism and decadence to create something genuinely new and transformative.

The two “somethings” in that quote are telling, however. What is it, exactly, that emerged from this fateful assignation between Jews and Decadence? Modernity, or something like it? Modernism, or something like it? New, innovative — sometimes even glorious — forms of creativity? Freedman never pins it down, perhaps because it can’t be pinned down.

Despite that attempt at a unifying thesis, at times The Jewish Decadence reads as a series of meditations on the nexus between Jewishness and Decadence rather than as a holistic work with a clear through-line. (This may have something to do with the way the book was brought to publication; as the preface explains, Freedman suffered a stroke just after submitting his manuscript that made it impossible for him to participate in the publication process, and the final stages of editing and production were generously and lovingly shouldered by family, friends, and colleagues.) But it is no less an achievement for that. Always thought-provoking, occasionally provocative, it often staggers with its incredibly wide-ranging discussions of European culture and thought.

Freedman pokes fun at himself here and there for the profusion of literary and cultural references, referring in one place to his “example-drunk book.” It is chock-full of exciting and provocative ideas, but it is also just plain fun — something akin to Freedman leading the reader by the hand on a tour of a cultural landscape that he knows like the back of his hand, a world with which he is intimately familiar and where everyone seems to either be on intimate terms of friendship, romance, or carnal knowledge with each other, such that, in one parenthetical aside, we are informed that “Comte Robert de Montesquiou, Proust’s friend and the original for his Baron de Charlus, was friends with both” Sarah Bernhardt and Ida Rubinstein, both of whom had as a lover, at various moments, the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. What other writer would, or could, take us from Fanny Brice to Betty Boop to Proust, from Schopenhauer to An-ski to, in a final whirl around the dance floor in a conclusion entitled “The Deca-danse,” Serge Gainsbourg, Claude Cahun, Leonard Cohen, and Amy Winehouse?

But for all his fluency with modern European culture, Freedman stumbles at times when it comes to the specificities of Jewish life. For example, he asserts that “Jews in France […] were not treated with an abundance of generosity other than by Napoleon Bonaparte, who maintained and extended the emancipatory efforts of the Revolution by granting Jews full citizenship.” A strange thing to say about Bonaparte, who once called Jews “locusts who are ravaging France” and who authored the décret infâme of 1808, which presumed all Jews in Alsace and Lorraine to be guilty of usury, restricting their rights for 10 years until they proved themselves to be productive citizens. Discussing models of Jewish femininity, Freedman asserts that traditional Jewish society prized plumpness “for obvious reasons in a population that had suffered under conditions of famine.” While it is true that many Eastern European Jews lived in poverty in the late 19th century, and of course they suffered through the famine of 1891–’92 as did many other Russian subjects, they did not live under persistent “conditions of famine.” And, of course, there is the central problem that I mentioned earlier: Freedman’s claim that Jews were “entering” the mainstream of European culture only in the Age of Decadence, rather than appreciably earlier in the 19th century.

Along similar lines, I was somewhat disappointed by Freedman’s discussion of The Dybbuk (1913–’16), the groundbreaking play by the Russian Jewish writer and ethnographer S. An-ski, and of the echoes of The Dybbuk in Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua’s novel The Liberated Bride (2001). While he offers an inspired comparison of The Dybbuk with Dracula, and of the play’s heroine Leah with similar tradition-defying protagonists of decadent literature such as Stoker’s Lucy and Ibsen’s Nora, his analysis of The Dybbuk in the context of the Age of Decadence is not quite as pioneering as he makes it out to be — he is certainly not the first to argue that the play is an example of “the mutually generative relation between Jewish culture and that of the fin-de-siècle.” And while his exploration of the haunting resonances of The Dybbuk in The Liberated Bride makes for good reading, other scholars (such as Ranen Omer-Sherman) have done the same and come to similar conclusions. With only a scant four references to scholarship on An-ski and Yehoshua, this chapter feels somewhat unmoored, despite Freedman’s skillful analysis of the works. What is fresh here is his linking of these works to the larger web of fin-de-siècle writings that the book traces.

Freedman’s choice of An-ski and Yehoshua is exceptional in that their Jewishness was (and is) unambiguous, something that cannot be said for most of the other writers and artists who figure in the book. As Freedman explains early on, the Jewish identities of his subjects functioned “on a more tropological or figural level,” and it is precisely this tenuous connection to Jewishness — “these troubled Jewish identifications” — that played so central a role in the European Decadence. And there lies the central paradox of this work. That Freedman finds Jews in the Age of Decadence cannot be gainsaid. But to what extent he finds Jewishness is up to the reader to decide.


Natan M. Meir is the Lorry I. Lokey Professor of Judaic Studies in the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies at Portland State University.

LARB Contributor

Natan M. Meir is the Lorry I. Lokey Professor of Judaic Studies in the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies at Portland State University. A scholar of the social, cultural, and religious history of East European Jewry, he is the author of Kiev, Jewish Metropolis: A History, 1859–1914 (2010) and Stepchildren of the Shtetl: The Destitute, Disabled, and Mad of Jewish Eastern Europe, 1800-1939 (2020). He also serves as a museum consultant and leads study tours of Eastern Europe with Ayelet Tours. 


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