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Kafka didn’t know that bar mitzvahs took place on Saturday

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This morning I read a Kafka letter from 1923, a year before he died, in which he apologized to his good friend Oskar Baum for missing his son’s bar mitzvah because he did not realize it was on a Saturday. "Only yesterday I learned–and should have known all my life… that the ceremony can only take place on a Saturday." Kafka had been bar mitzvahed himself, 27 years before, but he had obviously never set foot in a synagogue in years.
The misunderstanding demonstrates how different Jewish identity was in Europe then from what it is today. No one would ever deny that Kafka was Jewish. He was as Jewish as they come. Almost all his friends were Jewish, he read Jewish publications, he spoke of being Jewish constantly as the central condition of his social/political and even economic existence. It is true that his uncle was a Catholic convert and one of his great loves, Milena Jesenska, was a Catholic. But conversion held no temptation to him. 

In his ultra-sensitive way, Kafka saw that Jews were bringing Europe into modernity and that Europe was reacting to it. 

“Perhaps the Jews are not spoiling Germany’s future, but it is possible to conceive f them as having spoiled Germany’s present,” he wrote in 1920 of a report of anti-Semitism in Munich. “From early on they have forced upon Germany things that she might have arrived at slowly and in her own way, but which she was opposed to because they stemmed from strangers. What a terribly barren preoccupation anti-Semitism is, everything that goes with it, and Germany owes that to her Jews.”

But if gentiles were suspended in pre modern anti-Semitism, the Jews were also suspended, between traditional religious practices and modernity. The idea that identity is fluid–the idea in Obama's first book about
his changing sense of blackness–was an idea that Kafka understood. Here is his unforgettable portrait (from another letter in 1921) of a neighbor at one of the sanatoriums he virtually lived in during the three years before his death:

[U]nder my balcony, his face turned toward me, a young half-pious Hungarian Jew lies in his reclining chair, comfortably outstretched with one hand over his head, the other thrust deep into his fly, and all day long cheerfully keeps on humming temple melodies. (What a people!)

That says it all. You can see in the half-pious Hungarian the American Jewish performers, Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce.

I find the Kafka statements liberating. They remind me that there is hardly one way to be Jewish. Here is one of the greatest Jewish writers at the height of anti-Semitism, and he is in love with a Catholic woman and has no idea when bar mitzvahs take place.
Today no Jew would not know that a bar mitzvah takes place on Saturday. And neither would the gentiles in New York. The privileged gentiles all go to bar mitzvahs all the time. It is a big part of elite New York childhood.

And meanwhile the precarious modern suspension of Jews that Kafka experienced has been resolved. Jews are no longer suspended. We are firmly in the cities. In 1922 he called Prague and Berlin the “medicines” for the sick European Jew. In the cities there was the civilization that Jews had made and craved; and how frightening his statement is when you realize that ten and 20 years on those cities would be overrun by the Nazis. They would have the same view of the cities, as medicines for the sick Jews, and they would have their own cure.

It is odd to think that the most enduring aspect of Kafka’s Jewish identity is his Zionism. He dreamed of Palestine constantly. He never actually took the step of moving there, but it was an important dream to him of Jewish wholeness. He marveled at the farmers and mechanics of Palestine, he subscribed to Zionist periodicals and was close to their editors. The Neue Freie Presse—Herzl’s Austrian newspaper—was often on his desk. He met several of his girlfriends through Zionist conclaves. He studied Hebrew, presumably so he could speak when he went to Palestine. His closest friend, Max Brod, was an ardent Zionist. Kafka was dismayed when people he was close to were anti-Zionist. 

Spiritually, Kafka was a Zionist. And today Jewish identity is concentrated around that feature of Jewish existence, a place that most American Jews have never been to. At least in Kafka’s case it was a real fantasy; it drew on the real terrible facts of European life.

The lesson of Kafka’s bar mitzvah story is the lesson of Obama's book on his changing black identity–group identity is extremely fluid. The group can reshape it as necessary to suit its needs. But it is always the group’s needs. Today the group maintains its cohesiveness by proclaiming Jewish religiosity and Jewish adherence to Palestine. Because it has lost the central element of cohesion that existed in Kafka’s time, anti-Semitism. That tragedy is available to us now, on Holocaust remembrance day, only as a narrative. It doesn’t describe our lives. We are not sick, we are strong.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

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