Jacob Sonderling wrote his draft autobiography “This is my Life” only a few years before he died in Los Angeles in 1964. Thus he described his experience in Europe prior to his emigration to the USA in 1923 not from the perspective of a contemporary observer, but from that of a narrator looking back on his life and linking his life’s work to a narrative of success. This means that there was not only a significant interval between the events described and their retrospective interpretation, but also an emotional distance – a distance which must be taken into consideration in the interpretation of this source.
The excerpt begins with Sonderling’s description of his arrival in Hamburg in 1907 and the situation within the Jewish community he witnessed as rabbi of the Neuer Israelitischer Tempel New Israelite Temple founded in 1817 and, in his words, “the cradle of the Reform movement the world over”. Born in Upper Silesia to parents from Hungary and Galicia who were followers of Hasidism, a mystical-religious revivalist movement, he had previously served as rabbi in Göttingen.
In the 19th century, the zenith of Jewish emancipation in Western and Central Europe, an institutional split between the various Jewish movements had taken place in Hamburg as well as in many other places. The voices of those who supported Reform Judaism, later called Liberal Judaism, had grown noticeably louder since the beginning of the 19th century. Contrary to other Jewish communities in the German Empire where similar conflicts erupted between orthodox and liberal Jews about matters of worship, the Hamburg community did not lose part of its orthodox Jews in an institutional secession (Secessionist Orthodoxy) from the state-recognized communal body Einheitsgemeinde. In Hamburg, two and later three different rites (orthodox, liberal, conservative) gave themselves an institutional character as a federation united under the umbrella of the German-Israelite Community. One important factor in the development of this “Hamburg system” lay in the fact that since 1864 affiliation to the Jewish community had become voluntary by law and thus did not require membership in a synagogue association.
The source picks up its narrative thread by taking the process of differentiating religious movements within Judaism in the 19th century as its point of departure, a process which was closely linked to the German-Jewish bourgeois middle class effort at acculturation as well. The question was to what extent Jewish identity and the Jewish faith should be an exclusively private matter in everyday life and whether its religious community life should adopt a form compatible with other ‘confessions’ and especially with the Protestant-influenced culture of mainstream society.
During the last third of the 19th century, the question how “Jewish” the identity most German Jews had created for themselves actually still was at that point increasingly arose. One important reason for this was that antisemitism – as a modern variation of hostility towards Jews – threatened the complete social integration of Jews even after their civic emancipation.
Sonderling mentions this aspect particularly in reference to Zionism, whose presence manifested itself in Germany at the 9th Zionist Congress held in Hamburg in 1909, for example. Zionism, which at the beginning of the 20th century had not (yet) become a mass movement in Western Europe and hence was supported only by a minority of German Jews, opposed the religious-denominational concept of identity and instead preferred an ethnic-national one. At the same time, its diplomatic-political variation was based on the hope to establish a future Jewish state in Palestine in order to overcome the Jews’ status of diaspora – and thus their dispersion across the world. Contrary to many other Jews who found the Zionist ideology appealing, Sonderling did not name the experience of antisemitism or disappointed hopes of integration as the reason for his positive response to Zionism. He was much more interested in this nationalist Jewish movement as a potential answer to the question of an adequate Jewish concept of identity which could prevent both the erosion of Jewish religiosity and the dissolution of the Jewish sense of community.
In his autobiographical notes, Sonderling characterized the state of his own Jewish identity as well as that of the German-Jewish community at large as deficient even during the time before World War I. The description of his war experience in particular fits into the narrative as a whole – to wit, that of a disillusioned rabbi in Germany who sought to balance the religious and national elements of being Jewish. This narrative in turn can only be understood knowing that at the time of his writing, he was able to look back on a fulfilling life and a successful career in the US. Shortly after the outbreak of the war, Sonderling had been approved as a military field rabbi in order to provide German soldiers of Jewish faith with specific spiritual guidance during their military service. Like many other German Jews deployed to the Eastern front during the war, as part of the German army, he entered a region which was located in the midst of the main area of settlement for Eastern European Jews. At the time of World War I, their number, including the Galician Jews as Austrian citizens, added up to about six to seven million. The inhabitants of this densely populated Jewish settlement lived in an entirely different Jewish world than was the case in Germany.
In terms of their appearance alone, most of them were very different from the mostly acculturated German Jews. This included wearing kaftans and side locks [payot] as well as using the Yiddish language frowned upon as jargon by many German Jews. Moreover, they led a religious-traditional Jewish life, strictly observing Shabbat and religious dietary laws. The majority of Eastern Europe’s Jews not only considered themselves members of a religious community, but also of a Jewish nation.
Although reactions by German Jews to their immediate encounter with the Eastern European Jewish world and culture were often marked by ambivalence, Sonderling’s autobiographical notes betray no signs of personal ambivalence regarding his attitude towards Eastern European Jews. His account does indeed contain selective elements of an “Ostjudenerlebnis” encounter with Eastern European Jews – a term describing the rediscovery (and sometimes romanticization) of Eastern European Jewish culture and religiosity in the context of personal contact between some German Jews with so-called ‘Eastern Jews’ during the war. This is particularly evident in Sonderling’s description of his personal experience in making contact: “Here I was accepted as a Jew without attributes. Here surrounded by those people, I got the answers to my questions. [...] Those four years in Russia made me a Jew”. More than anything, Sonderling’s account of his conflict with his own Jewish identity is written from the perspective of someone who has lost his bearings and who, in his time as rabbi in Hamburg, did not have an answer to many questions intrinsic to Judaism, especially the question, “what are we, a people or a religion”. To him contact with the world of Eastern European Jewish life notably served as a means of projection: firstly, in order to question the dominant interpretation of Jewish identity in Germany and secondly in order to find a solution to his own inner dilemma. He did not relinquish his religious-denominational concept of identity, however. Instead he tried to balance it with aspects of an ethnic-national self-definition, against the interpretation favored by “official Judaism”, which he criticizes at the beginning of the excerpt. This made his position the middle ground – at least in retrospect – in the secular-religious spectrum of Jewish identity, which became known as “Reform Zionist” in the American context.
The reason Sonderling gave for emigrating to the USA in 1923 was that he considered a middle ground between Reform Judaism and Zionism possible there – not in Eastern Europe or Palestine. In this regard, he differed from other Jews with similar experiences who remained in Europe.
As he stated in his autobiographical notes, which do take a somewhat lofty tone at times, his wartime experience in Eastern Europe had given a decisive impulse to his decision to emigrate to the USA. Following his return from the war, Sonderling had explained to those in charge of the Hamburg community that he could no longer preach in Germany, where Judaism was doomed. Contrary to the retrospective account of it in Sonderling’s (American) narrative of success however, his decision seems to have become final only after the end of the war. For on the occasion of the Hamburg Temple’s centenary in October 1918, he had once more made an attempt in the Neue Jüdische Monatshefte [New Jewish Monthly] to give an impulse for the realization of a synthetic middle ground in Germany. In it, he argued that not only did religious Jewry need to adapt elements of nationalism, but that Jewish nationalism also depended on religious elements in the long run.
Neither his hopes immediately after the end of the war nor the five-year period which was to pass before his emigration are mentioned in his autobiographical notes. This is not surprising since this period of time presumably was difficult to integrate into his overall narrative. When he eventually arrived in the USA in 1923, his future was by no means uncertain thanks to professional contacts made in the past. Jacob Sonderling continued his life as a rabbi following his emigration to the USA, first on the East coast and later in Los Angeles, where he lived for almost 30 years. The question he had struggled with in Hamburg, what exactly Jewish identity meant and was meant to be in the future, stayed on his mind – albeit under the specific circumstances of the USA, which he now had to reconcile with his intellectual European-Jewish heritage.
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Sarah Panter, Dr. phil., born 1982, is research associate at the Department of Universal History at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz. Her focus of research is: 19th and 20th century Jewish history in the German and Angloamerican scope, transnational history, cultural transfers and the history of interconnections, digital humanities as well as mobility research.
Sarah Panter, In Search of Belonging. Jacob Sonderling’s “This is my Life” (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, February 20, 2017. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-83.en.v1> [September 22, 2023].