Heine’s Jewish Comedy is 841 pages long. To call it scholarly would be an understatement. It feels drenched in the anxiety of the scholar for having overlooked some relevant fact or opinion. It is certainly no Heinrich Heine joke book for the bedside table: the word “comedy” in the title is used, the author explains, in the sense that Dante and Balzac used it for their divine and human comedies. What he has chosen to do is to pick out every Jewish personage, real or fictional, in Heine’s life and work; every reference to the Old Testament, the Talmud, Herodotus, or any other Jewish piece of history or literature; every Jewish (or anti-Jewish) thought, opinion, feeling, taste, overtone, and gut reaction that Heine experienced in himself or in his environment.

Besides being among Germany’s greatest poets, Heine was a journalist—the father, according to the critic Ludwig Rosenthal, of modern feature writing.* After he exiled himself to Paris in 1831 he reported on the French scene for German papers, and for French papers on Germany. He liked to think that he was interpreting the two countries to each other. He collected these articles and published them in book form with many tactful omissions, additions, and alterations. These discursive, witty, and sometimes impudent pieces are among his best-known prose works. Professor Prawer examines the original as well as the final version of each; he also pays attention to all Heine’s rejected or unpublished output in verse and prose. These labors enable him to chart every change in Heine’s perpetually vacillating attitude to Jewishness, and to come to some very interesting conclusions which are to be found in his Conclusion: they would make a splendid essay on their own.

Heine wrote the most beautiful and enjoyable German prose. He knew what his feelings were and could express what he felt. Besides, he was a student of history, always conscious of its course carrying him and his generation along; he always connected the present with the past; he was, as Professor Prawer says, a poet-historian.

Nietzsche admired his writing so much that he declared that he himself and Heine would come to be acknowledged as the greatest virtuosos in the language. And so they have been—though often in company with Goethe and sometimes with Thomas Mann. So for anyone interested in the psychology of Jewish emancipation it is very fortunate that Heine was there when it was in its first flush in Central and Western Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century.

Born in 1797, he was five years younger than James de Rothschild, the youngest of the five brothers whose eruption into international finance and society can serve as a symbol for the outbreak from the ghetto. Not that Heine was born in a ghetto; in fact, the Frankfurt ghetto, the home of the Rothschilds, struck him as unbearably disagreeable and constricting when he came to visit it. His family lived in Düsseldorf and later moved to Lüneburg, a small town not far from Hamburg where Salomon Heine, the poet’s uncle and semireluctant financial support, was a rich banker. Heine’s father was unsuccessful and poor, and after his death his widow moved to Hamburg too. She came from what Rosenthal calls a “patrician” Jewish family in the north Rhineland; they had been rich but were so no longer.

Betty Heine’s ancestors had been court Jews financing the local princes, or else they were doctors. As far back as the end of the seventeenth century they had lived like grands seigneurs, entertaining the aristocracy and having their sons instructed in modern philosophy, science, and languages. It is a pity there was no Heine in that generation to record what it felt like to be them. Even if you believe that part of their grandeur was no more than a romantic tradition in the family, their way of life must have been very different from ordinary life in the ghetto, and it is quite difficult to imagine it.

The degree of civic disability from which the Jews suffered varied from one German state to another, but it was not until Napoleon occupied Central Europe that they were enfranchised or allowed to travel freely, live where they liked, attend the universities, or practice any profession except medicine. When Napoleon was defeated, many of their new freedoms were revoked, though not the right to attend the university. Heine persuaded Salomon to pay for him to study law. He found it very boring, but once at the university (he studied successively at Bonn, Göttingen, and Berlin) he attended courses in literature, history, archaeology, classical philology, and Sanskrit, not to speak of Hegel’s philosophy lectures: getting the latest philosophical ideas direct from the mouth of the most sacred cow.


He was already becoming known as a poet, and when he arrived in Berlin he was received in literary circles, including the salon of Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, which was frequented by intellectuals and politicians, and even by the odd progressive member of the Prussian royal family. Rahel Varnhagen had been born a Jewess, but had converted to Lutheranism. It is unlikely that she was a believing Christian. A child of the Aufklärung, she probably regarded orthodoxy of whatever kind as a retrograde jumble of tradition and superstition. She became Heine’s lifelong friend and confidante, and had considerable influence on his attitude to Judaism.

Hers was not the only Jewish salon in Berlin: Jews were chic. Henriette Herz had another, and so did Dorothea Schlegel who had run away from her Jewish first husband to live with and eventually marry the writer and translator Friedrich von Schlegel, and so become half of the ultimate Romantic couple: bohemian in style and Roman Catholic in religion. These women belonged to an older generation than Heine’s, but probably full acceptance into the Christian world was easier for women, partly because in their case exoticism was a sexual asset, and partly because marriage to a Christian husband threw a convenient cloak over conversion and protected it against accusations of apostasy and opportunism.

Dorothea Schlegel was the daughter of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, the founder of German-Jewish emancipation, who lived from 1729 to 1786. He tried to emancipate Jewry from within, building a bridge between the deism of the Aufklärung on the one hand and strict orthodoxy on the other. He translated the Old Testament into German for use in the Reformed synagogues that sprang up in the wake of his efforts. Heine’s mother was a Mendelssohnian Jew, hovering on the brink of deism; his father was more tradition-bound, but certainly not extremely orthodox. The family kept the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays, and there is a story—perhaps apocryphal—of the nine-year-old Heine biting grapes off a vine because it was the Sabbath and to pick them by hand would have been work and therefore forbidden. As a small boy he attended a Jewish private school, but at thirteen his mother sent him to a Catholic college run by a priest who was both Enlightened and enlightened. But he could not prevent the other pupils from bullying the boy for being a Jew.

By the time Heine, a mature student by now, was ready to leave the university and enter a profession, most of them were once more closed—in fact if not by law—to Jews. Anti-Semitism was becoming fashionable among the educated classes. The patriotism of the Napoleonic wars had developed into chauvinism and Deutschtümelei, the glorification of Germanness combined with the determination to keep it pure and unsullied by foreign or Jewish influence. What Rosenthal calls “an epidemic of baptism” swept the Jewish community as its members sacrificed religion, tradition, and solidarity in order to keep their briefly enjoyed liberties. Heine could get employment neither as a lawyer nor as a civil servant, and in 1825 he reluctantly and somewhat furtively joined the Lutheran church.

It did not do him much good. The positions his education entitled him to remained unattainable and journalism was his only resource. But here he was irked and restricted by the censor who cut and banned his work. By this time he had become a Saint-Simonian socialist and allied himself with the progressive Junge Deutschland movement which the authorities were trying to suppress. These were the reasons that decided him to move to France: it was not only that Jews there enjoyed full citizenship, but also that the 1830 revolution had created a more liberal atmosphere than could be found in Germany.

Heine’s love for Germany increased, if anything, with distance. One of his most famous long poems, Germany; A Winter’s Tale, describes a visit he made to his native land in 1844. It is full of satire and criticism, but the first section contains the following lines:

And when I came to the border line
My heart beat something fearful
Within my breast; I even felt
My eyes grow moist and tearful.

And hearing the German language I
Felt strange beyond all measure;
It was as if my heart began
To bleed away with pleasure.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Since I set foot on German soil
A magical current flows through me.
The giant has touched his mother
New powers are pouring into me.

The translation is by Hal Draper. The formidable undertaking of translating all Heine’s verse took him nearly thirty years. He wanted his readers “to approach Heine as an experience in English.” While keeping strictly to Heine’s meter and rhyme, he has actually brought off something that sounds as though it had been written in English from the start, and he has kept Heine’s characteristic verve which sweeps through each poem from the opening line to the end. But by choosing to stay with meter and rhyme he has also chosen—inevitably—to sacrifice exact shades of meaning and style. One cannot, for example, imagine Heine writing a crude mimicry of uneducated speech like “my heart beat something fearful.” On the other hand,


my heart began
To bleed away with pleasure

sounds lovely. But what Heine actually wrote,

als ob das Herz
Recht angenehm verblute

is much more ironical and means “as though my heart were bleeding quite agreeably to death.” Still, no one could possibly want to quarrel with Hal Draper: he gives so much; and as he disarmingly says, “If you want to see the full impact of Veronese, you should go to Venice, and if you want the whole of Heine, you have to go to the German.”

Heine never ceased to feel Heimweh, the exile’s aching nostalgia for his native land. As with most of his personal relationships his feeling for Germany was both love and hate. But whereas a depressing number of his human loves and friendships deteriorated from one to the other, his love for Germany never really diminished; especially, as the poem shows, his love for the language. He felt himself a German writer in the tradition that ran from Luther to Goethe. He even saw a particular affinity between Germans and Jews, especially between German Lutherans and Jews, because by his translation Luther had given Christians access to the Old Testament which had lain hidden from them throughout the Middle Ages, and been preserved at their peril by the Jews.

The idea of German-Jewish affinity is part of the Hellenes versus Nazarenes dichotomy which Heine helped to invent and Matthew Arnold picked up. It is a fruitful game like classical versus romantic, naive versus sentimental, Dionysian versus Apollonian, extrovert versus introvert, and so on—an intellectual cops and robbers. Hellenes believe in the here and now, in beauty, the senses, pleasure. Nazarenes believe in austerity, in an afterlife to which the here and now must be sacrificed along with pleasure and beauty. They are the people of the spirit while the Hellenes are the people of the flesh. The Germans (and Heine sometimes included the Celts) are natural Nazarenes along with the Jews, while the people of the Orient and the Mediterranean (other than the Jews) are natural Hellenes. On the other hand, the distinction is not really to do with race but with temperament: “All men are either Jews or Hellenes…. There have been Hellenes in German pastors’ families, and Jews born in Athens and probably descended from Theseus.” In a poem written shortly before he died Heine gives another variation: he imagines himself lying in a sarcophagus carved with figures from the Bible and from classical mythology: Diana as well as Herodias, Zeus as well as Moses, and so on. He is just sinking into peaceful death when a terrible din breaks out: it is the carvings fighting their ideological battles.

Truth always fights with Beauty in these scenes.
The hosts of mankind always will be split
Into two camps: Barbarians and Hellenes.
(The italics are mine and the translation is by Hal Draper.)

It must be said that before the carvings begin to quarrel there is a piece of rather puzzling symbolism in the poem: a passion flower grows over the sarcophagus; as the dying poet gazes at it, the face of the flower which bears the symbols of the Passion turns into the face of his beloved. Whatever can Heine mean by that?

Jesus, Swinburne’s “pale Galilean,” is, of course, the original Nazarene. Heine’s attitude toward him fluctuates: he starts on the opposite side, counting himself a natural Hellene. But Jesus puts himself on Heine’s side by championing the oppressed: “There has never been a socialist more terroristic” than Christ, Heine wrote, roping him into the cause; and he repeats over and over again how proud he is to be of the same race as the founder of Christianity.

Professor Prawer keeps circling around Heine’s baptism as the most important event in his life: a pivot, a perpetual thorn, a “trauma.” The poet felt ashamed, a renegade, a coward. He despised himself and other converted Jews; he also despised the Reformed Jews, his Hamburg relations among them, because they lacked the authenticity of the Orthodox, and especially of the socially backward Orthodox Jews he encountered with a mixture of admiration and revulsion on a journey to Poland. These people were whole, undivided in their souls and in their loyalties. Nevertheless, being highly fastidious and afflicted with an exceptionally sensitive nose, Heine could not bear their physical squalor any more than what he regarded as their religious obscurantism. There were times when Judaism struck him as a tyrannous idée fixe, a pair of black spectacles darkening the world. In a different frame of mind he was proud of the Jewish passion for freedom of conscience, of the Jewish martyrs who died for it in the Middle Ages and for what he called their “portable fatherland,” the Holy Scriptures.

He set up a tiny pantheon of Jewish heroes who managed to incorporate only the good qualities of being Jewish: Jesus was the first, followed by the medieval Spanish poet Yehuda Halevi; then Spinoza, whose ideas had greatly influenced Heine as a young man; and finally his own contemporary, Adolphe Crémieux, the French lawyer and deputy who played an important part in saving the Syrian Jews during the Damascus affair of 1840. Crémieux belonged to an old Sephardic family in Nîmes, and it is perhaps significant (though Professor Prawer does not mention it) that all Heine’s heroes were Sephardic—as indeed many western German Jews claimed to be: as far removed as possible from the disquieting Polish Ashkenazi.

In spite of baptism and his reverence for many aspects of Judaism and Christianity, Heine went through most of his life as an agnostic, having accumulated his philosophical stock from Spinoza, Hegel, and Saint-Simon. In a poem of his middle years he wrote:

To whom will I leave my religion, my faith in the Father, the Holy Ghost, and the Son? Let the Emperor of China and the rabbi of Posen draw lots for it.

(I have chosen Professor Prawer’s prose translation in this case instead of Hal Draper’s verse which catches Heine’s comic abandon, but is slightly ambiguous.)

Heine’s later work was written during the years he spent slowly and painfully dying of paralysis, confined to what he called his “mattress crypt.” It is not surprising that under the circumstances he moved—or tried to persuade himself that he had moved—back to a belief in God. But this God was an ecumenical monotheistic deity, not the jealous God of the Old Testament and the Talmud. During the same period he changed from being mainly irritated by Jewishness in himself and others to being mainly proud of it; and especially to recognizing and occasionally sentimentalizing his attachment to Jewish memories and traditions. One can only hope that on his deathbed he really did make the remark attributed to him: “Dieu me pardonnera; c’est son métier.”

The development of Heine’s attitude toward God and the Jews is anything but unilinear. Its complicated course has already been very well charted in a mere 388 pages by Ludwig Rosenthal. His readable book on Heine and Judaism is listed in Professor Prawer’s bibliography but has never been translated into English—hardly surprising in view of the not very wide appeal of the subject. Professor Prawer seems to be addressing himself to Germanisten hooked on the problems of Jewish emancipation and assimilation. He presents Heine as the first modern Jew, or at least as the voice of the first modern Jew, the first articulate witness of what it is to be one. This is a fascinating subject, but it does not combine very well with the closest kind of professional textual criticism.

The German Romantics discovered Zerrissenheit—the divided self. Heine called himself a romantique défroqué, (attributing the sobriquet to “a French wit”). His self was divided not only in the usual Romantic way, but also between Judaism, Christianity, and rationalism; between France with its intellectual freedom and Germany whose repressive regime could not stifle his patriotic devotion; between democratic ideals and a deep distaste for the unwashed and uneducated. He suffered from Jewish anti-Semitism and self-hatred and the tendency in “Jews of the era of emancipation (who frequently took a self-torturing and prophylactic pleasure in applying to themselves the stereotypes evolved by their enemies).” Here lies the origin of the Jewish joke, and Professor Prawer points out how many of the examples in Freud’s “The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious” originated with Heine; he also draws attention to “the line from Heine to Philip Roth or Woody Allen or Mel Brooks.” But what about the other line, to Lenny Bruce and Otto Weininger, the Viennese Jewish Wunderkind who wrote an anti-Semitic treatise and then shot himself in 1903? Professor Prawer comes across as more optimistic by temperament than Heine ever was. Sometimes he seems to be giving an unduly upbeat interpretation to what Heine actually said about the Jews, though he never goes so far as to turn him into what Hal Draper calls “a paladin of Jewish consciousness … a wrongheaded and baseless undertaking, propped up by wishful thinking.”

Still, there is a little wishful thinking in Heine’s Jewish Comedy. Occasionally, when Heine gets too rough on the Jews, Professor Prawer jumps up to defend them. He cites a passage in which Heine seems to think that the extinction of the race “(in the sense, no doubt, of complete assimilation) might be a blessing … but we may well think that there is a contradiction between this idea on the one hand, and Heine’s praise of Philo Judaeus and Adolphe Crémieux on the other. Is not the continued production of such characters sufficient justification for the continued existence of Israel?” Professor Prawer almost seems to be forcing Heine to agree with him, even to be enrolling him among the Zionists. A few pages later he picks on Heine’s remark that the Jewish composer Mendelssohn and the Jewish actress Rachel both lack the naiveté essential to creating artistic works of genius. “Heine’s discussion of Mendelssohn’s music,” he writes,

has a disturbing, surely not fortuitous, affinity with Richard Wagner’s later discussion of the same phenomenon in Judaism in Music….

But Heine is not Wagner, and the differences are at least as instructive as the resemblances. Again it pays to listen carefully to what Heine actually says. His answer to the question whether it is possible to have great art without Naivität turns out to be that this has never happened—as yet. “Bis jetzt … noch nicht.” Mendelssohn, Rachel Félix, and (dare we add?) Heine himself are different from the great geniuses of the past; they do lack an element which has hitherto been deemed an essential part of genius—but may they not, by virtue of this very fact, be the harbingers of a new art, an art of the future more consonant with the modern world than that which formed the horizon of expectation of their nineteenth-century public? In the creation of this new art, we may surmise, artists of Jewish origin may have an important part to play.

Well, if you “listen carefully to what Heine actually says,” “Bis jetzt … noch nicht” can sound much more like a sarcasm (he was much given to those) than a promise. The optimistic prophecy is not Heine’s but Professor Prawer’s. Not that it did not come true—one has only to think of Kafka or Modigliani: just that Heine did not make it. Professor Prawer can be drily professorial and write phrases like “it will not have gone unnoticed”; “readers will not have overlooked the point”; and even “a sexual metaphor with which, happily, we need not concern ourselves.” But he is not a dry stick. One can feel passion—a passionate commitment—beneath the rather forbidding surface of his exhaustive and slightly exhausting book.

Fortunately he uses a lot of quotations. When they are in prose he gives them in his own accurate and sensitive translation only; when they are in verse he gives the original as well; so as one munches one’s way through his text one does get a taste of Heine—that famous bittersweet, delectable, addictive taste. The heart “ganz angenehm verblutet” while the mind is entranced and intoxicated by the wit, the “divine malice” Nietzsche enjoyed so much, the acrobatic skill with words, the droll invention, the sheer funniness. An English writer who understood Heine very well was Maurice Baring. In a book of favorite texts, he quotes what someone else said about Musset and applies it to Heine: “Avec un esprit très gai, il avait l’âme saignante et désolée.”

This Issue

February 16, 1984