Jewish studies have become a mass-production industry, and the sad story of German Jewry is  the subject of innumerable recent tomes. Most of these efforts, strangely, consider Jews without discussing their relationship to God, the Election of Israel, or the religious practices of Jewish communities. That, to paraphrase Heinrich Heine, is like talking about peanut butter and jelly without the peanut butter, pastrami on rye without the pastrami, or bagels-and-lox without the bagels. Sociological pronouncements and literary studies replace religion.

I have long believed that most of the academics writing about German Jews don’t know their behinds from their elbows, but here is a case in which this literally is true. A new book by Prof. Noah Isenberg of the New School for Social Research (Between Redemption and Doom) quotes Kafka and translates as follows:

Most young Jews who began to write German wanted to leave Jewishness behind hem, and their fathers approved of this, but vaguely...But with their posterior legs [Vorderbeinchen] they were still glued to their father’s Jewishness and with their waving anterior legs [Hinterbeinchen] they found no new ground. The ensuing despair became their inspiration.

Even without knowing German (and Isenberg claims to have a PhD. in German studies from Berkeley) most people know that “hinter” refers to the back, and could deduce that “vorder” refers to the front. In Isenberg’s translation “Vorderbeinchen” becomes posterior — which is to say that he literally does not know his posterior from his elbow.

Franz Rosenzweig, the most interesting Jewish intellectual by far, is quoted only in passing, regarding his sympathy for Eastern European Jews - but without mentioning why. Rosenzweig, about to convert to Christianity, attended a Yom Kippur service with Eastern European Jews and instead became a religious Jew. He found in the Eastern Europeans a devotion and passion for God he had never experienced in his assimilated German-Jewish family (too bad Edith Stein didn’t do the same thing — but of the two we got the better bargain in Rosenzweig).

Isenberg says absolutely nothing about religion; as far as he is concerned the interest of German-Jewish intellectuals in Eastern European Jewry was simply an idealization of “community” (Gemeinschaft), that is, a German category rather than a Jewish one.

The book is idiotic from cover to cover, and crawling with errors of German translation and usage. Given that the dog’s elbows are located on the Vorderbeinchen and the anus is located between the Hinterbeinchen, it is a fair comment that Isenberg has gotten them reversed. How he manages to lecture without drawing attention, I can’t imagine. 

Isenberg’s not the only one. The latest translation of Rosenzweig’s great book The Star of Redemption by Barbara Galli clearly was executed by someone whose knowledge of German is less than elementary. I reviewed this disaster in my Asia Times “Spengler” column when it appeared.

But my favorite example of idiotic illiteracy from the German-Jewish studies industry was a translation into English of Rosenzweig’s jewel-like translations from Hebrew to German of the great medieval Jewish poet Yehuda HaLevi, executed (murdered is a better word) by Thomas A. Kovach, Eva Jospe, and Richard A. Cohen. It was published a dozen years ago by the SUNY press. In the introduction, Rosenzweig mentions the Germanization of Greek hexameters by Voss — referring to the great classicist and Johann Heinrich Voss, a friend of Schiller. Voss is a household name; it was my privilege to study German literature with his descendant Ernst Theodor Voss of the University of Marburg, who was at Columbia on a visiting professorship when I was an undergraduate. Voss is a household name, one of the giants of the German Classic.

The SUNY volume spells his name Vofs — because the old German type (like the old English type) uses a letter that looks a bit like an “f” to represent “s.” That’s like talking about Shakefpeare.

It isn’t just that the academic mass-production industry doesn’t understand any of the issues or any of the important thinkers. They can’t tell a Fraktur “f” from an “s,” and they can’t tell their posterior from their elbows.

Articles by David P. Goldman