A zsidó szempont

TitleA zsidó szempont
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsRigó, Máté
Author(s) of reviewed materialGerő, András

Title translated:
The Jewish Perspective

PublisherBudapest: PolgART
Review year


Full Text

Everyone can recall the poignant scene from Terry Jones’ Life of Brian (1979)  where Brian, the protagonist of the movie, burning with the desire to find his Jewish identity through joining an anti-Roman Jewish organization, suddenly realizes that even his handful Jewish compatriots sitting idly in the forum represent at least three diametrically opposed – yet ardently Jewish (whatever this means) – groups: the Judean People's Front, the People's Front of Judea and the Judean Popular People's Front. At the end of a truly hilarious debate Brian is finally compelled to take sides with one of the fighting groups, having acknowledged the lack of a single and all-encompassing Jewish perspective and the non-existence of an a priori “Jewish bond” tying all the sons and daughters of Israel in a unity.

This is the standpoint from which András Gerő, the well-established scholar of 19th century Austro-Hungarian social history and the director of the Institute of Habsburg Studies is launching his versatile examination of the divergent narratives on Jewish identity in 19th and 20th century Hungary. The central problem of the book is inherent in its title (“The Jewish Perspective”): (how) is it possible to argue for the existence of a single Jewish perspective when there is no strictly-bound Jewish community in Hungary since the mid-19th century? Taking into consideration the divergent and opposing historical heritage(s) of the various groups of Hungarian Jews (e.g. the Neolog, the Orthodox, the Zionist etc.), how is it possible to find a common denominator which unites all these different narratives? According to Gerő such common narrative can neither be derived from Judaism, nor did it come into being through the catastrophe of the Holocaust, which literally put all the different groups of Jews into one train – that of annihilation and destruction. Although the Holocaust has left behind an increased sensitivity, it does not point to a new Hungarian-Jewish identity; thus Gerő’s focal theme is the investigation of the possibilities of Jewish identity in contemporary Hungary, which he identifies in an integrative model explained throughout the book.  

A zsidó szempont is made up of five essays already published separately, which provide an accumulative justification of Gerő’s well-articulated thesis. Namely that the current discourse should supersede the assimilation-dissimilation dichotomy by opening grounds to a more desirable understanding centered on integration (accepting Jews with their Jewish identity as Hungarians). Secondly, argues Gerő, it is impossible and worthless to investigate Hungarian Jewish heritage as a past removed and isolated from the broader Hungarian social-political context and oblivious of the widespread cultural interaction between Jews and non-Jews.

Giving the volume a concise historical overview, the first essay analyses the 19th century Hungarian policy of desired Jewish assimilation: magyarization, the loosening ties from Judaism and certain forms of symbolic conversion to the “national cause”. Following up with this historical outline, the ensuing chapters highlight Gerő’s main points of interest: the symbolical characteristics attached to Jews in the periods in question, as well as the roles of assimilation, dissimilation and anti-Semitism in shaping Jewish identity. Anti-Semitism was born in an age when the relevance of Jewish descent was dwindling away, although anti-Jewish movements gained their force by denying this diversity and coercing the Jews into one - in their eyes - destructive group based on common ancestry. The resurgence of Jewish national identity based on dissimilation and Zionism at the end of the 19th century is mostly interpreted by the author as a clear-cut response to anti-Semitism. Assimilation and dissimilation: two opposing understandings of the “Jewish perspective” (sometimes used as a proxy for the touchy notion of “Jewish question”), yet – according to Gerő –neither of which could serve as a basis of a critical historical analysis. What is needed is a comparative history of Jewish identities, namely the examination of the historically situated emergence of diverse Jewish identities. In terms of historiography, Gerő promotes the integrative look on Hungarian Jewish past, although he is ready to acknowledge that this viewpoint echoes from the current, post-1989 context of Jewish identity politics, and that the Hungarian situation of the time – as opposed to the American setting – was centered on the opposition between total assimilation and dissimilation, and an integrative model was not a viable option.

This is, however, only a minor problem, since the author is mainly interested in interpreting the current possibilities of a Hungarian Jewish identity, to which his extensive historical research serves as an effective and convincing backdrop. There are a few points of historical analyses, however, which could have been articulated more clearly. The author adamantly opposes the homogenizing understanding of Jewishness by both the anti-Semites and those advocating a Jewish history uprooted from its Hungarian context; yet at times he also remains silent about the myriad of social-geographical-cultural etc. differences within Hungarian Jews themselves. Since Gerő is mainly interested in Jews as the spearheads of Hungarian middle class formation and modernization, his focus is kept on the religiously reformed (or converted), urban middle class strata of Jewish society, and, for instance the alternative e.g. the Jewish traditionalist viewpoint is rarely voiced. At this point the author openly relies on Ferenc Erdei’s still influential, yet somewhat bold and superseded statement about the double structure of Hungarian embourgoisement (and society), according to which Jews were commissioned with the role of cultural-economical modernization, while the other, traditional pillar of society was lagging behind.  This is why, for instance, the second chapter is mainly centered on analyzing the concept of homo oeconomicus as an inherently Jewish moral quality driving the country’s post-Compromise skyrocketing development and providing a financial background for the lavishly spending traditional, non-Jewish middle class. Although Gerő is right in emphasizing the role of the Jewish middle class in the country’s development, a more comprehensive analysis should acknowledge the deficiencies of such a cajoling sociological model when contrasted to specific historical circumstances.

Compulsively readable, concise and accurate, András Gerő’s book is definitely the most enjoyable and forward-looking volume in the recently proliferated Hungarian literature on Jewish identity. A zsidó szempont is a must-read for historians as well as for the interested public, since it successfully merges an entertaining and highly polished essayistic style with a firm background in historical-sociological research.