I've had some interesting and interested responses to my request for
early secular Jewish writing >from Western Europe.
The area I was thinking of were the lands either side of the River Rhine,
where Jews were known to have lived for about 1000 years, probably having
arrived with Roman invaders. I thought it counter-intuitive that they
should speak a different language >from their neighbours for so many
generations, and have now found my theory vindicated by the late
Berthold Rosenthal, (1875-1957), a teacher of religion in pre-war
Germany who emigrated in 1939.
Berthold Rosenthal transcribed - not translated - a collection of
letters of two Jewish brothers, Hillel and Hirz Weil >from Otterstadt, a
village near Speyer, who joined Napoleon's army as it drove eastward
between 1812 and 1813 . The exchange of letters with wives and their
father at home was in cursive Hebrew script. But Rosenthal's
transcription shows that the language was in fact the local German,
though with the inclusion of Hebrew words, just as one might use a
foreign term such a 'savoir-faire' or 'schadenfreude' when writing
To quote Berthold Rosenthal's introduction (my translation):
^What emerges most impressively is that the dialect is a sub-group of
the German language and not the exotic phenomenon which some
researchers make Jewish-German out to be. *
The conventional view of Yiddish which Rosenthal decries was , in my
opinion, encouraged in the 20th century by the NS to present German Jews
as 'other' in the popular mind, but is now a pervasive factoid,
repeated regularly by both Gentile and Jewish historians who cannot
read cursive Hebrew script/do not read German.
People like the Weil family used cursive Hebrew to communicate in their
normal local German dialect, but these primary sources are closed to
researchers without both sets of language skills. It was such a German
expert's restating of the conventional 'historical fact' that Jews
'spoke and wrote Yiddish' which started me on this exploration.
The letters in transcription are held at the Leo Baek Institute under
the title 'Hinter der grossen Armee' and reproduced in the publication
of the Vorlag Pfalzer Post, ' Pfaelzisches Judentum gestern und heute '
edited by Alfred Hans Kuby. I have a tattered copy and am happy to send
scans of (German-language) extracts to Gersiggers who wish to check for
I must add that my evidence is confined to the Jews of the Rhine Valley,
whose history differs >from that in other parts of Europe However,
the conclusions may well apply much more widely. So, for instance, I've
yet to examine the Tagebuch of Glickl von Hammelen >from Hamburg, which
people have recommended to me.
Eva Lawrence, St Albans, UK. email@example.com