Review: Leaving the Jewish Fold: Conversion and Radical Assimilation in Modern Jewish History by Todd M. Endelman
Leaving the Jewish Fold: Conversion and Radical Assimilation in Modern Jewish History
Todd M. Endelman
Princeton University Press, 2015
“A Jewish question would still exist, even if every Jew were to turn his back on his religion and join one of our major churches.”
Karl Eugen Duehring, 1881
At the heart of the Jewish Question lies an extraordinary level of ethnocentrism. The tremendous capacity of Jews for mutual co-operation and the reinforcement of group identity is one of the behavioral markers that set them apart from most other human populations. This is the case even in comparisons with other populations that, like the Jews, have historically performed roles as ‘middle man minorities.’ Jewish ethnocentrism has thus deservedly been the major focus of attention when scholars or activists have decided to investigate Jewish group behavior. In general these investigations have rested on the obvious expressions of ethnocentrism — clannishness in business, Jewish endogamy, group political strategies, and the manifestation of Jewish group allegiance even in secular cultural contexts (‘Jews without Judaism’).
By contrast, the story of those Jews who ostensibly left both Judaism and their community, apparently cutting all ties with their ethnic group, has been little explored or discussed in explorations of Jewish ethnocentrism. This story is, however, an important one, and it becomes even more important in a contemporary context in which Jewish intermarriage, particularly in the United States, is reaching unprecedented levels.
Key to understanding Jewish ethnocentrism should be an assessment of its strength, not just in terms of its obvious successes and manifestations, but in terms of its failures — when did it fail, how often did it fail, and why? I chose to read Todd Endelman’s Leaving the Jewish Fold as part of my own deeper investigation into this issue — to probe the weaknesses of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy for a future book project on that theme. However, rather than being surprised, I found that it largely confirmed my pre-existing theoretical framework. Endelman merely confirms that Jewish conversions to religions other than Judaism have historically been extremely rare and, despite the title of the book, the author provides very little evidence to suggest that the ‘assimilation’ undertaken by those Jews who ‘left the fold’ was radical, or even genuine. To use Endelman’s terminology, ‘drift and defection’ has always been a small, though passionately resisted phenomenon on the periphery of Jewish populations, serving paradoxically at times, like anti-Semitism, to reinforce group cohesion at the core. But in the overwhelmingly majority of cases an extremely high level of ethnocentrism is a constant feature of Jewish history.
The book is neither entertaining nor intellectually stimulating. Leaving the Jewish Fold is the third book by Endelman that I’ve read, following his Radical Assimilation in English Jewish History, 1656–1945 (1990) and The Jews of Britain, 1656 to 2000 (2002). His histories tend towards the type of overview perspective that can be useful when trying to get to grips with major events and personalities, but which lack insight or real interest even on a potentially oppositional level — his stances and arguments are often so weak (or non-existent) that they are difficult to detect. This makes his work slightly more factually correct than, for example, the work of the late ethnic activist Robert Wistrich, but ultimately less ‘fun’ to engage with or argue against. The fact that Endelman continues to be published by elite academic publishing houses like Princeton University Press should be regarded as a symptom of ongoing Jewish influence in Western academia [discussed further here] rather than being suggestive of the quality of his work. Like earlier examples of his work, Leaving the Jewish Fold is for the most part a collection of anecdotes and statistics, derived almost exclusively from published secondary sources, and often involving very little or no original research. The structure and narrative cohesion in this instance, where the material concerns Jews who ostensibly abandoned Jewish life, is haphazard and often confusing. As just one example, during his weak first chapter on the medieval period Endelman inexplicably plucks anecdotes from the eighteenth century.
The potentially interesting subject of renegade or ex-Jews is for the most part wasted in Endelman’s hands. His writing is dry and lacking in creativity, but more importantly Endelman is very much the typical Jewish historian. By this I mean that his oeuvre can be read as part of the ‘lachrymose history’ school that dominates Jewish historiography. Accordingly, Endelman’s histories take place in a framework in which Jews are blameless victims of the irrational and unrelenting hatred of Whites. A curious aspect of all such histories is that they tend to focus more on the alleged injustices perpetrated by Whites than the actual historical actions of Jews. Such examples of ‘Jewish history’ are therefore more often histories of an alleged ‘European evil.’ Although it takes extremely careful reading to discern, the confused and contorted premise underpinning Leaving the Jewish Fold is that, historically, Jews have only left the Jewish fold due to material or psychological torture by the surrounding population. While the majority of Jews were somehow able to withstand such putatively awful treatment, weak Jews on the margins — poor, isolated, or somehow psychologically ‘different’ — ultimately drifted away or defected among ‘the nations’ in search of reprieve. Resource competition between Jews and Europeans, perhaps the defining factor in the development of anti-Semitism, simply doesn’t feature anywhere in Leaving the Jewish Fold as a subject of serious analysis.
Endelman’s first chapter, concerning ‘Conversion in Medieval and Early Modern Europe,’ sets the tone for the central premise of Jewish victimhood. In common with the vast majority of Jewish historians, Endelman appeals to psychoanalytic terminology and themes in order to explain both the origins of anti-Semitism (as he sees them) and the nature of European society. As such, Endelman employs the canard that Christianity bears the responsibility for creating anti-Semitism and ‘infecting’ the European population with it. Placing Europeans ‘on the couch,’ he writes that the early Church’s “failure to convince the Jews that their own scripture substantiated Christian belief was a source of anxiety,” and that Church leaders needed, “for both psychological and theological reasons, to assert Christianity’s uniqueness.” In a similar vein, Endelman argues that “by the thirteenth century, the medieval Western church was at the height of its powers. It was self-confident and expansionist, keen to combat a Jewish enemy that was by and large a product of its own imagination [emphasis added].” Jews are thus presented as the innocent victims of a strange kind of psycho-theological ‘virus.’ The only two redeeming elements of the first chapter are references to early examples of Jewish crypsis, and the fact that Endelman inadvertently concedes the role of resource competition in the fate of the Jews.
On a personal level I find crypsis to be one of the most interesting aspects of resource competition between Jews and Europeans, and indeed of the Jewish Question more generally. To date, the only comprehensive and convincing academic treatment of this phenomenon is contained within the sixth chapter of Kevin MacDonald’s Separation and Its Discontents: Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Anti-Semitism (“Jewish strategies for combatting anti-Semitism”). MacDonald notes (2004, 218) “there is a long tradition within Judaism that highly prizes the tradition of crypto-Judaism.” Crypto-Judaism is essentially the process by which Jews persist in following the Jewish religion and/or traits associated with it after an ostensible ‘conversion’ to another religion. While Endelman does not discuss crypsis as such, he nevertheless makes reference to instances of the phenomenon. For example, he writes:
The Visigoths, who conquered Spain in the mid-fifth century, belonged to the Arian sect, in contrast to the majority of the Spanish population, which was Roman Catholic. In 587, the Visigoth king embraced Catholicism and he and his successors pushed relentlessly to unify the kingdom religiously. In 613, Sisebut ordered the forced conversion of all the Jews in the kingdom. In a foretaste of the well-known event centuries later, the policy was a failure. The converts were not absorbed into the Catholic population but instead remained a clearly defined group, often loyal to their old creed.
Crypsis was a strategy most frequently employed when the prospects for ongoing group cohesion looked relatively positive. In more turbulent circumstances, for example during the Crusades, the break-up of communities was a real possibility (making a group cryptic strategy less viable) and, as a result, the most common and extreme reaction to the prospect of conversion was mass communal murder-suicide. Jews would rather die than be absorbed culturally and genetically into the surrounding population. Such spectacles were both surprising and horrifying to European witnesses. It has been astutely speculated that the sight of Jewish men butchering their own families, in order to avoid baptism, played an important role in the development of the Jewish ritual murder accusation (My deeper thoughts on this particular subject, discussed on the Third Rail podcast, can be accessed here).
Endelman notes that “From the Crusades on, most Ashkenazim chose martyrdom (or exile, if it was an option) over conversion when faced with the choice.” This is obviously indicative of an extraordinary level of ethnocentrism and commitment to the group. Indeed, it is an excellent marker of group selection among Jews: Defection is not an option no matter what the consequences to the individual (here, 73–74). Endelman cites one Jewish historian as remarking that Jews viewed the prospect of genuine conversion as “a betrayal of communal values, a rejection of Jewish destiny.” Even the English word ‘conversion’ doesn’t adequately convey how strongly-identified Jews view the prospect of leaving Judaism/Jewry and becoming part of another group, since it merely refers to the process of leaving and becoming. In English then, conversion implies a future. By contrast, Endelman explains “the Hebrew word for convert in premodern Ashkenazi usage — meshumad — reflects the loathing with which conversion was regarded, for its root (sh-m-d) means utter destruction [emphasis added].” (At this point in the text I was left wondering about the potentialities of a scenario in which Europeans possessed, instead of the anodyne “mixed marriage,” integration,” or “immigration,” a vocabulary that was intrinsically hostile to racial and cultural dilution.)
The insincerity of Jewish conversions, together with the widespread involvement of Jews in usury, contributed to the growing belief that Jews could not, and should not be allowed to, function in European societies. The result was a wave of expulsions: in 1182 (Île-de-France), 1223 (Normandy), 1253 (French royal domains), 1288 (Gascony), 1289 (Naples, Sicily, Anjou and Maine), 1290 (England), 1306 (French royal domains — again), 1322 (French royal domains — for the third time), and 1492 (Castile and Aragon). Given the strength of Jewish ethnocentrism during the medieval and early modern periods, and the intensity of resource competition between Jews and Europeans, it is unsurprising that Endelman finds that even cryptic conversions and assimilations were extreme rarities.
Endelman’s second chapter, ‘Conversion in the Age of Enlightenment and Emancipation,’ is more interesting than the first. In the post-Enlightenment context, the barriers of religion were weaker than in the medieval and early modern periods, and the focus on Jewish self-definition shifted to the sphere of civic life or being a ‘citizen.’ This was necessarily complicated by the fact Jews, a collectivist and corporate Levantine people oriented toward collective behavior and rights, were presented with opportunities to join societies based on idiosyncratically European precepts of individual freedom and personal responsibility. During this period, Jews ‘left the fold’ more frequently than in prior ages, but the manner in which they did so was guided by what Endelman describes as “strategic reasons.” Rather than converting to save one’s life (e.g. Glückel of Hameln describes a Jewish thief in Norway who converted to avoid being hanged), Jews now converted to obtain social, economic or political privileges or advantages. The period witnessed the birth of “Jews without Judaism.” These were Jews who abandoned belief in the Jewish god but who cultivated different forms of ‘Jewishness.’ (For more on this shift, see my discussion of the role of Spinoza as a secular Jewish god.)
Endelman’s second chapter is largely concerned with anecdotes of wealthy Jews who found themselves in “despair” at not being able to reach the heights of European society. A small minority decided that undergoing baptism or campaigning for full legal equality, irrespective of their personal piety or sense of patriotism, would be a means of removing some of the stigma of Jewishness. Few of these societal or confessional changes brought the desired effect, and even at the highest and ostensibly most integrated levels Jews continued to socialize almost exclusively with other Jews. Endelman cites the English politician Thomas Babington Macaulay has having written to this sister following a costume ball at the home of Jewish financier Isaac Lyon Goldsmid (1778–1859): “A little too much of St. Mary Axe [a Jewish district in London] about it — Jewesses by dozens, and Jews by scores…The sound of fiddles was in mine ears, and gaudy dresses, and black hair, and Jewish noses were fluctuating up and down before mine eyes.”
The quiet contempt felt for Jews in European society was a significant obstacle to their entry into European power structures. However, it was increasingly rare in the post-Enlightenment period for this contempt to be translated into fully articulated legal obstructions. Although it was common to discuss issues of ‘blood’ during this period, systematic racial understanding was relatively weak compared with the century that would follow. Entry to positions of power was thus, by the 1820s at least, largely a bureaucratic affair. A certificate of baptism, acting like a kind of proto-Green Card, was more or less sufficient for Jewish entry into politics and the professions. Endelman writes that “baptism was a prerequisite for a public career,” and cites Heinrich Heine as remarking “the baptismal certificate is the ticket of admission to European culture.”
If these quotes convey a purely strategic, mechanical view of the process of conversion then they are truthful to their context. The majority of ‘converts’ in the period remained Jews in every meaningful sense, and many carried an open contempt for the Christian religion they professed to join. Very often they also possessed a barely concealed contempt for the naivety of the society that set such a weak and ultimately meaningless (but nevertheless irritating) barrier to their personal or tribal ambitions. The Jewish Hegelian Eduard Gans remarked to a friend that “if the state was so stupid as to bar him from devoting his talents to it unless he confessed to believing something that he did not believe, it would have its wish.” In another example, Heinrich Heine found it incomprehensible that Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (grandson of Enlightenment celebrity, and promoter of ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism,’ Moses Mendelssohn) was apparently a sincere Christian (having been baptized as a child on the instructions of his father, who renounced Judaism) despite having a personal fortune and thus experiencing no obstacles to career advancement. Heine, an adult ‘convert,’ was particularly disdainful of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s decision to compose Christian music, writing to the composer: “If I had the good fortune to be the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, I would never employ my talents to set the urine of the Lamb to music.” The gospel of his new religion was thus, to Heine, nothing more than ‘piss.’
Heine was no exception. Endelman cites cases of Jews writing to pastors and priests requesting ‘dry baptisms’ in which they would merely have to subscribe to vague universal principles rather than study Christianity or profess belief in its central tenets. David Friedländer, the Jewish banker and disciple of Moses Mendelssohn, became infamous for his ‘dry baptism initiative,’ in which he requested the development of a special form of conversion for Jews in which baptism was reduced to “a mere form…necessary for the admission of a member into a society.” Thousands of similar requests came from Jewish students, academics, and those with political aspirations. At the lower end of the social scale, Jews often abused the naive missionary zeal of Christian societies eager to procure Jewish converts. The period saw the rise of the ‘professional convert,’ who would travel from church to church, undergoing tens of baptisms in order to reap the monetary gifts often associated with them. Reading such accounts can be infuriating not only in terms of the Jewish behavior described, but also that of one’s own hopelessly gullible, endlessly altruistic forebears.
Endelman’s third chapter, ‘Conversion in the Age of Illiberalism,’ covering the period 1860–1914, details more strategic conversions. Particularly notable is Leopold Kronenberg (1812–78), the Prussian Jewish banker, who later moved to Warsaw and converted to Catholicism in order to obtain a tobacco monopoly. Endelman struggles with the unpleasant nature of Jewish history in Poland and Russia at this point, noting that the May Laws of 1882 were introduced in “the interest of protecting the peasantry from Jewish ‘exploitation.’” The fact that this Princeton-published academic should feel the need to place ‘exploitation’ in scare quotes is indicative of the problematic nature of the Jewish academic monopoly on the writing and publishing of Jewish history and the history of anti-Semitism. Endelman presumably finds it very difficult to accept that his ethnic group, hitherto described in his text as blameless victims, were in fact exploiters — a historically verifiable fact clearly articulated in John Klier’s Cambridge-published Russians, Jews, and the Pogroms of 1881–1882 (2011), and well-attested in Kevin MacDonald’s Separation and Its Discontents.
One searches in vain for the genuine convert, or even the genuine secular ‘world citizen’ in Endelman’s text. Moving into the early twentieth century, he discusses ‘institutional integration’ and ‘social mixing.’ These developments did little to change the texture of Jewish social life:
In recalling his upper-middle-class youth in late-Imperial Berlin, the fashion photographer Erwin Blumenfeld (1897–1969) noted that his freethinking, atheist parents contentedly lived within “invisible walls,” associating exclusively with other Jews, and “were probably not even aware of it themselves.” Very rarely “a stray goy happened to find his way into our house,” and when one did “we had no idea how to behave.” The absence of Gentile visitors also characterized the Berlin home of Gershom Scholem (1897–1982). Despite his father’s allegiance to liberal integrationism, “no Christian ever set foot in our home.”
The example of Gershom Scholem was so striking that Kevin MacDonald discussed him extensively in Chapter 8 (249–252), on self-deception among Jews. For example:
Scholem may have developed his self-deception in his family, which, if it is at all representative of assimilating German Jewry, illustrates the self-deception involved for many Jews in establishing personal identity in a modern Western society. His father Arthur was an ardent assimilationist who forced his son to move out of the house when Gershom was charged with treason for demonstrating against Germany’s war effort in World War I. However, Arthur’s assimilation was perhaps not as complete as he conceived it to be.
[Gershom] should have been used to incongruities: his mother owned a kosher restaurant, but his father had renamed himself Siegfried in honor of Wagner’s opera. In the Scholem house, customs were similarly mixed up. Arthur forbade Jewish expressions, but his wife used them anyway. Friday night was a family night when prayers were said but only partly understood, and Arthur scorned Jewish law by using the Sabbath candles to light a cigar after the meal.
On Passover, the family ate both bread and matzo. Arthur went to work on Yom Kippur and did not fast. He praised the Jewish mission to spread monotheism and ethics, and he disparaged conversion. But the family celebrated Christmas as a German national festival and sang “Silent Night.” Arthur insisted on his German identity, but almost all his friends were Jews, and no Christian ever set foot in his home. And when Gershom became a Zionist, his parents bought a portrait of Herzl and put it under their Christmas tree. (Rubin 1995a, 32–33) p. 252
Despite the very low level of conversions, their strategic nature remained common. Conversion remained a ‘Green Card’ to the urban professions. The Semitics scholar Daniel Khvolson (1819-1911) is reported to have replied, when asked if he converted out of conviction, that “yes, he was convinced that it was better to be a professor in St. Petersburg than a melammed in Eyshishok.” The Berlin theater critic and philosopher of language Fritz Mauthner (1849–1923) wrote in 1912 that he had never witnessed a genuine Jewish conversion and that “in the vast majority of cases the convert is brought to profess a creed in which he does not believe out of higher or lower reasons of expedience.” This understanding was so widespread among Jews that some Jewish communal organizations even permitted Jewish ‘Christians’ to obtain office in them — a perfectly reasonable policy given that these individuals remained, in every meaningful way, Jews.
Endelman’s discussion of the period 1945–present, which takes up the remainder of Leaving the Jewish Fold, is moderately interesting but under-developed, and continues to take the form of successive anecdotes/brief biographies. This format, and the fact that Endelman refuses to contextualize such cases within the obviously relevant framework of Jewish ethnocentrism, lends the book a very tedious air. Endelman’s habit of treating every fake conversion or strategic intermarriage (often into European aristocracies) as if it were genuine and worthy of Jewish lamentation also becomes unbearably irritating. Citing steadily increasing intermarriage statistics, Endelman begins to imbue his narrative with a kind of weary moralism that would perhaps be admirable if the European right to survival was also indulged. Endelman writes at his conclusion, “I value Jewish tradition and continuity.” One envies the ability of Jewish scholars, and other ethnics, to voice such sentiments. We can only too well imagine the suspicion or open hostility that might follow a European academic who chose to state, in a book published by an elite press, that he valued European tradition and continuity.
Endelman’s book is, for the most part, about something that never really occurred. Very few Jews in history have ever truly ‘left the Jewish fold.’ Some converted for convenience, for money, and for opportunity. In the secular age an even larger number developed new methods to continue group association and achieve group interests. Throughout, the strongly committed and highly cohesive core of the Jewish population has always remained stable, powerful, and influential, and even those Jews at the fringes have always been relatively safely within its orbit.
This hasn’t prevented panics. Indeed, the high level of demographic concern among Jews, emblematic in Endelman’s book and often alluded to, is itself a key indicator of the unusual strength of Jewish ethnocentrism. In a very recent example, Arutz Sheva ran an article titled “The Disappearing Jews” in which it was argued:
We are killing ourselves. It’s called “assimilation” and we can no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening. Let me share a few facts from an article I saw recently on Aish.com. In American today, 71% of non-Orthodox marriages are intermarriages. 71%!!! According to Aish.com, 83% of the children from these marriages will intermarry as well. You need to stop and think about that for a moment. Simply put, it means that our non-religious brothers and sisters are in a process of self-destruction. They are disappearing. By the way, the US intermarriage rate in 1950 was 6%. By 1974 it had risen to 25%. And today? Simply out of control. The numbers get even worse when you read about fertility rates. The general US population has a fertility rate of 2.1 but the Jews are different: Orthodox Jews are 4.1, Conservative Jews are 1.8, Reform Jews are 1.7 and Jews of no religion are 1.5. You realize that when 2 parents have less than 2 kids, they are vanishing. …There are 5.5 million Jews in America today and experts believe that in 20 years, that number will be 2.5 million — a loss of 3,000,000 Jews!!! …The first thing we need to do is figure out a way to cure this epidemic. It’s an emergency call to save lives because if not, the number 6,000,000 will pale in comparison to what we did to ourselves.
However, as I noted in my 2015 blog post ‘The Myth of Jewish Population Decline’, the global picture of the Jewish Diaspora’s demographic is one of growth. For example, the Pew Research Center notes that Germany is now home to 35,000 more Jews than in the 1930s. Jews, of course, now also possess an ethnostate in the form of Israel. The global picture for Whites looks bleak by comparison, and it is quite perversely ironic that Jews, who have done a great deal to engineer White demographic decline, should entertain such fanciful extinction narratives.
To conclude, I might also point out that Jewish influence has very rarely relied on the power of numbers or the size of the Jewish population. Jewish influence operates much more in terms of networking and co-operation among a relatively small number of cohesive and capable players. Judaism as an ecological strategy, as Kevin MacDonald points out in chapter seven of A People that Shall Dwell Alone, is also heavily reliant on high-investment parenting — relatively small numbers of children receiving high levels of care and education. Worries about Jewish birth-rates, as expressed in the Arutz Sheva thus seem redundant in light of historical trends. In the past I have used the analogy of the onion to explain that extreme outer layers of the Jewish community may at times peel away, but for the most part the entity remains whole and intact. ‘The Jewish Fold’ retains its power.
 Endelman, Leaving the Fold, pp.20-21.
 Ibid, p.24.
 Ibid, p.23.
 Ibid, p.26.
 Ibid, p.26.
 Ibid, p.26.
 Ibid, p.51.
 Ibid, p.79.
 Ibid, p.69.
 Ibid, p.68.
 Ibid, p.70.
 Ibid, p.64.
 Ibid, p.97.
 Ibid, p.103.
 Ibid, p.118.
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