Emancipation: How Liberating Europe’s Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance

Author Michael Goldfarb

Interview with Michael Goldfarb

For almost 500 years the Jews of Europe were kept apart, confined to ghettos or tiny villages in the countryside. Then, in one extraordinary moment in the French Revolution, the Jews of France were emancipated. Soon the ghetto gates were opened all over Europe. The era of Emancipation had begun. What happened next would change the course of history.

Emancipation tells the story of how this isolated minority emerged from the ghetto and against terrible odds very quickly established themselves as shapers of history, as writers, revolutionaries, social thinkers, and artists. Their struggle to create a place for themselves in Western European life led to revolutions and nothing less than a second renaissance in Western culture.

The book spans the era from the French Revolution to the beginning of the twentieth century. The story is told through the lives of the people who lived through this momentous change. Some are well-known: Marx, Freud, Mahler, Proust, and Einstein; many more have been forgotten. Michael Goldfarb brings them all to life.

This is an epic story, and Goldfarb tells it with the skill and eye for detail of a novelist. He brings the empathy and understanding that has marked his two decades as a reporter in public radio to making the characters come alive. It is a tale full of hope, struggle, triumph, and, waiting at the end, a great tragedy.

This is a book that will have meaning for anyone interested in the struggle of immigrants and minorities to succeed. We live in a world where vast numbers are on the move, where religions and races are grinding against each other in new combinations; Emancipation is a book of history for our time.

How did you come to write this book?

As a Jew, I had always been interested in the history of Jewish life just after the ghettos were opened. Why was it that after centuries of isolation Jews were able to not only thrive in a new situation but via Marx, Freud, Einstein and artists too numerous to mention make a major contribution to Western Civilization? What price did the Jewish community pay for its rapid assimilation?

But the decision to write a book came out of my work as a journalist. After the attacks of September 11th, I found myself reporting on radical Islam. My ears filled with the complaints of angry Muslims everywhere from Cairo to Tehran to just outside my front door in London. One of the young British Muslims I interviewed was involved in a grass-roots organization that held regular meetings in London’s East End, once a ghetto for Jewish immigrants, now a neighborhood of Muslim immigrants mostly from Bangladesh. At these forums we debated what it meant to be a Muslim in Britain.

Over and over I heard younger Muslims express anger at their experience of integration and assimilation. Their response had been to embrace the more radical interpretation of their religion. The young men grew beards, put on traditional dress and skullcaps; the young women voluntarily wore the veil and segregated themselves from the men. This was not unique to London’s East End. It was happening in Amsterdam, Paris and Hamburg.

When the French government began to make a fuss about Muslim girls wearing the hijab to school I knew that the laws and traditions they invoked could be traced back to statutes passed in the early days of Emancipation to hasten Jewish integration into French society. I realized following these developments it was worth going through the agony of writing a book that answered the questions “why” and “what price” because the story of Jewish Emancipation had relevance today outside the Jewish community. Not just for the developed world’s immigrant Muslim communities but for other racial and ethnic minority groups in this second age of mass immigration. Because the story of Jewish Emancipation is not just about one religious minority’s struggles to integrate, it is about a group regarded as an ethnic and racial minority fighting for its place in society, as well.


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