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A Few Unanswerable Questions Regarding Moses Mendelssohn

By Gurmeet Singh.

Winter starts and with L busy in our flat applying for jobs, I want to see if the cold and a visit to a grave can do anything to alleviate or clarify this heavy feeling in my shoulders.

A while back (summer?), I came across a ‘zu verschenken’ box somewhere in the north (Pankow?), in itself nothing special (Berlin’s residents leave free stuff on every street), but this box was different. It sat on a ledge outside a small basement window, and from ground level you could see into the basement itself, or rather, you could see the blurry forms of furniture and people behind the translucent glass. The ledge, formed by the brickwork around the window, gave the box something of a homely, purposeful quality, as though it were placed on a mantlepiece. Not like the boxes dumped outside doors, near bins, broken and overflowing with video tapes.

The homeliness was inviting: an invitation to take something, but also, to make contact. Taking something, I imagined I could leave a note thanking them, and telling them something about myself. After I’d gone, they’d open the window of their secret basement dwelling and find my note. Chancing by the building again, I’d find that they’d left one for me. So our lovely, long correspondence would begin, as though we weren’t real people, but characters in a novel. I’d watch out for objects on the window ledge; they’d be able to tell which footsteps were mine from behind the mottled glass. And it occurred to me that this would be exactly the kind of short story I would write to get into one of those prestigious literary magazines small-time writers like me dreamed about; publication being simultaneously some kind of rite of passage and also an invitation into a world of money, fame, respect—a white world in which my writing would help describe “the experiences of people of colour”.

It would be the kind of story I’d work on if my heart was in it: man finds a note in a hole in a building, like finding a washed-up note in a bottle, he responds, the note-writer does too, the two strike up a conversation, then he asks the note writer to meet, but instead of being a beautiful, young woman like he imagined, it is an old man. The young man, seeing the older one from afar, realises what has happened, and shamefully leaves, leaving the old man who only wanted contact, confused and heartbroken. I could write this if my heart was sentimental and my writing sentimental and my politics sentimental.

But my heart was not in the box.

Nor were there any notes. Trashy novel. Trashier novel. Trashy magazine. And then: Jerusalem oder über religiöse Macht und Judenthum, von Moses Mendelssohn.

A big title, a grand title: a patriarch’s name conjoined to a composer’s; the word “Judenthum”. Jerusalem, stirring memories of school days, assemblies, hymns: “was Jerusalem builded here / Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Jerusalem. Still evocative, still powerful, even if now also associated with newsflashes,  police, terror, cafe tables upturned, broken glass, blood.

I took the book.

And now, in a Berlin alive with a pretend-magical feeling of city-as-theatre with people playing parts—the lover, the clown—against a background awareness of a past somehow still charging the present, I head out into the cold air while L sits at her desk applying for work.

*

Mendelssohn’s Wiki page says his grave has been reconstructed. Not surprising: grand historical narratives are everywhere legible in Berlin’s built environment. The Jewish cemetery where he’s buried became part of East Berlin after the war, falling into even further disrepair after the Nazi years. His grave, as well as many others, was only reconstructed in the 2000s.

Born in 1729 in Dessau, then in the Principality of Anhalt, Mendelssohn moved to Berlin in his teens. His entry into the city marked his entry into history: in the 19th century, it was common knowledge that the philosophical genius Moses Mendelssohn had entered Berlin via the Rosenthal Gate—a gate reserved for cattle and Jews.

After his death in 1786, not only was his work considered vital by cultured Europeans, his life seemed a perfect demonstration of the educative power of the Enlightenment, and a living example of a successfully-achieved bildung[1]. So why is he not more widely known today? Can a once-eminent book on metaphysics and political science be relevant, or even interesting in the 21st century? And why am I bothering with this old, dead guy at all?

If there is an answer, it’s in the dull feeling in my shoulders.

Before I get on the tram, I scroll through Jonathan Bennett’s English translation of Jerusalem on my phone. It improvises some charming section titles for Mendelssohn’s long-forgotten work, not found in the original: “The Invention of Alphabets”, “Some Good People” and “Abstraction and Signs”. This latter section was a contribution to a particular Enlightenment obsession: Where did writing, and language, come from? This wasn’t an idle foray into metaphysics, but rather a serious effort to establish why languages appeared to be so rich and creative in civil societies, and so primitive in the much-vaunted “State of Nature”. If compelling ideas for the emergence of language were to be found, not only could thinking in terms of “civilised” and “natural” be substantively grounded—that is, not merely seen as incidental to the way Enlightenment thinkers already viewed Europeans and non-Europeans—but it would also enable more Romantic thinkers to elevate their own languages as indispensable tools of rational thought, a necessary condition for ‘Enlightened Nationalism’.

Mendelssohn’s modest contribution to this discussion was in keeping with broader theories that viewed the development of language as one that moved from an earlier ‘signs-mirroring-ideas’ form to the more modern, ‘invented-signs-making-ideas-possible’ conception—a process not only describing the invention of alphabets, but also, the inventiveness of alphabets. However, he had other motivations for becoming involved in this debate. He was attempting to locate Jewish history, Hebrew and the various Yiddish dialects within the mainstream of the European Enlightenment. In doing so, he could argue that if the richness and depth of a language was reflected in the concepts it formed, Hebrew could impart many new ideas to German, and vice versa. But, since Jews were cut off from the main currents of cultural and social life, both socially and linguistically, there would need to be a two-way movement: the state would have to allow all citizens, including Jews, to freely practise whatever religion they wished, while, in return, Jews would have to consent to enter mainstream culture, learn German, assimilate and follow the formal rules of the State.

Mendelssohn’s intention was informed by his understanding of Rousseau’s social contract, arguing that free citizens could wilfully consent to the formation of a legitimate government, and in return, they would be subordinate to the laws of the State. He further added that these citizens would be free in conscience; able to believe and think as they wanted. Thus, language was the key for Jews to secure their future in an Enlightened German State: they could gain stable citizenship by learning German, whilst retaining their culture by holding on to Hebrew.

Mendelssohn’s attempt to explain language is also an attempt to explain why human history has unfolded in the way it has. He argues that language developed out of a need to express variety; people would notice something ‘different’ about the world (say an unusual flower) and then give this difference a name, thereby alerting others to this variance, and bringing a new concept into the world. To recognise difference, then, is to bring difference into the world. To invent an alphabet is to invent a standard basis of expression, but as a result other alphabets become suspect; those alphabets (and the languages they codify) could be saying anything, without you knowing.

But what happens when language changes? What happens when ideas change? What if a word takes on extra weight or comes to mean nothing at all?

One word weighs down Mendelssohn’s memory—a single word, one whose meaning has changed, faded, and been recharged over time. In an alternate German and European history his long term association with ‘philosophy’, or ‘culture’ might have been stronger. Moses Mendelssohn could have been remembered as a thinker as important as Kant, were it not for this word.

That word, his legacy, is simply “Jew”.

*

The winter light is trapped in grey clouds. Shadows wrap around buildings. Sped up, the scene would show all the subtle shifts in brightness and contrast clearly: gentle glow to burst of sunshine to deep gloom, just like that.

But this is real-time, and as I board the U2 at Wittenbergplatz, I’m shivering and I wonder: how did people stay warm in the distant past, in those repulsive, tiny, wooden houses? The reassuring rumble of the train begins, with Gleisdreieck Park’s long, cold stretches coming into view, and I recall how wrong it is to project my own circumstances onto history simply because I cannot imagine a world without present luxuries: Europeans welcomed winter. Provided there was a good harvest and workable supply of firewood and it did not drag on too long, winter provided a respite from disease and warfare. Winter killed bacteria, blocked roads, was gorgeous.

I change trains at Alexanderplatz and head straight onto a waiting M4 tram, past the shopping mall and the Fernseheturm, past the guy playing the taburka, past the guy playing some pans. Afternoon, dark, cold. An industrial smell to the city.

As the tram rattles up a slight elevation, a group of young Indian men make their way from one end of the car and huddle up near to where I’m standing. They joke loudly in Hindi about how cold Berlin is and what it’s doing to their chances of getting laid. I try to distance myself. I don’t want to be seen with them. Not because they’re raucous or laddish, but because they’re Indian. Indian Indian. Not like me, not British Indian. What if the conductor asks for tickets, and these guys don’t have tickets, and he lumps me in with them? What if the fact that I know more about Shakespeare than I do about Shah Rukh Khan doesn’t immediately show? We have the same colour skin, similar features, the same kind of solid, dark hair. What if the other passengers, the white passengers, on the tram already hate me because of the noise these guys are making?

Briefly, a charge comes alive in my fingers, travels up my arm and vanishes in my spine—a charge of shame, and of the awareness of shame. The guys just go on talking, laughing, speaking the very quick street Hindi I could never really master, and the shame morphs into a sad feeling about not being fully-Indian enough. They get off somewhere near Prenzlauer Berg and now I’m angry at myself for being such a mess when it comes to this basic identity issue. And so deeply bored of identity altogether. Bored of going over the complexities of it, the oh-so-seriousness of it, the knowledge that if I met a poor Indian farmer or peasant and told her about this problem, she’d laugh in my face and tell me I had no idea about pain, life, or anything else.

I was tired of the performative element of identity, the endless articles online explaining how the dark author always felt too uncomfortable buying a Big Mac because the cashier was white, or whatever. I was bored of discomfort, bored of petty, negative feelings, bored of “the self / the other”, annoyed at myself for falling into the trap of thinking I’m in some way better than these guys, that in some peculiar way my Europeanness is visible. I was upset at my own stupid conceitedness, at the racist injustices in the world, at myself for caring about what white people think, and angry at those Indians for getting on the train in the first place.

Calming down (the tram still climbing the slight elevation), I discover my reflection in the window and find once again the form of my body. I return to what I’d figured out a long time ago, on the tram in Birmingham, when I was growing up, also watching my reflection, watching the city go past. I learnt that there was always going to be a fundamental tension between how you see yourself, and how the world sees you: this is just how it is. You can either fix your eyes onto your reflection, and miss the passing world; or you can see how the world changes, and in doing so, lose all but the ghost of your reflected self.

The more I worried about what the world thought of me, the more I’d lose my self. The more self-focussed I became, the more I’d misunderstand the world. But what if there was a way of understanding and respecting both? What if I could find and prolong the moment when my eyes fixed on neither the world, nor my reflection, but saw everything at once in perfect depth, and also contextually?

I’d long been aware of the distinction between the cultural and political meanings of external appearance, and the complexities of action and internal feeling. While many in the white world would always see me as Indian, as dark-skinned, even potentially dangerous; much of the Indian world would see me as too white. So my response was, basically, to say if I’m never going to be straightforwardly British (because not white), and never straightforwardly Indian (because not born there), it was up to me to create my own identity by taking what I felt important and significant from both histories, while simultaneously rejecting a too-narrow conception of personhood predicated on nationality or ethnicity alone.

And yet, I had to be aware, if only for my own health, no matter how exceptional I felt my life to be, the outside world would only see my ordinary dark skin, my ordinary dark hair, and draw its conclusions. I had to be aware that I could inhabit and reject whatever history I chose, but the world wouldn’t care what I thought and felt, and it would muscle onto me, again and again, its tired projections.

I wanted a sense of being human, of being alive, before being British, or Indian, or whatever else. I simply had to be something else, neither truly British, nor truly Indian. A third thing: myself. But why is it so hard, even now, at age 30, to feel comfort with my identity? Why this desire to be identified as somehow different? And why this desire to not be thought different at all?

As I try to locate this sense of being human again, of having a body and being in the world, and while I search for the charge in my fingers, the tram breaks down. The driver steps out to use his phone, looks around at the wide street and the oncoming traffic, then gets back into his cabin and announces over the speaker that we all have to get out, and there’s no replacement service currently. He’s sorry, he says, and as I exit, I can see that he really looks like it. The transport app isn’t working, and so I decide to walk up to Antonplatz, along the long, colourless roads encircling the inner city to the North.

The gloom spreads through the wet-looking sky, and dark, almost invisible raindrops hang in the grey air. Near to Pankow, buildings appear, the roads get smaller, and windows glow with soft Christmas lights. A menorah is placed in front of a net curtain, a German flag is draped over a balcony, a bird hops under a bus shelter. The roads narrow, the rain starts, the rain stops, the noise of the motorway disappears. It’s cold. How did people stay warm back then? It starts to rain again.

*

The “Mind-Body Problem” is still here. How exactly the physical matter of the brain and consciousness are related is still debated by philosophers and scientists. In the Western philosophical tradition, philosophers have largely followed Descartes’ lead, considering the mind and body distinct, and arguing about the various configurations of matter and mind. This debate would have been familiar to Mendelssohn, but it was a different kind of question about the relationship which, strangely, would play a role in his life.

The connection of Moses Mendelssohn’s physical appearance to what apparently lay behind it was evidenced by the manner in which it was presented. For example, The Berlinische Monatschrift captioned his image with the words of Jesus: “Behold an Israelite…in whom there is no guile”. But it was Johann Kaspar Lavater, the Swiss theologian, responsible for reviving the dying practise of physiognomy—the pseudo-science which claimed that the physical structure of the human skull was directly linked to intelligence, character and other qualities—who made Mendelssohn’s face the centre of debate. Lavater luxuriated in the “marvelous arch” of Mendelssohn’s forehead, the “sharp bones of the eye”, and concluded that he possessed a “Socratic soul”.

There’s an immediate impulse to contrast Lavater’s application of a pseudo-science on Mendelssohn with the general, programmatic racialised pseudo-science of the Nazis (“Aryan” vs. “Jewish” features, for example), but this contrast cannot sustain the notion that Lavater was benign where the Nazis were brutal. Lavater was neither apolitically nor innocently appreciating Mendelssohn. On the contrary: he praised Mendelssohn as ripe for conversion to Christianity. A model Jew whose public conversion would persuade others to do the same. It was all there in his face.

Mendelssohn’s reputation and status are full of inversions and asymmetries: he was at once considered a thinker equally significant to Kant, and also, as a Jew, the lowest of men. Now, he’s considered a significant European Jewish figure, but one whose works are all but irrelevant. So how was I to understand his reputation, his status now? Did he mean anything to me?

Why did his face have a reputation? His face is not a trivial detail. It challenged and enhanced his fame. He was hunchbacked, and his appearance, what he symbolised to others, put his life in danger. And yet, all of these factors also saved his life. Lavater claimed, his face was:

Demonstrative of the highest nobility.

Of an ugly Aesop-like appearance, belying Socratic wisdom.

Of Jewish appearance which concealed a Christian mind.

Caricatures of the “typical” Jewish person had existed for centuries, features believed to be identical with what they depicted. If, originally, ugliness had signified moral corruption, or Christian sinfulness, the exaggerated Jewish physical qualities became the idea of who and what a Jewish person was. Yet with a large nose, curly hair, a crooked back, Mendelssohn’s appearance did not, at least for Lavater, confirm a low status, rather it demonstrated an individual nobility. Did this implied nobility have anything to do with his fame?

By the end of his life, his work was widely read in philosophical circles. Although he made his living in the textile industry, and would have been vulnerable (as all Jews were) for most of his life to capricious changes in his legal status or ability to settle, Moses Mendelssohn was also considered a “German Socrates”. He became close friends with Gotthold Lessing; he was visited by Goethe; Kant and Herder commented on his works. In other words, his “typical Jewish features”, enhanced rather than impeded his celebrity. Why?

Mendelssohn’s works may have merited celebration; but, it was Mendelssohn himself that was of real interest to his contemporaries: Mendelssohn the man; his story. He was a self-taught factory-worker-become-philosopher from an isolated and persecuted community (and a hunchback to boot!), and he still rose to prominence. His life confirmed the Enlightenment belief that by reason alone, a person could free themselves from institutional and social shackles: anyone could lift themselves up. So, when Goethe exclaimed that Mendelssohn was an exceptional Jew, did he not reveal his belief in a “typical Jew”? Was exalting a Jewish philosopher simply a convenient way to demonstrate lofty Enlightenment ideals? Was Mendelssohn simply a symbol for the established art hierarchy to indulge in?

As I headed to the Jewish cemetery in the north, with the light slowly draining into the gutter and underworld, I was becoming increasingly aware of heaviness of the body. In the cold, wet and grey, the body was a thing, an ordinary thing. It was in the world, it was here, no different from a tree or an animal or a car or the sea, and even if this thing was animated by my mind, my mind was in my body, and it was this body-mind that was in the world, walking towards the Jewish cemetery, feeling tired, not thinking about history.

*

If men designate the things themselves or their images and outlines as signs of ideas, they can find nothing more convenient and significant to indicate moral qualities than the animals. The reasons for this are the same as those which my friend Lessing, in his treatise on fables, ascribes to Aesop for choosing animals to be the actors in his apologues. Every animal has its definite, distinctive character, and presents itself in this light at first glance since its features as a whole largely point to this peculiar mark of distinction.

Allan Arkash’s (1983) translation of Jerusalem is much more true to the form of the original than Bennett’s more recent effort. But is it significant that, Mendelssohn unconsciously invokes the ugly Greek to whom he was compared to talk about difference and distinction?

Gotthold Lessing (how lovely a religious coupling, Gotthold and Moses), the great German champion of the Enlightenment found in Mendelssohn someone to fulfil his vision: an obscure Jewish genius whose sensitivity and intelligence were so developed, they could enable him to lift himself out of his meagre social status, and demonstrate a nobility equal to that of gentiles. He’d even written a play, The Jews, which explored this passion. However, Lessing needed an exceptional Jew to demonstrate just how reason could lift a person above the masses, the everyday, the typical. He chose Mendelssohn to be the actor in his apologues.

After meeting in Berlin sometime in the 1750s, the two developed a fruitful lifelong friendship in which they acted as editors for one another’s works and occasionally collaborated (the pair wrote a derisive and haughty response to English poet Alexander Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’, which they thought to be overly optimistic about human capability to grasp the world, “Presume not God to scan…”). But it was Lessing’s Nathan Der Weise, which established Mendelssohn as the “philosophical Jew”—the German Socrates. This play served as a demonstration of the exceptional character of the noble and wise Nathan (who was directly modelled on Mendelssohn), cementing Lessing’s reputation as the chief exponent of clear, Enlightenment writing and thinking, and his friend’s reputation as the “kind and intelligent Jew”.

The play focuses chiefly on a delicate trilemma: that of satisfying the claims of Judaism, Islam and Christianity as the sole revealed religion (and therefore the sole revealed truth), but doing so equally, so that each religion’s claim to revealed truth is equally grounded and equally legitimate. Lessing’s answer to this was much like Mendelssohn’s own in Jerusalem: that each religion could direct belief, if people chose to follow it; but religion could not command conscience. Therefore, religion could operate best in a society founded upon mutual tolerance and acceptance, where each citizen was free to practise their own religion, and could not convert or punish or degrade any other.

Nathan, as wise as he is, is nevertheless astonished to see he is caught in a problem simply for being Jewish. Echoing drama’s most famous (infamous?) Jewish character, Shylock, he asks:

Sind Christ und Jude eher Christ und Jude,
Als Mensch?[2]

But the real-life Nathan, Moses, was more canny than that. He was not astonished. He knew that he had to appeal to more than one community, including fellow Jews. Thus, threatened by the Protestant community, the German populace, the government, and also, his own community, Mendelssohn was always in danger of being cut-off and alone, but in a peculiar way: a kind of celebrated face for some people, and a kind of hated face for another, out of the ghetto, but adrift.

Jews did not lead secure lives: They lived in poverty, in small, insecure communities, , removed from the rest of society, and could be expelled from the city on a whim. Mendelssohn himself only received a special designation as a Schutzjude, a protected Jew who could not be expelled, from the king after many petitions. Without this, he risked losing significance, becoming only a body. He risked losing his eminence, and becoming the description of the typical Jew only.

A Bild[3] placard reads: Multi-kulti ist gescheitert.

Multiculturalism has failed. This, years after Angela Merkel declared it dead.

Mendelssohn did not call it multiculturalism, but he recognised a central problem in arguing for the co-existence of various groups of people, namely, how do groups with competing loyalties cohere?

Civil actions are the concern of the state; specifically religious actions, by their very nature, can’t be produced by force or bribery. They flow from the free impulse of the soul—or if they don’t they are an empty show and contrary to the true spirit of religion.

Religion is only true when it does not not coerce or demand obedience. Therefore, Jewish law could continue to bind the conscience of the believer, but it could not coerce. In other words, Germans need not worry: Jews would practise their faith, whilst obeying German law only. Not religious law.

By stripping Jewish law of any coercive capacity, Mendelssohn simultaneously argued for reformation of the religion, and also calmed a worried German society. A society that worried that Jews were thieves, that they were alien, that they could never fit in. A society which kept Jews in one part of the city, separating their bodies from Gentile ones. A society that ostensibly aimed to become more tolerant.

Mendelssohn was the most prominent of those calling for a double movement integration and tolerance; a tradition which would later be overshadowed by different forms of Zionism and the idea of a separate Jewish homeland. But, is his argument for assimilation still relevant? Does it apply to non-Jews? Is it worth being revived? Were all differences overcome? After all, Mendelssohn himself didn’t even accept glasses of water when at his friend Lessing’s house.

*

The old roads are cobbled, dark and rich and textured. Some stones have been specially laid to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust; the Stolpersteine. And I can’t help but ask if there will be more names to add to these in the future.

Is it possible to think of Moses Mendelssohn and not think of the Holocaust?

*

When did it begin? This heavy feeling in the shoulders? Weeks back? Months? Years?

Last summer? Breakfast? L and I sit on the balcony, the air heavy with pollen and scent and the humidity of Northern Europe’s changing climate. L, a German, summarised the headlines off her laptop: “Something about Trump, something about Brexit, something about the AFD”…

Or was it a few summers before that, when I worked at the NGO, and met people who feared for the demise of the European Union, then an unlikely possibility dreamt up only by shrill lefties?

Or was it when I worked in the pub whilst studying, and one of the punters, so drunk I had to deny him a drink, told me I shouldn’t be in the country, and him and his mates would be waiting for me after work. And there they were when I stepped out?

Or was it on the way to school when gangs of skinheads drove past us screaming they’d kill us?

Or was it when we were kids, and mum took us to the market on Saturday, and the plastic bag full of fruit she carried burst open, and a huge white man laughed in her face, called her a stupid Paki and strolled off, crushing the grapes she just bought underfoot?

Back to the balcony, last summer, at breakfast I ask: “Do you think, now with Trump, the AFD, Brexit, all this open racism, this open anti-semitism, that life is going to become more difficult for me, for people like me?”

L takes this very seriously—she knows what I’m asking, the question underneath the question. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near there yet”, she says, “but life is going to get harder, for sure”.

Everyone had been feeling apocalyptic for a while. But not everybody felt the same threat of extermination. The environment was dying—so was the world—but it was only People of Colour who hinted their own fears of destruction. They feared something, but they couldn’t say what, exactly. It was a kind of fear of being silenced. Of not having a voice anymore. As they watched the news, with its cheering crowds of racists in red caps and racists with black and yellow flags, it was a fear of not being here anymore, It was proof that no matter what you thought or felt inside, the world would see you from the outside.

Last August, in Chemnitz, a small, East German town, thousands of far-right sympathisers gathered to “defend” Germany. It was 31 degrees centigrade. Germany was knocked out of the World Cup. Berlin was hot, fatigued, dull, concerned. The world really was dying.

Now, walking towards the Jewish Cemetery, I begin to understand that contrary to what I believed my entire life, the rights and securities afforded to me by the citizenship of a Western Liberal Democracy were anything but guaranteed. Obviously our lives could never be compared to those who suffered under the Nazis. So knowing this, how could these faint fears of mine exist?

Was I seriously beginning to fear being systematically destroyed? And if I did, was it appropriate to feel this way? Was the experience of having hard-won rights threatened experienced existentially? Was it not wrong to feel this morose while people drowned daily crossing the Mediterranean?

Mendelssohn began to seem to me to be like a kind of heat which draws the fever to the surface of the skin: he wrote and Lessing wrote, and the Enlightenment developed, and the Holocaust still happened. How tragic for the victims of destruction, all those people who were simply getting on with their lives, never realising just how much they were hated.

*

Mendelssohn the German Socrates: he wrote a version of the Phaedo.

Mendelssohn the Jewish Luther: he translated the Pentateuch into German.

How much that must have hurt, that latter comparison, to be the Jewish version of a man of enormous Anti-Jewish appetites.

Those celebrating Mendelssohn wanted to benefit from his status, but in doing so, obscured him from view; they wanted to sanitise and understand him (he was simply Luther, but Jewish) but in doing so, they misunderstood Mendelssohn, and misrepresented Luther.

This inability to simply see an individual— man, woman, or child—would lead years later to something else. This ability to see only difference.

Luther’s influence on Germany and German thought may have lessened throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but his religiously-grounded hatred for the Jews was in evidence in the background attitudes of the day, and was contrasted by the high-minded, often performed liberalness, of the Enlightenment. In this sense, the Jewish people become an avant-garde: they reveal the dominant culture’s mindset, violence, emotions, preoccupations to itself.

Sie sind eitel Diebe und Räuber, die täglich nicht einen Bissen essen noch einen Faden am Leibe tragen, den sie uns nicht gestohlen und geraubt hätten durch ihren verdammten Wucher, leben also täglich von eitel Diebstahl und Raub mit Weib und Kind, als Erzdiebe und Landräuber, in aller unbußfertigen Selbstsicherheit. Denn ein Wucherer ist ein Erzdieb und Landräuber, der billig am Galgen siebenmal höher als andere Diebe hängen sollte.[4]

This was Luther in his Von den Jüden und iren Lügen, Of the Jews and their lies. Here he makes the signifier identical to the signified: the Jews are thieves, they live from their interest, they love money.

“Moneymen and thieves, living off their interest”: In Mendelssohn’s time, how galling it must have been to hear these claims, when Jews lived in exceptional poverty, cut-off from the mainstream of society.

Luther’s solution: Burn their synagogues and force them to work. He wanted, “like Moses in the desert” to “lead the Jews to their death”.

A sense of doom was always present.

In Wittenberg, where Luther preached, having torn down the Catholic idols, he and his followers erected a stone slab on the side of the Church: it shows people sucking the teets of a pig: Die Judensau. In “Of the unknowable name and the generations of Christ”, Luther wrote: “Here in Wittenberg, in our parish church, there is a sow carved into the stone under which lie young pigs and Jews who are sucking; behind the sow stands a rabbi who is lifting up the right leg of the sow, raises behind the sow, bows down and looks with great effort into the Talmud under the sow, as if he wanted to read and see something most difficult and exceptional; no doubt they gained their Shem Hamphoras (the unknowable name) from that place…”

Luther in the pulpit, Moses in the desert.

The German Socrates, the Jewish Luther.

The cafe near the Jewish cemetery is open and playing Christmas music from the radio, something by Beethoven, I guess.

I buy a pfannkuchen from the jolly baker woman, whose voice is the harsh, guttural, sweet Berlinerish that I so often hear about but so rarely hear. Back out in the cold I eat and think about how this “mind-body thing” is tasting, eating, walking, with an abstraction weighing upon it like the weather, and that death is none of these, and not even feeling, not even the cold, and some understanding glimmers there on the horizon.

*

Mendelssohn won an essay contest set by the Academy of Philosophy. Who came in second? Immanuel Kant. His celebrity might not have been incidental to his life, but it was certainly a distraction from his real aim. He did not want to be a touchstone for Germans to prove their tolerance; he aimed for the creation of a pluralist society. He wanted to create a place where Jews were recognised as humans. But his vision of society, where people could live together, would be transformed, in time, into a doomed project, among Germany’s dark Satanic mills.

Meanwhile, his son would abandon his father’s religion and convert to Christianity. His grandson would adopt the surname of his father, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, and go on to become one of Europe’s most well-known composers (and one of the most detested by Wagner, who alluded to Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s Jewish roots as evidence of his ‘inauthentic’ and sentimental contributions to German culture, which thereby rendered German culture inauthentic).

Did Mendelssohn make life easier for Jewish people in Europe, or did he transform Jewish life into something it wasn’t? Was he an assimilator or a reformer? Who benefitted from his example? Is he someone worth remembering or not? Why not remember more important people? Why not look to more significant contributions from more intelligent thinkers? Is his vision of a pluralist society dead? How, as a minority, can you ever truly feel comfortable in Europe?

*

I finally get to the cemetery. It’s dark and streets by it are small and warm-looking, decorated with thin, black trees which look winter-like and beautiful, as in paintings by Breughel, but with no snow. The slight taste of the pfannkuchen lingers and I remember I’m in 2018 and not in some strange old semi-medieval idyll where the cosiness of a simple life offers itself invitingly to a warm and small community in winter. I get to the gate, and put my hand on it to open it. It moves and the suddenly catches.

“Geschlossen”.

It’s a guard with his hand on the other side.

“Oh. Wirklich?”

“Ja wirklich. Ist morgen wieder offen um zehn uhr”.

It’s closed, it’s open tomorrow.

Can’t I just go in quickly?

He ushers me back into the dark road, and draws a chain across two posts to stop cars from parking.

“Nein” he says, “nein”.

I want to push the gate open and get to the grave. I want to find out what I think. I want to ask him about this doom.

Then I realise something. Not seeing his grave forces me to pay attention to myself. What I’m feeling isn’t simply fear, it’s sadness. It’s sadness for the entire project of assimilation and the hope we can live together.

Despite Mendelssohn and his ambitions, that sadness persists. The feeling that so many people died for nothing, because they were hated, because they were the wrong kind of bodies.

The charge in my fingers speaks: Get over the idiotic idea that I am in any way exceptional, get over the self-awareness and self-involvement, and argue for togetherness, even if it is a doomed idea. I’m ordinary, but people of ordinary intelligence must do something. People of ordinary cleverness and ordinary morality must do something. Even to present an ordinary vision for the future, one which has ordinary hopes, and not exalted ones, but ordinary ones, such as living a life free from coercion, and letting people get on with their own lives.

The common man looks upon goodness as weakness, says Mendelssohn.

Even if we, however mistakenly, fear our own annihilation, we musn’t view it as inevitable: doing so prevents hope from growing, and if that’s the case, then what would be the point of fighting for any social change?

*

I leave, maybe heading back to that building somewhere in the North where I found Jerusalem and leave a note for myself or someone else, for the original giver—an urge, bring people in, bring myself in, coerce power. I long to head back to that location and find a note which explains to me again and again: this is you: this is what your life is: you are alive now: you can make change now: what you think and feel and do is your life, and it can be made intelligible to others if you try: the world is imperfect, but it always has been: do not allow yourself to drown in fear of the world’s imperfections, but work to make it better.

I see a small basement window in a small cuboid hole. Behind the translucent window is a figure, shadowy, old, hunchbacked. The window opens, and a hand places an envelope on the ledge for me. The figure disappears. It is Moses Mendelssohn.

I open the envelope. Inside is a letter.

 

Notes:
[1] Tough to translate one on one, but “education” or “development”, describing a process of gaining individual personhood through learning and reflection.

[2] “Are Christians and Jews more Christian and Jew than human?”, roughly.

[3] Bild is the most pearl-clutching of all German tabloids; and unsurpisingly, also the most sordid.

[4] https://archive.org/stream/VonDenJudenUndIhrenLuegen/LutherMartin-VonDenJudenUndIhrenLuegen154318S._djvu.txt

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gurmeet Singh is a 31 year old British writer living and working in Berlin. He writes non-fiction about art, politics and culture, and is also currently working on a novel. He tweets @therealgurmeet.

 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 7th, 2019.