The Czech-Jewish assimilationist movement grew out of the nineteenth Century context of competing nationalisms. As national entrepreneurs grew increasingly strident in their demands that people in the crown lands of Bohemia and Moravia choose a German or Czech allegiance, and the Czech-speaking population rapidly increased, the third largest ethnic group, the Jews, were caught in the middle. While traditionally German speaking, many Jewish people in Bohemia and Moravia had come to identify themselves as Czech and sought to participate in the development of Czech consciousness. Of course, this assimilationist perspective was highly controversial as many prominent Czech leaders refused to accept Jews as Czechs, and several Jewish leaders accused the assimilationists of betrayal. Nevertheless, Czech-Jewish assimilationist writers found a unique voice within Bohemian society and made lasting contributions to the cultural life of pre-World War Two Bohemia and Moravia. Collected here for the first time are three quintessential works by two generations of Czech-Jewish assimilationist authors, Edvard Lederer (1859-1944), Siegried Kapper (1821-1879), and Vojtech Rakous (1862-1935).
Siegfried Kapper, the pseudonym for Isaac Salomon Kapper, was born in Prague in 1821. Kapper studied medicine, but devoted his life to the study of Slavic cultures, poetry, and Czech-Jewish assimilation. He wrote many celebrated pieces of prose and poetry, among them the epic poem "Prince Lazar." His work influenced many young Jews in Bohemia to embrace the Czech nation.
Eduard Lederer was a Prague educated lawyer who became one of the leaders of the Czech-Jewish assimilation movement at the turn of the 20th century. Unlike his predecessors, Lederer lacked much of the optimism that characterized the earlier movement, and argued instead for a renewal of Czech-Jewish cooperation based on religious tolerance and the political principles of the Social Democrats. Lederer's work, The Jew in Today's Society, is both a plea of innocence from all of the anti-Semitic accusations of his era and a program outlining a new direction for the movement.
On the Crossroad is a children's tale about the elimination of the marriage laws in the 1820s, which severely restricted legal Jewish marriages in Bohemia. Rakous, a humorist and writer, was one of the first modern authors to widely publish in Czech. His simple characters often found themselves caught in restrictions beyond their control. Here, we have a fine translation of one of Rakous' most vivid descriptions of what emancipation meant in the everyday lives of the Jews of Bohemia.