Schlemiel & Society (Rahel Varnhagen Unhappy Jewess)


Finishing up preparations for a talk on Mendelssohn, I turned to Hannah Arendt’s Rahel Varnhagen: Life of a Jewish Woman). I think it was Lilliana Weissberg who pointed out the original subtitle was Life of A Jewess, but I may be getting this detail wrong. Varnhagen’s story represents the effort of a German Jewess to escape from Judaism into society, the struggle for recognition as an individual, the effort to secure a little happiness in the bourgeois world, and the ultimate collapse of the German Jewish salon society around 1813 as German Jewish assimilation bangs up against the hard real social world.

Writing in 1933 and republished in 1957, Arendt can be read as presenting in Varnhagen and German-Jewish assimilation an opposition between “the human condition” and “the Jewish condition.” In complete opposition to the world of Enlightenment, figured here by Moses Mendelssohn, Rahel Varnhagen reads like a negative foil for Arendt’s more capacious conceptualization of politics, the social space of appearance, risk and natality as set out in The Human Condition.

In this way, Rahel Varnhagen can be read as a protest against what Arendt considered in The Human Condition as the narrow constraint of the private sphere, the domestic space of the oikos, and closed-in nineteenth century, bourgeois German Jewish gemütlichkeit. The ultimate representative of the bourgeoisie, Rahel Varnhagen is the ultimate schlemiel. Her fate is unlike the condition enjoyed by Dorothea Schlegel (né Brendel Mendelssohn). Without money or beauty, Varnhagen represents the unlucky and unhappy person who fails to make it out into the world, being stuck as she is in “the Jewish condition.”

Was Arendt the first to introduce the figure of the “schelemiel” into critical discourse? Ask Menachem Feuer over at SchlemielinTheory, and his Hannah Arendt tags. At any rate, she is not a comic figure, not here as presented  by Arendt. In particular, this reading here of Arendt on Varnhagen is much more thorough and expert than this short post.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Schlemiel & Society (Rahel Varnhagen Unhappy Jewess)

  1. ej says:

    Despite all that has been written about these Jewish salonierres in the Berlin of the 1790s there behavior remains inexplicable. We are dealing with an Orthodox community pre Reform Judaism, which is 15-20 years away. Many were married to Orthodox men, had children, wore sheitlech and appeared perfectly Orthodox. They then pick themselves up, leave their husbands and children, run away with non-Jewish lovers, many converting, sometimes twice, and encouraging other members of their community to convert. They as a group are neither schmeils or tragically overly suffocated by their surroundings. Some were fabously wealthy. They left the Jewish people, and all for a romantic dalliance.

    More work has to be done if they are to be seen in a serious light. There was something rotten in 18th century German Jewry, and this rot is already apparent in the neo-Sabbatean controversies of the 1750s. How this decadence could coexist within a high rabbinical culture needs a deeper explanation.

  2. Pingback: On Hannah Arendt’s Reading of Rahel Varnhagen and the Schlemiel – Take One | The Home of Schlemiel Theory

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