10 Things You Should Know About… Heinrich Graetz

First modern Jewish historian

1. He was born Tzvi Hirsh Graetz to a butcher’s family in Poznan – then Prussia, now Poland –  in October 1817. He received a traditional education in a yeshivah, though he had an interest, as well, in secular studies, which he pursued privately. Initially, he was influenced by Samson Raphael Hirsch, a champion of orthodox Judaism, and spent three years as his pupil and secretary.

2. He was awarded a doctorate by the University of Jena, though he had studied at the University of Breslau: Jews could not receive doctorates at Breslau. In 1845 he became principal of a Jewish school in Breslau and later taught history at the Jewish Theological Seminary there.

3. His History of the Jews, told from a Jewish perspective, ran to eleven volumes. Quickly and widely translated, it ignited worldwide interest in Jewish history. And in a bit of poetic justice, earned him the title of Honorary Professor at the University of Breslau.

4. The fourth volume was the first to be published, in 1853. It was followed by the third in 1856, and then, rapidly and in succession, the sixth to the eleventh, which came out in 1870, bringing the history up to the year 1848. For the first two volumes, covering the earliest period of Jewish history, he traveled to Palestine to do research in 1872, and had completed the history by 1876.

GrAETZ5. The work was difficult, drawing on sources scattered over nations and continents and written in many languages. Chronological sequences often had to be interrupted. But he wrote sympathetically, vividly, passionately, reconstructing the past with a remarkable grasp of the sweep of history, though he was wrong in many of the details.

6. He emphasized the contribution of the Jewish people in realizing the divine will, of Jewish spirituality as expressed in literary sources, and of the spiritual stirrings of the Jewish heart as the essential feature of their political and social life. Still, he ruffled feathers.

7. His fourth volume (remember – the first to be published) was reviewed by Rabbi S. R. Hirsch in a group of essays that grew to 203 pages and must have stung Graetz deeply. The exhaustive treatment showed the scholarship to have been sloppy, omitting parts of quotations, fabricating dates, and making conclusions based on little or faulty evidence. His eleventh volume gave rise to attacks, notably by the historian Heinrich von Treitschke, of hatred of Christianity, bias against the German people, and Jewish chauvinism. His work was quoted as proof that the Jews would never be able to assimilate themselves into European culture.

8. It’s true that his mammoth work was full of ad hominen arguments, preconceived notions, and attacks against Christianity. Scenes were imaginatively rendered, often based on flimsy evidence. Graetz might rightly be called the father of the lachrymose vision of Jewish history, for his narrative is drenched in darkness and suffering.

9. Nevertheless, he succeeded in presenting for the first time the whole of Jewish history. Indeed, the great Jewish historians of the twentieth century wrote their histories in response to Graetz’s work.

10. Though he published an anthology of Hebrew poetry and a one-volume edition of the Jerusalem Talmud, his reputation rests on the history, because it became the first standard work in the field of modern Jewish history. He died in September 1891.

You can find Graetz Street in Tel Aviv running north from Ben Gurion between Ben Yehudah and Dizengoff, and in Jerusalem south of Liberty Bell Park off Emeq Refa’im.

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