Lois C. Dubin. The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste: Absolutist Politics and Enlightenment Culture. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1999. 335 pp. $49.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-3320-5.
Reviewed by Nancy Sinkoff (Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies, Rutgers University)
Published on HABSBURG (May, 2000)
Triestine Jewry: The Exception that Proves the HabsburgState-Building Rule
With this superb book, Lois C. Dubin has successfully and elegantly slain the two-headed dragon of modern Jewish historiography: nationalism and Germanocentrism. She has also provided Habsburg historians with a much-needed treatment of the complex interaction between state-building, reforming absolutism and the Jews, one of several significant "national minorities" within the heterogeneous empire.
As with so many other fields, much has changed in the writing of modern Jewish history since the 1960s. Previous generations of Jewish historians, raised in the heady atmosphere of European nationalism at the end of the nineteenth century, tended toward an essential Zion vs. Diaspora dichotomy in which the history of European Jews was often measured by their "nationalist" consciousness or lack thereof. All the major historical categories that accompanied the tectonic shifts in Jewish life between the years 1750-1881: modernization, assimilation, acculturation, Enlightenment, religious and communal transformation, halakhic (Jewish legal) development, politics, etc. were judged by this explicit nationalist agenda. An equally problematic historiographic quandary for the historian of European Jewry has been the Germanocentrism of the historical narrative. Jewish historians focused on German lands because the modern, critical study of the Jews (Wissenschaft des Judentums) was born there and because the century-long struggle for political emancipation in German lands resulted in a particularly articulate set of Jewish responses to the modern condition, which captivated the modern Jewish historian.
The result of these two historiographic tendencies was that, until recently, there was only one model of Jewish modernization (the German one) against which all other regions were measured. Germany was the center and thus central, and the "periphery" (Italy, Galicia, Belarus, Podolia, Hungary, Prague, let alone the much ignored areas of European Sephardic settlement), was considered iterative and secondary. Of late, this black-and-white tendency has been thankfully muddied, which has encouraged a whole new cohort of European Jewish historians to explore the regional diversity of the Jewish encounter with modernity. The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste, a detailed communal history which specifically engages the distinctiveness of a Habsburg port Jewry, is a model of how it should be done.
Organized into nine chapters with an introduction, the work tackles all the major issues of modern Jewish history as well as engaging fundamental questions in Habsburg historiography, specifically Josephinism, absolutism, and Enlightenment. Dubin's central premise is that the Jews of eighteenth-century Trieste, who were neither Sefardim nor Ashkenazim, but migrants from all of the pre-modern centers of Italian Jewry, were granted exceptional privileges within the Habsburg state because of the free port status of their city. They constituted a "Port Jewry," which, like Prussian court Jews of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, were regarded as equal subjects by the Emperor because of their economic utility. The characteristics of Port Jews, like those of Trieste, were economic acumen, acculturation (particularly with respect to language and dress), and etatism. Thus, the Jews of Trieste had more in common with other Port Jewries, such as those of Amsterdam, Philadelphia and Bordeaux, and less in common with other Habsburg Jewries, such as the landlocked Jews of Galicia.
The fundamental issue was not water, of course, but the economy that a port generated. The essential economic role played by Triestine Jewry once Charles VI declared Trieste a free port in 1719 made them indispensable to the Habsburg state. This indispensability itself is a critical marker in the shift between medieval and early modern Jewish history. What had been a liability, Jewish predominance in middle-class professions, particularly in trade, became an asset with the rise of mercantilism and a state-centralized economy. Coupled with the distinctive culture of Italian Jews, toleration shaped the ways in which Triestine Jews responded to Josephinian reforms, the Jewish Enlightenment in Berlin, challenges to Jewish marriage and divorce law, educational changes, and the dissolution of the ghetto, all of which Dubin explores with nuance and clarity.
In contrast to so many treatments of the Jews, Dubin avoids the false dichotomy of "external" (i.e. a non-Jewish narrative with non-Jewish sources) and "internal" (i.e. a Jewish narrative using only Jewish sources) history. The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste employs source material in all the essential languages, German, Hebrew and Italian, and Dubin is equally at home analyzing Viennese and Triestine archival material and rare Hebrew periodical literature published in Vienna and Berlin. Her assured use of such diverse materials is also welcome because it restores historical agency to the Jewish population which is at the center of her study. Dubin's Triestine community is not a passive recipient of either Josephinian reform or Prussian Jewish Enlightenment ideology. At all moments in the book, they shape their destiny based on the particularities of their exceptional port status. For example, Dubin explores with subtlety Joseph II's decision to tear down the gates of the ghetto on September 17, 1785, an act designed to encourage civic integration and reduce Jewish segregation.
The Italian ghetto, a product of the sixteenth century, has been the subject of important revisionist historiography, which emphasizes the protection a separate residential quarter offered to the Jews. Dubin shows how Triestine Jews were not unanimous in welcoming the destruction of the ghetto gates. The wealthy merchant Marco Levi feared that residential openness might threaten his extensive property holdings within the ghetto and lead to religious laxity. His concerns were not shared by the leadership of the Jewish community, who embraced the overarching protection of the absolutist state and its commitment to treating its port inhabitants equitably.
In the fifth chapter, "Trieste and the Haskalah [Jewish Enlightenment]," Dubin expands upon an earlier article to show how the support of Italian Jews for the efforts of Prussian Jews to expand and modify their educational system to include secular studies and to reprioritize the Talmudic curriculum derived not from an explicit ideology of modernization, but from the specifics of their Italian-Jewish heritage, which had always embraced the breadth of secular Italian culture. Because of their port status, mercantile acumen and distinctive culture, the Jews of Trieste did not need the transformative cultural program known as the Haskalah in order to feel part of the modernizing Habsburg state. Triestine Jews were truly at home, with their status as subjects of a protective state and as Italians, important members of a flourishing civic community in one of the Empire's most important ports.
Was there no disharmony, then, between Joseph II's reforming designs and the Jewish community of Trieste? Dubin investigates a critical conflict between Triestine Jewry and the Habsburg state in the eighth chapter, "The Habsburg Marriage Reforms: Challenges to Religious-Communal Authority." She reveals that, no matter how well-intentioned the cameralist aims of the absolutist state were --and she concludes that Joseph II was well-intentioned -- conflict with the Jews over the constriction of the authority of Jewish law was inevitable. The foregone conflict arose not solely because of the demands of the state, but because of the all-encompassing nature of traditional Jewish law, which in pre-modern times covered every realm of human behavior, including marriage and divorce. It arose also because of its legal expression, the medieval Jewish municipality known as the kahal (in Italian, Universita degli Ebrei).
In theory, the centralizing aims of the absolutist state would produce a body of secular civic law which would reduce the authority of religious law to the private realm. In other words, integration into the modern state would require that Judaism become confessionalized. But the Habsburg Ehepatent, promulgated on January 16, 1783, produced a hybrid law for the performance and dissolution of marriage. The state controlled marriage, which was defined as civil, but was buttressed by religious ceremonies, functionaries, and record keepers. The gray area between private and public created a confusing web of legislation that frustrated the affective desires of several Jewish couples seeking to marry and divorce, pit them against the organized Jewish community, and necessitated legal involvement into Jewish affairs by both the provincial and central authorities.
In her discussion, Dubin underscores the crucial difference between civic and political emancipation. While the Jews of Trieste had enjoyed almost total civic parity with their merchant peers, the Ehepatent threatened Trieste's Jews. Although it was a step towards complete political emancipation, it struck at their age-old right to define who was a member of the Jewish community and to uphold the norms of Jewish religious practice. The intrusion of the state into the realms of marriage and divorce unsettled Triestine Jewry in ways that educational reforms (Germanization) and conscription (Trieste's Jews did not balk at Josephinian military policy) did not. Throughout their negotiations with Josephinian reform policy, Triestine Jewry demonstrated time and time again that they desired to continue the civic emancipation that their privileged port status gave them. Total political emancipation on the model of the sweeping declarations of the French National Assembly in 1791, which demanded the complete dissolution of Jewish communal authority and the confessionalization of Judaism, was not on their agenda.
The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste will undoubtedly remain the classic treatment of this fascinating city and of Habsburg state-building in one of its most important ports. But the very exceptionality of Trieste and of Triestine Jewry, which Dubin freely admits, means that we still do not have a complete picture of Habsburg Jewry in the critical years of state transformation and modernization.
In the year that Trieste became a free port, most of Europe's Jews were Ashkenazim, descendants of northern French and German Jews resident in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth since the thirteenth century. This massive population was thrust into the maelstrom of political change with the dramatic partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century, which resulted in 260,000 new Jewish subjects of the Austrian Empire by 1795. Religiously traditional and sorely impoverished, Galicia's Jews were not considered busefulb by Joseph II, whose 1789 patent strove, more than anything else, to redirect Jewish economic behavior. The future integration of Galicia's Jews into the Empire would be predicated on the success or failure of their economic and "moral" transformation, a quid pro quo implicit in much of nineteenth-century European Jewish history.
Thus the The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste: Absolutist Politics and Enlightenment Culture treats a relatively small Jewish community that enjoyed uncommon privileges. The zenith of the community was reached in 1818, numbering 2,400. But this does not detract at all from this community's significance. By so deftly exploring the exception that proves the rule, Dubin has illuminated and clarified the epochal changes that transformed European Jewish life at the end of the eighteenth century.
. Jonathan Frankel, "Assimilation and the Jews in Nineteenth-century Europe: Towards a New Historiography?," in Jonathan Frankel and Steven J. Zipperstein, eds., Assimilation and Community: The Jews in Nineteenth- Century Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 1-37. For a "nationalist" history par excellence, see Raphael Mahler, Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment: Their Confrontation in Galicia and Poland in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia and New York: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1985).
. Two fine recent collections are Toward Modernity: The European Jewish Model, Jacob Katz, ed. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books Inc., 1987) and Paths of Emancipation: Jews, States, and Citizenship, Pierre Birnbaum and Ira Katzelson, eds. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995).
. Benjamin C. I. Ravid, "From Geographical Realia to Historiographical Symbol: The Odyssey of the Word Ghetto," in David Ruderman, ed., Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, (New York and London: New York University Press, 1992), 373-385.
. Lois C. Dubin, "Trieste and Berlin: The Italian Role in the Cultural Politics of the Haskalah," in Jacob Katz, op cit., pp. 189-224.
. William O. McCagg, Jr., A History of Habsburg Jews, 1670-1918 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989) has flaws, not the least of which is the absence of any Hebrew or Yiddish sources. McCagg's reliance on German sources skews his portrait towards the most acculturated of the Jewish population, concluding that "self-denial" or "radical assimilation" was the response of the majority of Habsburg Jewry to modernity. The historical record --even for those who ardently championed "assimilation," such as a vocal group of Jews in Central Poland after 1863 -- is far more complex.
. Arnold Springer, "Enlightened Absolutism and Jewish Reform: Prussia, Austria, and Russia," California Slavic Studies, XI (1980), 237-267.
Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the reviewer and to HABSBURG. For other permission, please contact <email@example.com>.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/habsburg.
Nancy Sinkoff. Review of Dubin, Lois C., The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste: Absolutist Politics and Enlightenment Culture.
HABSBURG, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.