Can a group, defined solely by its religious affiliation, transform into the intellectual and social leaders of their time? Can they do it within three generations? In Michael Goldfarb’s sprawling history of European Jews, Emancipation, the answer is yes.
Until the eve of French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, Jews of Europe were marginalized by society, segregated in ghettos, and denied the basic rights of citizenship in their native lands.
It is astounding that from 1482 until 1796, all of Frankfurt’s Jews were housed in a squalid neighborhood called the Judengasse, which directly translated means Jewish alley or Jewish street. They were herded there by an edict from Emperor Frederic III and the ghetto gates were locked by the city burghers on nights and weekends. Even as these populations grew over centuries, they remained sandwiched into the same small plot of real estate. This was the way of life in cities and rural areas throughout Europe.
In a story that remains largely untold, Goldfarb grabs the reader at the eve of the French Revolution and guides them through the next 125 years until the dawn of the First World War. In less than three generations after Emancipation, a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein was poised to revolutionize Physics, Sigmund Freud created psychoanalysis, and the Rothschild family created a global manufacturing and banking empire that spanned Europe. Continue reading