Happy Jew for the Happy Few

It was Dominique Bourel’s 60th birthday yesterday. Though he is not too strongly involved in the German academical system, he knows enough people in it to be entitled to a jubilee “Kolloquium”. Maybe because he is not a German Professor, he was given not the full 3-days-of-very-long-lectures-programme, but a 3-hour-firework retracing the life paths of “Happy Jews” from the 18th to the 21st century. This main theme, as organisator Christoph Schulte explained in his introductory speech, was inspired by Dominique Bourel’s thesis in his biography of Moses Mendelssohn – who was according to him a “happy jew”. The talks were interlaced with piano performances.

Honestly, I was a little bit scared when I received the invitation and saw that no less than 14 speakers were announced. As it turned out, it is absolutely possible, within 10 minutes and with 5 to 10 slides, to sketch a lively portrait of an interesting persona – or, for that matter, to make a persona interesting. Which gets me back to my wikipedia/biography questions (see this post, Christof Schöch’s comment on it, and that post): What I appreciated was, in fact, the underlying breadcrumb, the motive of the “happy jew” – the idea that one should not read the history of the jewish people as teleologically determined by the Shoah. Progroms were mentioned, the shoah was mentioned, sadistic, antisemitic murder – it was not ignored. But the story to tell was another one.

This is probably the best possible example to make my point about biographical narratives: whether you are aware of it or not, they are undermined by an ideological subtext and it is only if you question that subtext – if you drive it to its limits as with the provocative “happy jew” – that you become aware of it. And since it is not possible to do without it, it is best to do with it, to be aware of it and to consider it a structural, hierarchical component of the biography. Which is why I still doubt that wikipedia can, in the end, be a good reference for biographies: it would suppose an epistemological coherence which it cannot provide.

The colloquium took place in a wonderful place called the Mendelssohn-Remise. They have a great cultural programme that you can consult here.


Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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