There are certain renowned figures in history whose relationship with their Jewish heritage was so tenuous that they had no hesitation in accepting Christianity, but was strong enough that it shaped their lives. One such example is the renowned German poet, Heinrich Heine.
Born in Dusseldorf in 1797, Heine received a minimal Hebrew education with little Jewish involvement at home. After a brief employment experience at his uncle’s bank, Heine began to study law (studying in several universities).
It was during Heine’s student days that he first became known for his poetry. His ventures into literary life led him to associate with a wide range of notable personalities and to form strong political opinions, which were very much on the radical left.
The completion of Heine’s studies, and his decision to seek an academic career, coincided with the re-introduction of many discriminatory laws in Prussia, including one barring Jews from academic posts. Therefore, in 1825, Heine converted to Protestantism and justified this move by stating that conversion was “the ticket of admission into European culture.”
Oddly enough, the years just prior to his conversion seemed to have been his years of greatest Jewish interest. In Berlin, where he was studying, he joined the Verein für Cultur und Wissenschaft der Juden, a society which attempted to achieve a balance between the Jewish faith and modernity. He also developed a keen interest in Jewish history and began to write a historical novel, Der Rabbi von Bacherach (completed in 1840).
Ironically, Heine never held an academic position, nor was his Jewish heritage ever forgotten by those around him. And although he came to be considered one of Germany’s greatest poets, riots broke out when Dusseldorf commissioned a sculpture to honor the centennial of his birth. The stature, known as The Lauriel, eventually found a home in The Bronx, New York.
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