Eretz Israel, Ersatz GermanyElse Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945) was unique. She broke the conventions of poetry as easily as she broke the conventions of femininity. She became the prototype of the Weimar artist, poor, almost homeless, living off handouts in Berlin boarding houses. She was androgynous and promiscuous, styling herself in oriental clothes and playing with the boundaries of gender. Her own friends assumed that she was insane.
As much as she played with gender, she also clung to her Jewishness. She explores aspects of Jewish identity in many works. Her understanding of Jewishness, however, was not taken from Judaism itself. It was constructed from within German culture. She interpreted the contents of Judaism in terms of the spirituality that pervaded German culture of the early twentieth century. It borrowed the emotions and elation of poetry and music. But when she was forced into exile from Germany, her sense of Jewishness collapsed.
Lasker-Schüler structured identity in rather unique ways. She styled herself to express a multivalent personality, dressing androgynously, acting promiscuously, and speaking of herself in different genders. She was once recorded as saying, “Thank G-d I am Jew,” referring to herself in the masculine rather than feminine. The personalities that she created, for herself and in her works, were seldom self-representations. At times they mediated between self and society; other times, they were perspectives of a complex personality.
Lasker-Schüler’s earliest writings reflected, in part, the bleak landscape of the Wuppertal, an industrial region on the right bank of the Rhine River to the north of Cologne, where she was born. Her play, Die Wupper, did not so much critique industrialism than mystify the region. Her works had already showed propensities for abstraction and expressionism. None of her other works revealed a desire to promote the local, the Land, and her later works, during the period when she lived in Berlin, showed more appreciation for cosmopolitanism and striving for universalism.
Her Heimat, if any, was German. Language was her home, the source of her ideas, the root of her universe.
I do not know the speechHer concepts of Jewish identity and femininity were built from her understanding, and revolt against, German literature. Her Hebrew Ballads have been criticized for lacking a solid sense of Jewish traditions. She was either non-chalant or ignorant of tradition, building an ethnic (rather than religious) understanding of Judaism. Miller says that the ballads employ the narratives of the Old Testament (Tanakh) to criticize the misogyny, patriarchy (read Jacob and Esau) and militarism of German society. (It has also been suggested that her ignorance was a condition shared by other Jewish women of the time–their religious education was not valued.)
Of this cool land,
I cannot keep its pace.
In the 1930s Lasker-Schüler became a favorite target of the Nazis. She was the worst of Weimar, the epitome of the intellectual Jewess. Moreover, she had been subjected to several attacks. She moved to Switzerland, but eventually her German citizenship was revoked in 1938, requiring her to move to Palestine.
She seemed indifferent to Palestine. Rather than seeing it as a new home, it was a permanent exile. She was not at ease with Palestine, Israel, Jerusalem, Hebrew or Yiddish. She felt separated from other Jews, especially when they resented German language as a symbol of antisemitism and genocide. The romantic attachment that she showed towards Palestine in her early poetry never materialized when it became her home. Moreover, the language in which she expressed herself became hostile terrain.
Lasker-Schüler was not the only Jewish author who wrote in German to experience the alienation from it. Yvan Goll, an Alsatian Jews, escaped the conundrum of German by also writing in French (although seldom the same poems in both languages.) Another Alsatian, Nathan Katz, found the local dialect of the tiny Sundgau as a fruitful place from which to compose in a Germanic dialect. Most notoriously, Paul Celan reinvented German by unearthing archaic language and composing impossible compounds, stretching the abilities of the German language to their limit.
German-Jews, in many cases, found it difficult to separate themselves from German culture, even after awareness of the Holocaust was widespread. They came to believe in its value, and to trust in their own assimilation. The sounds of Wagner continued to move them to tears.
Lasker-Schüler seemed similarly trapped. Able to reinvent femininity, she was trapped by labguage. Her late, post-exile works revealed feeling of homelessness, the loss of a cultural realm that should could call home. Even as the Holocaust forced her to confront the incompatibility of Judaism and German culture, she fought to keep the ruined terrain of German language as a refuge from her feelings of isolation and separation.
Ich habe zu Hause ein blaues Klavier
Und kenne doch keine Note.
(At home I have a blue piano
although I know none of the notes)
Es steht im Dunkel der Kellertür,
Seitdem die Welt verrohte.
(It is dark in the cellar
since the world was brutalized)
Es spielten Sternenhände vier
– Die Mondfrau sang im Boote –
Nun tanzen die Ratten im Geklirr.
(It played in 4/4 time
--the moon woman sang on the boat--
now the rats dance with its clanging.)
Zerbrochen ist die Klaviatür…
Ich beweine die blaue Tote.
(Broken is the piano's lid ...
I bemaon the blue death.)
Ach liebe Engel öffnet mir
– Ich aß vom bitteren Brote –
Mir lebend schon die Himmelstür –
Auch wider dem Verbote.
(Oh dear Angel open to me
--I have eaten from the bitter bread--
The gates of Heaven are already open to me,
contrary to prohibition.)
[English phrases translated by yours truly.]
- biography in Literary Encyclopedia
- exerpts from the Hebrew Ballads
- biography on Jewish Heritage Online Magazine
- Else Lasker-Schüler Info Page and Online Bibliography at University of South Alabama (lots of links, including online texts)
- Christanne Miller's essay (requires Project Muse)
- "Masquerade of Gender ..." (requires JSTOR)
- Essay on Espritsnomades (in French)