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Praying in Uniform: The Jewish Soldier in Diaspora Armies

Praying in Uniform: The Jewish Soldier in Diaspora Armies

The army is the epitome of the modern state’s drive to homogenize men, to render them uniform by clothing them in uniforms. From the late 18th through mid-20th centuries, literally millions of Jews served in diaspora armies. Jewish soldiers faced challenges to religious observance and antisemitism from fellow soldiers and officers, but also opportunities for integration and for the display of masculine honor. Jews were often unable to obtain kosher food or observe Sabbath rest, but they were permitted to pray, carrying their own or government-issue prayer books into the barracks and the battlefield.

There was a great symbolic meaning in praying in uniform in camp, as it made Jewish soldiers both distinct from yet of a kind with non-Jewish soldiers. Prayer in uniform has been a simultaneous performance of assimilation and difference: the antiquity of the service, the formality of its language and its call for a discipline of the self to God assert a particular Jewish identity, a religious tradition no less respectable and generative of manly virtue than Christianity. Long before the praying Israeli soldier at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, automatic rifle slung over his shoulder, became a beacon of psychic energy for diaspora Jews, the uniformed Jew in the act of worship testified to the symbiotic relationship between religious and martial sentiment in modern Jewish culture.

The German-Jewish artist Moritz Oppenheim (1800-1882) captured this spirit in his painting of 1868, The Prayers for the Memory of the Dead. In the painting, a quorum of Jewish soldiers is gathered in a building that has been damaged, most likely in war. (The Austro-Prussian war had occurred just two years previously.) While they recite the kaddish prayer for fallen comrades, two Christian women look curiously on. This element of public performance of private sentiment was even more visible in representations of prayers by Jewish soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War, on the outskirts of besieged Metz during the autumn of 1870.

Shortly before the High Holidays of 1870, Isaak Blumenstein, a rabbi from Mannheim, came to the Prussian army encampment with a proposal to organize a large, open-air prayer service. A plan was approved for the service to take place, and leave was granted to 1,147 Jewish worshippers, who were to be guarded by their fellow Christian soldiers. This did not happen, however. A division was called into battle shortly before the ceremony, and only about 60 Jewish soldiers went off to hold impromptu services, without a rabbi or torah scroll, in a couple of abandoned buildings. Rabbi Blumenstein was pleased that the commanding officer, Edwin von Manteuffel, had received him with respect and allowed the Jews a few hours to recite the prayers. (He had refused a similar request for Rosh Hashanah.) The rabbi’s thrill over this experience was shared by the artist Hermann Junker, whose painting of a throng of uniformed Jews praying in a dingy farmhouse was reproduced as a popular postcard. The prayer service also inspired the creation of an even more popular tapestry depicting the planned yet abortive prayer service as if it had actually taken place. The tapestry depicts Jews gathered en masse in a valley outside of Metz, in full uniform and prayer shawls, facing an impressive ark, their heads covered by spiked helmets. As they pray, Christian soldiers guard them from distant hilltops. A poem in the corners of the tapestry claims that the Jews numbered 1,200—a number that was not only impressive but also symbolic of Jewish particularity, as it subtly invoked the 12 tribes of Israel.

For anyone viewing this tapestry after the Holocaust, the image of Jews huddled together in prayer shawls in a valley surrounded by armed Germans evokes terrifying associations. At the time, however, this image connoted Jewish religious solidarity, patriotism, gratitude towards the German Emperor for the opportunity to serve the fatherland, and a thinly-veiled acknowledgment of Jewish subservience. As the tapestry was produced and reproduced, the press was filled with reports by soldiers in the field as well as by Rabbi Blumenstein about what really happened, but the legend proved more powerful and durable than reality.

At the center of the tapestry is an ark and a uniformed prayer leader, a projection of Jewish desires for military chaplains like those who ministered unto Catholic and Protestant soldiers. Unlike Catholics, Jewish soldiers did not need a religious official to officiate at their prayers. Yet the comforting presence of a rabbi could boost the morale and religious consciousness of a Jewish soldier on the major holidays, or recovering in a field hospital, or perplexed by a legal or moral issue that arose in the course of carrying out his duties. In World War I, all combatant countries allowed rabbis to officiate in the field, at times as salaried chaplains, often as volunteers without military uniform or rank.

For Jewish soldiers from even assimilated backgrounds, attending a Shabbat or holiday prayer service while in the field has often been an intensely moving experience. It has also at times been an awkward one, drawing the gaze—whether admiring, curious or hostile—of one’s Gentile comrades in arms. Yet prayer, whether individual or collective, has been for Jewish soldiers the most easily observed of the commandments. It has asserted a specific identity—as much ethnic as religious—in a manner that connotes dignity, honor and self-worth. It is, as the artworks reproduced here demonstrate, a performance of both difference and commonality.

1 Sources on the tapestry and other Jewish art from the Franco-Prussian War include Erik Lindner, Patriotismus deutscher Juden von der napoleonischen Ära bis zum Kaiserreich. Zwischen korporativem Loyalismus und individueller deutsch-jüdischer Identität. Frankfurt am Main, 1997; Ismar Schorsch, “Art as Social History: Moritz Oppenheim and the German-Jewish Vision of Emancipation,” From Text to Context: The Turn to History in Modern Judaism. Hanover, New Hampshire: Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, 1994; and Christine G. Krüger, “Sind wir denn nicht Brüder? Deutsche Juden in nationalen Krieg 1870/71. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöning, 2006.

2 I develop these themes further in my current book project, Uniform Identities: Jews, War and the Military in Modern History.

Derek Jonathan Penslar, Samuel Zacks Professor of Jewish History, University of Toronto; Co-Chair of the Academic Advisory Council, Center for Jewish History.