Saturday, September 1, 2012

How Trieste Became Secular

The book The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste by Lois C. Dubin (Stanford University Press, 1999) presents the history of the small Jewish community of 18th century Trieste. This history seems to offer a lesson in how Enlightenment ideas formed a new idea of a Jewish community -- a much more secular one than previous communities. 

Dubin documents how some Jews resisted the development of a more flexible way of life. They saw positive factors in the confinement of a self-governing Jewish body, and were not enthusiastic about introduction of more individual freedoms. Other members of the Jewish community welcomed the changes and the promise of more independent decisions regarding religious practice. Ultimately the result of the changes was a more assimilated group with more individual self-determination.

In around 1719  the Austrians invited capable Jews from their own lands, from Italy, from the Ottoman Empire, and elsewhere to participate in developing an economic miracle in the Habsburg’s principal Mediterranean port, joining a small community that had been there for centuries. In this newly free port, Jewish communal privileges were greater than those in cities of the Austrian Empire such as Vienna and Prague. Further, the Jews were not to be the only religious minority: Protestants, Greek Catholics, and members of other Eastern Christian groups were also welcomed if they brought economic contributions to the growing city.

Jewish bankers and entrepreneurs were attracted by a number of favorable conditions in the new free port. As elsewhere, all the Jews in the city had to belong to a self-governing community (sometimes called a Nation). Jewish authorities, designated or approved by the Habsburg rulers, controlled all aspects of life inside the community, religious and otherwise. Rabbis and other communal leaders enforced Jewish laws for marriage, divorce (legal for Jews not the Catholic majority), religious observance, education, personal relationships, economic contracts between Jews, and crime of Jew against Jew (theft, bodily harm, etc). Jewish courts tended to Jewish affairs. Jews became subject to civil law only when it concerned their external economic affairs, their relationships with Christians, or crimes committed outside the Jewish community.

The Jewish community of Trieste received a number of special privileges, mainly economic, distinguishing them from other Habsburg Jewish communities and most communities elsewhere in Europe. Trieste’s Jews were exempt from certain extra taxes paid by Jews elsewhere in the empire, from payment for civil cases in court, and from restrictions on travel.

The number of Jews in Trieste was small but growing. In 1735, there were 103 Jews in a total population of 3865. By 1802 it was 1247 out of more than 20,000; by 1820 it reached around 2400 out of 33,000. (Dubin, p. 21) For this community, the enforcement of a Ghetto where Jews were required to live was very casual, and over time, Jews began to live in other quarters, sometimes even sharing residences with non-Jews. Living outside of the enforced Jewish neighborhood occurred mainly for material reasons; the religious practice of the in- and out-dwellers appears not to have been particularly different. Until the end of the 18th century, the Jews in Italy, where most of those in Trieste came from, were strictly confined to Ghettos, most famously that of nearby Venice; strict residence requirements and prohibitions existed in most other countries as well.

The Jewish residents of Trieste soon challenged Jewish authorities by ignoring certain religious traditions, as Dubin documents in interesting detail. Authorities or neighbors accused their peers of openly eating non-kosher food in non-Jewish establishments, or of violating the prohibitions of work, reading or travel on sabbath and holidays. The Jewish communal authorities in some cases declared long-patronized bakeries and taverns off-limits. Ordinary people didn’t necessarily comply with the tighter rules – or any rules. One couldn’t call it freedom, but people seem to have been making choices that weren’t available in more restricted environments.

Meanwhile, in the course of the 18th century, Austria was modernizing under the influence of the Enlightenment. The Haskalah, Jewish version of the Enlightenment led by Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin, influenced the Jewish response to these laws. As the century progressed, the Habsburgs made new laws covering civil regulation of all residents with wide reprecussions for the Jews of Trieste.

One change arose from a new decree that all communities in the empire should educate their children in secular subjects and languages. Elsewhere in the empire and in Germany, Jewish communities saw secular education as a threat to their way of life, and resisted or insisted that the children’s education be in two separate schools. Jewish scholars for and against the Haskalah debated about such a change. Italian Jews had been allowed to attend the University of Padua and other Christian schools to become physicians and obtain other education, and thus were likely to value secular education.

After discussing all these influences, the Jews of Trieste were among the first to have a Jewish school that also taught state-mandated subjects like history, Italian and German languages, and literature outside the traditional Jewish curriculum.

A bigger conflict of interests emerged when the Habsburgs created a body of civil law regarding marriage, specifying that the religious authorities comply with the civil law while still performing the marriages. The government’s laws set the age of consent to marriage: parental consent for the new civil marriage was 24 but in was and always had been 13 for Jewish law. Civil law required advance public announcement (bans) for legal marriage; Jewish law respected private ceremonies with a small number of witnesses. Jewish laws about which relatives could marry and restrictions on a Kohen marrying a divorced women conflicted with civil law. Several high-profile cases testing these issues – which Dubin presents with much evidence from the archives --  ultimately undermined the strength of the religious authorities.

Similar conflicts engulfed the Jewish communities of France under the revolution. However, in Trieste, there was no sudden change, meaning that a variety of individuals participated in the process of resolving the conflicts. Debate as well as court cases engaged those supporting traditional religious practice, those fearing conflict with the authorities (and thus threat to their  extraordiary well-being and prosperity), and those who had embraced the ideas of the Enlightenment and the Haskala.

Trieste was never all that important in the general scheme of things. Much more important historically were the French Revolution – applying the “rights of Man” to Jews -- and the dramatic acts of Napoleon in destroying the gates of the ghettos in Mantua and Venice. But the debates and changes that Dubin describes seem to illuminate many ideas that still affect the relationship of established religion and secular government, and the continuing conflicts in modern times that emerge from the dictates of religion and long Jewish traditions.

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