Franz Kafka's Birthday Offers Kafkaesque Dilemma

Reiner Stach's Bio Addresses Author's German and Jewish Identities

German or Jewish or Both or Neither? Despite his reluctance to make his fictions noticeably Jewish, Franz Kafka often meditated on Jewish themes.
Getty Images
German or Jewish or Both or Neither? Despite his reluctance to make his fictions noticeably Jewish, Franz Kafka often meditated on Jewish themes.

By David Mikics

Published July 03, 2013, issue of June 14, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

● Kafka: The Years of Insight
By Reiner Stach Translated from the German by Shelley Frisch
Princeton University Press, $35, 720 pages

In September 1913, Franz Kafka, employee of the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute of Prague and recently the author of two flawless, utterly disturbing stories — “The Judgment” and “The Metamorphosis” — took a trip to Vienna, where he sat patiently through an international conference on accident prevention. Kafka voted on a resolution that “certain parts of the sea be reserved exclusively for sponge fishers who are unclothed and hold a trident” — surely a detail that would fit perfectly in a Kafka story. A few days earlier, shortly after he got to Vienna, Kafka had wandered through the 11th International Zionist Congress.

“Unrewarding speeches in German, a great deal of Hebrew,” Kafka noted in a letter. The Zionist meeting seemed to him “a totally alien event.”

Years later he would say that Zionism nauseated him — which, Kafka being Kafka, didn’t prevent him from also being enthusiastic about it. Sick with tuberculosis in 1923, living in Berlin with his last girlfriend, Dora Diamant, and absorbing the thought of his approaching death, Kafka dreamed of moving to Tel Aviv, where the two would run a cafe together and he would be the waiter. For years he had been learning Hebrew, and even wrote letters in the language. But Kafka’s fantasy of life in Palestine finally seems more unreal than the naked sponge fishers (who were, of course, real). A place reserved exclusively for him was something Kafka never found, least of all among his fellow Jews.

Kafka’s Prague milieu was almost exclusively Jewish. Max Brod, who devoted much of his life to tirelessly promoting his friend’s work, saw in Kafka a set of variations on Jewish themes. Brod’s emphasis on the Jewish Kafka was powerfully seconded by the greatest scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, who made a case for Kafka’s interest in kabbalistic ideas. But explicit references to Jews and Judaism almost never appear in Kafka’s stories and novels (the exception is the little-known story “In Our Synagogue”). Kafka himself wondered whether he was a Jewish writer. He wrote to his long-suffering fiancée, Felice Bauer, in October 1916 that the newspaper Neue Rundschau had reported, apropos of “The Metamorphosis,” that “there is something fundamentally German about Kafka’s narrative art.”

Brod, by contrast, had written in Der Jude that “Kafka’s stories are among the most typically Jewish documents of our time.” Which was it? Kafka couldn’t decide, he told Bauer in a letter: “A difficult case. Am I a circus rider on 2 horses? Alas, I am no rider, but lie prostrate on the ground.” The next month, a reviewer in the Deutsche Montags-Zeitung proclaimed, “This book is Jewish.” But Kafka was still perplexed.

Kafka’s acrobatic suspension between German and Jewish identity has been uncannily played out in the recently resolved battle over his written legacy. Brod’s papers, which included many Kafka manuscripts, were inherited by his secretary and presumed lover, Esther Hoffe, and then by Hoffe’s daughters. One of the daughters, Eva Hoffe, hoarded the treasure trove in safety deposit boxes and in her own Tel Aviv apartment, where Kafka’s works shared space with a large population of cats.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.