Three central Jewish thinkers, Heinrich Heine, Theodor Herzl, and I. L. Peretz were all profoundly inspired by the medieval legend of Tannhäuser, a knight and poet who worshipped the goddess Venus. Herzl and Peretz were also fans of the 1845 opera based on this legend, by the notoriously anti-Semitic Richard Wagner. This paradox is explored in a study out in October from Purdue University Press, “A Knight at the Opera” by Leah Garrett — whose great grandfather, Baruch Charney Vladeck, was the manager of the Forverts in the 1930s as well as a founder of the Jewish Labor Committee.
The author, a professor of contemporary Jewish life and culture at Monash University, explains how for each of these three prominent Jews, Tannhäuser, ostensibly a Christian legend especially in Wagner’s version, became instead a “tool to foster Jewish identity and subvert anti-Semitism.” Heine’s 1836 poem “Der Tannhäuser” is a “bawdy and satiric rewrite” of the story, Garrett notes, deflating the original Teutonic high-mindedness. Over a half-century later, Herzl attended nightly performances of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Paris while writing “The Jewish State.” In his diary, Herzl noted that “only on those evenings where there was no opera did I have any doubts as to the truth of my ideas.”