A review of L’Esprit du Corps: Bodies, Communities, and the Reconstruction of Jewish Life in France, 1914–1940, by Erin Corber.
It is no mystery, now one hundred years after its outbreak, that the Great War transformed French culture, society, and politics. What is not fully understood, however, is the extent to which the war shaped minority communities within France, specifically France’s Jewish population. Erin Corber’s 2013 PhD thesis aims to rectify this lacuna. A welcome examination of how Jewish communal life was shaped by concerns about health, wellness, and physicality in France between 1914 and 1940, Corber shows that “being Jewish in France meant being physically active, healthy, strong, and proactive” (p. 4). According to Corber, to best understand the different ways that France’s Jews articulated their Jewishness and contributed to the postwar reconstruction of France, the interwar period in France ought to be understood within its lived historical postwar context. By adopting this framework, Corber is more concretely able to illustrate the importance that physicality, defined here as “human bodies,” had in spurring a Jewish renaissance in post-World War I France.
Corber creates a convincing case for making arguments based more on developing new approaches and outgrowths within one’s field than on trying to challenge, nuance, or refute the established literature—a methodological and historiographical approach gaining ground since the onset of the transnational turn. The use of modern French Jewish historiography, one that traditionally looks at French Jews’ involvement in French Republican politics, major institutional organizations, French “high” culture, and other elite positions, allows the author to investigate ordinary Jewish individuals in order to argue that community development is best observed from below, not from the perspective of the elite. To push this analytical framework, Corber engages work on the “everyday” and the “corporeal”—two areas of scholarship that are developing within the Jewish Studies field. Corber’s use of the corporeality, however, is not focused on a study of gender, but it is rather used as a tool to evaluate what was considered “Jewish.” To place this research within the European setting, Corber employs work on Jews in Germany during World War I to highlight her “post”-war, not “inter”-war, imperative. She is also keen to investigate the 1920s and 1930s in France as a period of construction rather than decay. By situating this study at the nexus of these historiographies, Corber creates a better understanding of Jewish community in France, particularly of how it was imagined and how it operated.
Based on an impressive array of sources from several French locales, in the first chapter Dr. Corber begins her argument with an analysis of Jews in France during World War I. Subsequent chapters move into the postwar period and investigate the French Rabbinate, the Colonies des vacances, the Eclaireurs israélites de France, and Jewish agricultural projects. These chapters are microhistories that Corber uses to determine what “ordinary Jews” did during this period of French Jewish history. This approach allows her to investigate so-called native French Jews and Jewish immigrants in France simultaneously, which leads to a rich and more complete assessment of postwar Jewish life in France. This microhistorical approach and the focus on the Jewish community from the “bottom up” are what ties together Corber’s arguments about how the body engendered a regeneration of Jewish life. This regeneration was centered less on a Jewishness defined through religious systems of practice and belief and more on “physical experience and corporeality,” which, in turn, “remodeled the core of religious institutions of the French rabbinate, expanding its traditional realm of responsibility to new communal configurations” (pp. 305–6).
Corber’s study of the power that the image of the body and the ideal of Jewish action had on redefining the French Jewish community during World War I and the years that followed hinges on a series of case studies that feature rabbis and Jewish youth, sometimes individually and sometimes in tandem. These case studies propel Corber’s argument that the “culture of physical projects, what was rooted in the war’s darkest days on the home front and battle front, expanded into diverse realms of Jewish associational and communal life… in the words of Grand Rabbi René Hirschler, ‘in the shadows of the synagogue'” (p. 5). The rabbinate underwent significant institutional changes during and after the war, which, according to Corber, “propelled the rabbinical establishment to embrace the image of the rabbi as a ‘man of action'” (p. 94). This new rabbi, full of Western masculine motifs, evolved from spiritual establishment to social institution and highlights a new interwar régéneration that was firmly rooted on the École rabbinique’s postwar embrace of profane responsibilities for rabbis. Relatedly, as the rabbinate in France began to take on these new communal roles based on ideas of “action,” “activity,” and “strength,” Jewish youth flocked to the Éclaireurs israélites de France (the French Jewish Boy Scouting movement) to acquire skills and experiences beyond those facilitated by their parents, breaking away from existing religious and class frameworks. Corber argues that “Jewishness, in these new communities, could embody different values than it had in traditional spaces of Judaism: the synagogue, the Jewish school, and the Jewish home” (p. 206).
This dissertation is an exciting and needed addition to the field of modern French Jewish history, and, once published, it will impact its own subfield as well as the larger areas of modern French, modern Jewish, and modern European history. It will also be of interest to scholars of rabbinical schools and movements, youth culture, as well as those interested in the renaissance of Jewish culture that occurred during the interwar/postwar period. In addition, this dissertation highlights the possible benefits of challenging standard periodization and utilizing microhistory to analyze sources through different lenses.
Department of History
University of Colorado Boulder
Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), Paris
Archives Departementales du Bas-Rhin (Strasbourg)
Consistoire Israélite de Paris / Centrale
Archives municipales de Bordeaux
Séminaire Israélite de France (SIF), Paris
Indiana University. 2013. 333 pp. Primary Advisor: Mark Roseman.
Image: Death of the French rabbi Abraham Bloch during WWI in 1914. From WikiCommons.