Next Year on the Rhine
German City, Jewish Memory: The Story of Worms
by Nils Roemer
Brandeis University Press, 328 pp., $35
An American who wants to understand what the city of Worms has meant to the Jews of Germany might begin by thinking: Newport. Like the Rhode Island town, Worms is the quiet, waterside home of its country's most venerable synagogue as well as an old Jewish graveyard that irresistibly plucks the "mystic cords of memory." And much as Newport has symbolized for the Jews of the United States their early arrival on the American scene, Worms has for German Jews betokened their longtime presence on German soil. But the similarities don't go any further.
The American Jewish image of Newport is inseparably bound up with the famous letter in which President George Washington reminded the members of its Hebrew congregation that they lived under a government "which gives to bigotry no sanction" and "to persecution no assistance." In the German Jewish mind, as Nils Roemer reminds us in his sweeping tale of Jewish Worms and the way in which it has been remembered and recorded, the image of Worms is always tied to recollections of the First Crusade, when mobs led by Count Emicho either killed or prompted the self-destruction of hundreds of the city's Jews who were determined not to endure forced conversion to Christianity. And while the Jewish community of Newport never became
famous for its cultural achievements, Worms was the temporary home during the 11th century of the great
biblical commentator, Rashi, the dwelling place of the noted pietist Eleazar of Worms during the 12th, and both the birthplace and the final destination of the 13 th-century rabbinical authority Meir of Rothenburg.
But if Worms was a place of special significance for Jews already in the Middle Ages, it was so mostly in the minds of its own inhabitants. The horrible events that took place in the city in 1096 were commemorated for centuries by a special day of fasting—but only locally. New catastrophes in subsequent centuries added similar fast days to the calendar of Worms' Jewry. For the city to acquire a unique importance for German Jews in general, it was first necessary for a united Germany to come into being, at least as an aspiration. Once it did, in the 19th century, and once the country's Jews began to hope that they could fully belong to the fatherland, they revamped their understanding of their people's history on German soil, drawing more distant from it in some respects and closer to it in others.