Bestiarium Judaicum

Unnatural Histories of the Jews

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Jay Geller
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , November
     408 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.



Jay Geller’s previous research has focused on the ways in which German-Jewish writers appropriated and responded to the denigrating representations of the Jew that became part of the cultural imaginary. His newest volume, which is situated at the crossroads of Jewish studies, animal studies, race and ethnic studies, and literary criticism, continues this line of inquiry by pointing to the existence of what he calls the Bestiarium Judaicum, a two-millennia-long-menagerie of verbal and visual images analogizing and identifying Jews with animals that was disseminated for the purpose of debasing Jews. Yet reconstructing and taxonomically ordering this “Jewish bestiary” is only in the service of the project’s animating question: What is at stake when authors of Jewish background composed stories about animals?

Focused specifically on but not limited to select writings of Heinrich Heine and Franz Kafka, Geller locates a tradition of German-Jewish animal tales that works towards undermining both the Jewish bestiary and the unequal oppositions Human:Animal::Gentile:Jew that its logic assumes by portraying characters who are undecidable in both their ethnic and species specificity. In other words, by simultaneously suggesting and subverting any easy identification between Jewishness and animality in their protagonists, these authors kill two correlated birds with one stone, thereby mitigating the effect of a system of exceptionalism that marks certain groups and entities as superior to others. This thesis is indebted to central poststructuralist insights: that categorical oppositions have historically been in implicit hierarchical relation (Derrida); that differences perceived between groups are always already constructed—that is, “unnatural”—at the same time as they are naturalized by continual reaffirmation (Foucault); and that oppositions are paradoxically exclusionary yet co-constitutive (Agamben). According to Geller, the Judenfrage cannot be thought apart from the Tierfrage: animal stories helped both their writers and their readers mediate the socio-political predicament of German Jewry living in a predominantly gentile, Christian, and German society, and during a period when the prospect of social integration hung in the balance.

More so than Kafka’s own decided resistance against classifying his animal stories as “fable,” “parable,” or “allegory” does this thesis dictate Geller’s insistence on reading these apologues under the literary genus of Tiergeschichte. Whereas these more classic genres are thought to set up a one-to-one correspondence between story and meaning, and narrative is instrumentalized in order to convey an easily-discernible message, Geller’s point is precisely that these tales frustrate the reader’s attempts to establish neat connections between words and their referents, and in turn call into question the binaries through which reality is ordered (and ranked along essentialist lines). Once exegesis has unlocked the significance of the story, what he sees as the violence-reducing tension of this tradition is lost. Yet the indefiniteness in character identification possesses another function that Geller does not explicitly name, but that he would perhaps nevertheless be amenable to: creating characters who are “both Jew and Gentile and neither” (28) is meant to advance the possibility of a German-Jewish symbiosis itself, the fundamental idea around which the debate over Jewish emancipation proceeded—that one could have a dual identity that was not only non-disintegrative but that could also be civically and spiritually productive. 

Another claim that does not rise beyond the level of suggestion is that this effort on the part of “Jewish-identified” writers to appropriate and subvert the pernicious force of the Bestiarium, and to affirm the larger project of wedding Deutschtum with Judentum of which it was a part, failed if viewed under the retrospective glance of the Shoah and the dark shadow it cast over modern Jewish history and our understanding of the period. Strategic undecidability in representation was not enough to stop the Wannsee conference. (Geller warns against a teleological reading that sees the destruction of European Jewry as the inevitable historical consequence of Jewish bestialization; yet a book that ends with an analysis of texts written around the time of the Final Solution, along with his repeated remark that to animalize is to make killable, cannot but arouse this interpretation.) To admit failure would indicate just how much continual belittlement can “achieve,” but it would also the diminish the moral import that Geller wants to attribute to this group of writers.

What Geller is alert to is the danger that was involved for these authors in confronting the Bestiarium: in order to ultimately render indeterminate the equation of Jew with animal, they first needed to have the animal character be identifiable as (possibly) Jewish through signifiers of various levels of decipherability. In other words, the attempt to undermine the noxiousness of the bestiary always already burdensomely borrowed from it and reinscribed its association between Jewishness and animality. This problem is lent greater urgency when considering the case of those writers (Otto Weininger, and to a lesser extent Max Nordau and Theodor Herzl) who adopted the voice of the Bestiarium and directed it against their own ethnic group in the interest of furthering certain social and political goals. While perhaps not “self-hating” Jews, they nevertheless channeled and internalized the worst currents emanating from the larger society into which they were seeking acceptance. In any event, the dualistic worldview of the anti-Semite, and the neat categories of good and evil into which he places Jew and gentile, neither suffers inconclusiveness gladly nor easily allows him to discern the use of irony. If so, one cannot help but ask the question, why did these writers use animals (and in this particularly subtle way) if to do so was fraught with such risk?

Bestiarium Judaicum combines insightful analysis of the texts under investigation with extensive research into its subject matter. It deftly constructs a complex intertextual network while situating its constitutive components within the social and historical context of their composition. However, the link Geller attempts to establish between the text and world behind it sometimes feels tenuous: are animal sightings/citings always conscious of and reacting to the bestiary, and are they always acting to negotiate the intellectual, cultural, and social space of the German Jew? In other words, to modify Freud’s apothegm, when is an animal just an animal? Nevertheless, the book is a welcome contribution to several fields of academic inquiry and is a model for meticulous scholarship.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Creighton is a doctoral student at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jay Geller is Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Culture at Vanderbilt Divinity School and the Vanderbilt University Jewish Studies Program. He is the author of On Freud’s Jewish Body: Mitigating Circumcisions and The Other Jewish Question: Identifying the Jew and Making Sense of Modernity, both published by Fordham.


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