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LBI to Highlight German-Jewish History at Center for Jewish History's Now Festival

LBI to Highlight German-Jewish History at Center for Jewish History's Now Festival

The Leo Baeck Institute (LBI), a New York-based research library and archive that preserves millions of papers and books saved by German and Austrian Jewish refugees from the Nazis, will present a series of seven programs that mine the remarkable history of German-speaking Jewry for insight into present-day concerns ranging from gay rights to the Trump presidency.

German-Jewish History in the Now: A festival of ideas and insight from the past for the present will take place at the Center for Jewish History (15 West 16th Street) from October 15 - 26, 2017.

In lectures, a film screening, and panel discussions, nineteen scholars, journalists, and clergy will draw parallels and contrasts with the Jewish experience in Central Europe to inform discussions of questions that continue to animate contemporary discourse: How compatible are religious observance and modern society? Could the liberal democracies of the United States and Western Europe again succumb to racist demagoguery? Did the world learn anything from the Jewish refugee crisis of the 1930s? Among the speakers are New York Times columnist Roger Cohen (who will deliver a free keynote lecture to kick off the series), legendary sex therapist Ruth Westheimer, and the former publisher of the Forward Samuel Norich. Leading scholars of Jewish history and religion who will participate include David Sorkin (Yale), Michael Brenner (University of Munich), and Leora Batnitzky (Princeton).

"Few groups in modern history have had as large an impact on so many domains of life-high culture, popular culture, philosophy, business, and politics-as German Jewry. To a great extent, the very way in which we think about art, music, consumer society, and politics is due to the contributions of German-speaking Jews," says David Myers, the historian who recently became President and CEO of the Center for Jewish History, where LBI is a partner. "This exciting Leo Baeck Institute program embodies what history, and the Center for Jewish history, should be doing. It draws on the German-Jewish historical experience to shed light on a host of issues of great contemporary relevance: the integration of minorities, the fight for civil rights, the responsibility of nations to provide restorative justice, and the global struggle to uphold democratic values. LBI has assembled a slate of speakers that will bring history alive, and into the present," says Myers.

Tickets for German-Jewish History in the Now are priced at $10 per event. They are currently on sale to the general public and can be purchased at

Full Schedule for German-Jewish History in the Now:

Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture
Sunday, October 15, 2017, 2:30 PM
German-Jewish History in the Twenty-First Century

Roger Cohen, a columnist for The New York Times since 2009, is one of the most incisive observers of global affairs today. Cohen's deep knowledge of German and Jewish history-he was the Times' Berlin bureau chief from 1998-2001-informs much of his wide-ranging commentary. In this lecture, he will synthesize the themes of this series into a broader narrative about the disruptions and discontents of modernity, the fragility of democracy, and the twin crises of conflict and migration.

"After the Holocaust"
Tuesday, October 17, 2017, 6:30 PM
Germans & Jews-Jewish Life in Contemporary German and the Legacy of the Holocaust
Co-presented with the American Council on Germany

Through personal stories, the 2016 film Germans & Jews explores the country's transformation from silence about the Holocaust to facing it head on. Unexpectedly, a nuanced story of reconciliation emerges. What began as a private conversation between the two filmmakers and friends, Tal Recanati (Jewish) and Janina Quint (non-Jewish German), grew into a cultural exchange among many.

After a screening of the film, the President of the American Council on Germany, Steven Sokol, will moderate a post-film discussion with Sonja Keren Pilz, who was ordained as a Rabbi in Germany at the Abraham Geiger Kolleg in Potsdam and now teaches liturgy at Hebrew Union College, and Steve Zehden, an attorney at Noerr LLP's New York office, who was born and raised in Berlin.

"Civil Rights"
Wednesday, October 18, 2017, 6:30 PM
Germans, Jews, and Sex
Co-presented with the Goethe-Institut New York

In the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision of 2014, the US Supreme Court recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry, marking a significant victory in the fight for equal rights for gays and lesbians. Nevertheless, demands for the full-equality of sexual minorities remain bitterly contested, both in the courts and in society, in the US and across the globe. As this long struggle continues, it is an opportune moment to reconsider the key role that German-Jewish reformers played in advancing an understanding of human sexuality that has informed the gay and transgender rights movements in important ways.

Nearly a century ago in Weimar-era Berlin, a group of physicians and psychologists around Magnus Hirschfeld, many of them Jewish, fought to end the criminalization of homosexuality in Germany with arguments based on a study of human sexuality that was empirical and descriptive rather than normative. Their motto was inscribed above the door of Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin: Per Scientiam ad Justitiam-"Through Science to Justice". At the same time, Jewish feminists played a major role in movements for birth control, abortion access, and women's sexual agency. Legendary author and sex-therapist Ruth Westheimer joins Atina Grossmann (Cooper Union), author of Reforming Sex: The German Movement for Birth Control and Abortion Reform, 1920-1950, and Robert Beachy, author of Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, for a discussion of how these pioneering figures influenced subsequent and contemporary movements for gay and transgender rights.

"Faith & Reason"
Thursday, October 19, 2017, 6:30 PM
Why Moses Mendelssohn Matters
Co-presented with the Jewish Review of Books

The philosopher Moses Mendelssohn paved the way for Jewish entry into the German mainstream by promoting secular education and advocating for a pluralistic society in which Jews could enjoy civil rights while maintaining their traditions and faith. In the new volume Moses Mendelssohn: Enlightenment, Religion, Politics, Nationalism (University of Maryland Press, 2015) leading scholars explore the questions that shaped Mendelssohn's life and occupied his mind: How compatible are faith and reason, religious loyalty and civic loyalty, religious commitment and cosmopolitanism? The book's co-editor, Michah Gottlieb (NYU) will introduce a panel discussion on how these same tensions resonate in today's world. With moderator Abraham Socher (Oberlin/Editor, Jewish Review of Books) and panelists David Sorkin (Yale) and Leora Batnitzky (Princeton).

Counterfactual History
Tuesday, October 24, 2017, 6:30 PM
What if the Weimar Republic had Survived?
Co-presented with the German Academy in New York

In 1925, the German-Jewish industrialist and former Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau emerged from self-imposed seclusion following a failed assassination attempt. Answering the call of the united center-left parties, he defeated Paul von Hindenburg to become president of the struggling Weimar Republic and quickly stabilized the economy with broad economic stimulus. Rathenau's belief that the Jews should be viewed as another German tribe, just like the Saxons, Bavarians, or Wends, gained gradual acceptance, and the right-wing Völkisch movement withered.

Actually...none of this happened. Rathenau was killed instantly in a 1922 attack, and the Rathenau presidency is the invention of historian Michael Brenner (University of Munich/American University) in a speculative essay in the new volume What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism (Cambridge, 2016). Brenner and the book's editor, Gavriel Rosenfeld (Fairfield University), will discuss the role of counterfactual reasoning in historical inquiry. What factors and what actors contributed to the disintegration of a fragile pluralism in the 1920s? What utility do these questions have for the challenges of the 21st century?

"Critical Theory"
Wednesday, October 25, 2017, 6:30 PM
The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming
Co-presented with Deutsches Haus at NYU

In a post-election essay for The New Yorker, the critic Alex Ross wrote that the "combination of economic inequality and pop-cultural frivolity" in curreNT American life were precisely the fertile ground for an American catastrophe that the Jewish intellectuals of the Frankfurt School anticipated in their studies of antisemitism, mass culture, and the "authoritarian personality". Jack Jacobs (CUNY), Jonathon Catlin (Princeton), and Liliane Weissberg (Penn) discuss how the Frankfurt School's analysis of antisemitism in particular sheds light on the racism undergirding contemporary right-wing populist movements.

Demographic Portraits
Thursday, October 26, 2017, 6:30 PM
The "Pew Jew" Study and German-Jewry

The Pew Research Center's study on Jewish Americans in 2013 alarmed some observers by showing rising intermarriage, falling birthrates, and dwindling religious affiliation among the non-Orthodox. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Germany's increasingly prosperous Jewish minority confronted similar questions about the nature of Jewish identity and the viability of Jewish communal life in a secularizing society. Samuel Norich, president and former publisher of the Forward, will moderate a discussion with Steven Cohen (Hebrew Union College) and Robin Judd (Ohio State University) about the parallels and contrasts between the situations of German Jews a century ago and American Jews today.

Leo Baeck Institute was founded in 1955 by a circle of émigré Jewish intellectuals who resolved to document the vibrant German-speaking Jewish culture that had been nearly extinguished in the Holocaust. In the decades since, LBI has worked to fulfill that mission by building a world-class research collection. With an 80,000 volume library, millions of pages of archival documents, 25,000 photographs, 8,000 art objects, 2,000 memoirs, and hundreds of oral histories, our collections document centuries of Jewish life in central Europe.

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