Innovation through tradition? Approaching cultural transformations during the Sattelzeit via Jewish educational media

German-Israeli cooperative project

How can we explain transformations in established lifeworlds, dominated and determined by religion, in periods of profound societal revolution and rupture? Are lifeworlds such as that of the Central European Jews of the late 18th and the 19th centuries resistant to sweeping social changes by virtue of the traditions and habits which structure and characterise them, making it difficult for new frameworks of reference to establish themselves, or is it perhaps in fact the availability of tradition, and thus of religion, as a context of reference and orientation which enables social groups to define and redefine what belongs to and unites them, and thus to help shape processes of transformation rather than attempting to fend them off? What is the significance in all this of various forms of knowledge and its assimilation, and what is the relevance of educational media, in both traditional and innovative forms, to transformations in a particular cultural order?

A new cooperative project, run jointly by the Georg Eckert Institute and Tel Aviv University and funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), is investigating these issues through the lens of Jewish educational media of the period known as the Sattelzeit. Proceeding from the assumption that it was precisely people’s recourse to what they felt to be timeless religious and cultural traditions that gave decisive momentum to the profound and far-reaching transformation of Jewish lifeworlds (Lebenswelten) which took place in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the project draws upon educational media such as religious and language textbooks, sermons and hymnals to explore the diverse range of processes of cultural translation which were at the heart of this complex relationship between innovation and tradition.

The project’s focus on knowledge, education and educational media does justice to their importance and significance to the history of Central European Jewry during the Sattelzeit as arenas of emancipatory politics and as spaces of activity for Judaism’s modern movements; further, it will enable the research team to contribute to the history of knowledge and of cultural transformation. The sub-projects which make up the research, including two postdoc projects and one doctoral thesis, each use a varied range of sources and disciplinary approaches to explore the extent to which Jewish educational media of the Sattelzeit provided momentum to processes which ushered in changes in mentalities and gave birth to new forms of habitus. Their work is located at a fascinating point of intersection between the political and the cultural, the state, religious communities and the individual, and the private and public spheres.

The project team, which encompasses historians, specialists in Jewish and cultural studies, and musicologists, is headed by Professor Simone Lässig (German Historical Institute Washington DC) and the cultural studies expert Professor Zohar Shavit (Tel Aviv University).

Project Duration

The first phase of this project took place from January 2014 to December 2015 at the Georg Eckert Institute in cooperation with Tel Aviv University. The German Research Foundation has granted funding for a second phase from January 2016 to December 2018. The project’s continuation will be based at the German Historical Institute in Washington in cooperation with Tel Aviv University, and the GEI will remain a project partner.

Project Website

Project lead

The project team