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January 9: Heine’s Baptism

Lawrence Bush
January 9, 2017
“I regret very deeply that I had myself baptized,” wrote German poet, memoirist, and essayist Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) on this date in 1826. “I do not see that I have been the better for it since. On the contrary, I have known nothing but misfortunes and mischances.” Famous as a lyric poet (many of whose lyrics were set to music by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and others), Heine became a Protestant in 1825 in order to evade antisemitic discrimination that tended to bar Jews from having academic careers; he described the act as “the ticket of admission into European culture.” He was nevertheless banned from Germany because of his political radicalism and lived as an expatriate in Paris for twenty-five years. Heine’s third cousin once-removed was Karl Marx, with whom he corresponded frequently in the 1840s. During Nazi rule in Germany, Heine;s writings were perhaps the most reviled of a world-class writer, and a line from his 1822 play, Almansor, is engraved at the site of a Nazi book-burning in Berlin: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.” To hear Israel’s Esther Ofarim sing Heine’s “Kinderspiele,” look below. “In earlier religions the spirit of the time was expressed through the individual and confirmed by miracles. In modern religions the spirit is expressed through the many and confirmed by reason.” --Heinrich Heine

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.