The Ultimate Painting for Understanding Modern Jewish History

The painting below is Moritz Oppenheim’s “The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation to His Family Still Living in Accordance with Old Customs.” It was the painting I wanted to have on the cover of my book, Assimilation and its Discontents, but was overruled by the publisher in favor of a post-modernist monstrosity.


[Assimilation and its Discontents, a history of Jewish assimilation and identity debates, can be found here.  For downloading instructions see the end of this article.]

The painting shows a Jewish soldier who had fought for Prussia against Napoleon. Now the war was won, the land liberated, and he returned home to his family, presumably in 1814.

He is the center of attention for, presumably, his loving parents, two older sisters, and younger brother. The second brother is examining something else. I’m also surprised to see, in this Orthodox Jewish family, a cat emerging from under the table.

So even if they still follow the “old customs,” that is a pious Judaism, they have modernized already to some extent. Notice the clothing which is quite contemporary and the furnishings. This is a German middle class family very much attuned to the surrounding society which is also an Orthodox Jewish family.

Thus it is not quite true that Oppenheim, one of the greatest German painters, sees them as fully traditional. Of course, by saying the “old customs,” he is implying that they are outdated customs. The theme of the painting is the contrast between the two role models, the two paths that Jews could take: complete modernization, secularization, and German patriotism versus a traditional Jewish life, built around religion and keeping some distance from the surrounding society.

Yet Oppenheim thought it possible to combine the two. He was highly honored by both the existing German elite, during a time when antisemitism was at a relative low, and the intellectual leaders of Jewry.


Oppenheim was born in Hanau in 1800 and died in Frankfurt in 1882. In his own life, he balanced out the Jewish and German worlds. At the time, the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement which sought to study Judaism with scholarly methods to both preserve and modernize it. While those involved didn’t know it, by rethinking Jews as being a people with secular aspects, too, they were forerunners of Zionism.

The New York Jewish Museum’s description of the painting points out two significant factors.

First, he has been wounded in the defense of his country, thus having shed his blood for his country.  And he is wearing the Iron Cross, a German medal but also as a cross a symbol of the conflict between his Jewishness and the Christianity of the state he has served.

Second, he has just arrived home by traveling on the Sabbath, thus breaking a major tenet of Jewish law. His family, delighted to have him back alive, doesn’t seem to care about that point.

The painting was made in 1834, at a time when anti-Jewish forces were beginning to rise again and seeking to restrict Jewish rights as citizens. It was intended as a pointed reminder of Jewish services and loyalty to Germany, of attempts to assimilate without necessarily losing their distinctive characteristics. It was not making a case for Multiculturalism but rather for pluralism.

At any rate, the project of German Jewish assimilation failed, in part because it was too successful, and German Jewish sacrifices in World War One did not avail them two decades later. Indeed, Adolf Hitler’s lieutenant during the war was a Jew, who the Nazi dictator later did spare.


There are, however, two additional ironies related to the painting’s story. Napoleon was, in fact, the liberator of the Jews and Prussia was the oppressor. The soldier proved his patriotism while fighting against his real interests.  As soon as the Prussians had won, they began restoring discrimination against the Jews.

The second is a story that fascinates me and I think should be emblematic for these issues. It concerns a young man who was the real-life contemporary of the soldier in the painting, Moritz Itzig.

One day in 1811, Itzig’s aunt, Sarah Levy, a highly cultured woman with many connections among Christians, held a concert in her home. One of the guests was the wife of Ludwig Achim von Arnim, a 30-year-old Prussian writer. Von Arnim came to pick up his wife and insulted several Jewish guests with antisemitic slurs.

Itzig, then 24 years old, wrote a letter challenging von Arnim to a duel. The aristocrat rejected the challenge, responding with a bunch of signed statements from his peers that since a Jew had no honor he could not be engaged in a duel and adding additional insults.

One afternoon, Itzig came up to von Arnim and beat the larger man with his cane. Von Arnim, who whined for help rather than defending himself, turned over the matter to a court, which ruled that since Itzig had been provoked he was not guilty of any crime. Itzig’s family even persuaded some of those who had provided von Arnim with letters to retract them.

When war with Napoleon restarted, Itzig volunteered to fight for Prussia and was killed in 1813. Von Arnim stayed on his estate and did not fight at all. He lived until 1831.


The irony of the patriotic Jew and the cowardly poser who hypocritically impugned the former’s noble nature and love of country has been repeated many times. In fact, I can think of some good contemporary examples in another country across the seas from Germany.

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