In remembrance of his wife’s death in 1837, wealthy merchant and banker Salomon Heine founded a Jewish hospital in Hamburg.

His nephew, celebrated poet and essayist Heinrich Heine, composed a poem in honor of his uncle’s accomplishment. Heine’s poem was an opportunity for this genius to explore the psychology and status of German Jewry in the 19th century. Writing from exile in Paris—running from the Germanic states out of fear of being persecuted for his political satire—Heine described the New Jewish Hospital in Hamburg as a place for “the poor and weary Jew” to relieve himself of three maladies: poverty, disease and Judaism.

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The poet described the last disease being the worst—“The Jewish sickness of the centuries” with no known cure, a “gloomy sorrow” handed down from father to son. In 1825, Heine was baptized a Lutheran.


He always claimed that he never abandoned his Jewish roots. The conversion was solely “a ticket of admission to European culture.” Heine converted to land a position as a law professor. But there is more to this than sheer opportunism.

Many Jews in Berlin and Munich converted to Christianity out of conviction and the belief that Judaism was devoid of a love of humanity and ethics that only the Christian Scriptures could provide. Heine claimed to have converted for practical reasons but, indeed, not only abandoned Judaism for liberal politics but also described Judaism as a disease in the poem honoring his uncle.

The idea that a Jew would describe Judaism as a malady that could not be cured epitomizes self-hatred. Many Jews in Germany seemed to have converted to Christianity to be cured of the disease of a primitive and ossified Judaism. Judaism, in their eyes, was a stumbling block to all that was beautiful and sublime.

The pride of Judaism that sustained Jewish Diaspora communities for centuries now morphed into feelings of inferiority and the need to bend over backwards to prove their allegiance to the majority culture. This self-hatred, not Judaism, has been the disease that has afflicted our people for more than 200 years. It is the result of the Jewish failure to confront modernity on Jewish terms. Still, one must credit Heine for his attempt to return to his roots toward the end of his life.

In his last poems he returned to the glory of the Hebrew poetry of medieval Spain, specifically the work of the great Judah Halevi. He was not a returnee to Judaism in a religious sense, but his last works reflect a pride that is the opposite of his description of Judaism as a malady with no cure. Heine once declared to a friend, “I make no secret of my Judaism, to which I have not returned, because I never left it.” Heine was able to overcome the malady of self-hatred that has been the affliction of Jews in modernity.
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