Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Comparative Literature


John Brenkman

Subject Categories

Comparative Literature | German Literature | Jewish Studies


Franz Kafka, German-Jewish Identity, Literature and Secularization, Modern Jewish Thought


This study explores the diverse and contradictory ways German-Jewish intellectuals identify what they commonly refer to as Kafka's "Jewish essence." Focusing on the commentaries of Margarete Susman, Hans-Joachim Schoeps, Gershom Scholem, and Max Brod, I claim that Kafka's German-Jewish reception reflects a broader historical dilemma that grew out of the Jewish encounter with modernity: Are Judaism and Jewishness best defined through religious, cultural, national, or ethnic categories? It is precisely this ambiguity that forms the historical backdrop to Kafka's Jewish interpretations. Situating the early phases of Kafka's posthumous reception within the broader context of interwar German-Jewish culture, my dissertation examines the different ways critics conceptualize their respective notions of "Jewishness" through an encounter with Kafka's writing and use it as a foil for the self-fashioning of their own Jewish identity. As the dissertation title is meant to suggest, my work builds on Gerson D. Cohen's influential essay "German Jewry as Mirror of Modernity" (1975), which argues that German Jewry's diverging responses to modernity exemplify the cultural and ideological alternatives available to any religious group faced with the challenge of redefining itself in the modern era. Extending Cohen's thesis to Kafka's early reception, I show how the critical response to his fiction mirrors the transformations that occurred in Jewish self-understanding throughout the first decades of the twentieth-century. On a broader level, this project seeks to understand the ways secular Jewish identity is reconceived in the field of cultural production, and how it is translated into modern categories of nation, culture, and ethnicity.