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1907. I was chosen rabbi of Solomon Temple in Hamburg, the
cradle of the reform movement the world over. There I started as a
rebel. The temple of 1818 had given up the title rabbi, which was
in those days disreputed, and instead the title preacher was carried.
I, a young man, protesting, insisted on becoming a rabbi, and finally
a compromise was established and we carried the title rabbi and
preacher. Those years in Hamburg I shall never forget. There were
questions I could not answer. There were problems I could not solve.
We lived at that time through the storm and stress of the finding
of ourselves -- what are we, a people or a religion – and official
Judaism insisted upon that we are not a people, ONLY a religion.
It happened in 1909 when the Zionists' Congress
The stenographic German transcript is to be found in Compact Memory:
was held in
Hamburg, and Max Nordaeu said publicly, criticizing the reform
movement – “What have they done, the reformers? They made temples
out of synagogues, churches without a cross.” The following Saturday
I took the bull by the horns and said in my sermon, “I differ with all
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my colleagues in the Reich. Of course we are a people.” The Trustees
present almost fainted, and after service approached my colleague,
thirty years my senior, -- “Are you under the same opinion?” and
he said, “We are not a people. We are German citizens of Jewish
persuasion.” And I replied, “You are right. All Hungarians who
come to Germany say the very same thing.”
1914. The first World War. I had met Emil G. Hirsch, the
famous rabbi from Chicago, in Switzerland, and he prophesied, “One
day you are going to come to America.” A few weeks after the be-
ginning of the War, I found my Commission on my desk, and became
attached to the General Staff of Field Marshall von Hindenburg.
Then something happened. Herman Cohen, the famous philosopher, my
teacher, wrote me – “I should answer your letter. Not having
received a line from you, I have to write to receive an answer.”
I wrote him back – “Believe me, dear teacher, it is not negligence.
I have been your pupil, speaking your language, thinking your thoughts
so to speak – your alter-ego.” But something happened. We crossed
the borderline from Germany into Lithuania – everything goes topsy-
turvy – “I don't know where I stand. When I am myself again I will
write to you.” I never did.
Here, for the first time, I met people who did not try to give
a definition of what they are. They were Jews, you did not need
sermons to be reminded of their Jewishness. Here I found spirit
knowledge, not restricted to professionals, dignity and inner-
independence. In Germany we were labled all the time, orthodox,
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conservatives, reformed. Here I was accepted as a Jew without attri-
butes. Here surrounded by those people, I got the answers to my
questions. It is more than a jest, and up to this very day, if I
am ever reborn I would like to be a Litvac. Those four years in
Russia made me a Jew, and coming home, after Germany was defeated,
I could not preach any more. My Board came and pleaded – “Rabbi, we
have been waiting and praying for you for four years.” I said, “I
cannot stay – you are dead – I want to live.”
And so, in 1923, a new life opened to me – America. […]
Jacob Sonderling, This is my Life (Memoirs), Los Angeles, 1961-1964 [Excerpt], p. 3-5., edited in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:source-83.en.v1> [September 27, 2021].