Train Up a Child: On the Maskilic Attempt to Change the Habitus of Jewish Children and Young Adults

Mar 16, 2016

Search: Journal of Jewish Education Vol. 82, No. 1, pages 28–53


Members of the Jewish Enlightenment movement and Jewish financial entrepreneurs undertook an active, conscious project to effect significant transformations in the Jewish habitus in German-speaking areas during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A symbiotic relationship allowed these groups to disseminate a new vision of Jewish society through multiple mediums including, as this article examines in particular, a new Jewish educational system and new educational texts written for children and young adults. With guidelines on daily practices including personal hygiene, dress, language, leisure, and interactions with one’s surroundings, these texts reached not only their intended audience but the parents’ generation as well. What should one do after getting up in the morning? Should one wash, and, if so, when? How should one behave at the table? How should one dress, or employ one’s leisure time? These and others are among the daily practices that organize a person’s life. They are not spontaneous actions; rather, they derive from social norms and cultural codes that characterize a particular social group and distinguish it from others. To put it another way: they comprise the habitus of a specific individual and the social group to which he or she belongs. This article examines for the first time the changes in the Jewish habitus that resulted from significant transformations within Jewish society in German-speaking areas during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the active role played by a new Jewish educational system therein.

Changes of this sort are generally inconspicuous and latent; this article, however, points to an intentional and marked effort toward transforming the Jewish habitus via the active help of the educational system made by two key groups: members of the Jewish Enlightenment movement (Maskilim), and the Jewish financial elite of the time. It examines the realities and motivations that spurred both groups to action, the synergistic relationship that existed between them, and the methods each employed.


It appears, then, that the guidelines offered in Maskilic books, as well as the personal example of the Maskilim and of the Jewish financial elites, became models and a source of legitimacy for their new habitus to many Jews in German-speaking areas, even those who did not read the books directly or attend the Haskalah movement’s schools. These Jews often adopted a looser version of the new habitus, since they neither relinquished various elements of the old habitus nor adopted the values of the Haskalah movement in their entirety. But they were the ones who, like a stone thrown into the water and causing it to ripple out, introduced a more moderate version of Maskilic values to growing circles of Jews, ultimately transforming Jewish society in the German-speaking space. The Maskilim and the financial entrepreneurs paved the way for this transformation in their own habitus, and their common interests and goals ensured their cooperation in consciously and explicitly disseminating that habitus to the Jewish world around them.

Updated: Mar. 23, 2016