Kafka's Jewish Ghosts
By Kayla Green
Franz Kafka is truly representative of three distinct cultures. He was raised in the Czech Republic—a fact that Czech nationalists and aficionados will never let one forget—and is used as a symbol of pride for the Czech Republic. However, his writing, the source of his fame, is in German, a reality that speaks to his family’s loyalty during the Austro-Hungarian era in which he was raised. Finally, Kafka was Jewish, something that continued to inspire and influence his work all throughout the course of his life. Knowledge of Kafka’s Judaism, as well as his relationship and feelings towards Judaism had an important influence on his renowned texts.
In a letter, Kafka once defined himself as a “typical example of a Western Jew,” later stating, “This means that I don’t have a moment of peace, that nothing comes easily to me, not just the present and the future, but even the past, that thing that each man receives as his birthright: even that I have to conquer, and perhaps that is the hardest task.” His frustration and morbidity—features now defined as “Kafkaesque”—clearly relate to the internal struggle he had with his Jewish identity.
One potential source of Kafka’s trouble with his Jewish identity was his unstable relationship with his father, Hermann Kafka. The writer referred to him as “a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, and knowledge of human nature.” He summed up his dissatisfaction and resentment towards his father in a letter to him, in which he wrote, “I found equally little means of escape from you in Judaism.” It was Hermann who originally had a problem with his Jewish identity; having escaped a poor Jewish upbringing in the town of Wossek, about fifty miles southwest of Prague, he decided to fully assimilate, register as a Czech national and give his children German, not Jewish names. This identity struggle, both with his family and his religion was a source of inspiration and frustration for Kafka over the course of his life.
Fortunately, Kafka expressed his Jewish identity in many positive ways, most famously through Yiddish theatre, which he was drawn to after a traveling troupe settled in Prague in late 1911. He would sit transfixed by plays and write about them extensively in his diary. Eventually, he developed a friendship with actor Jizchak Löwy, a Polish Jew who educated him about Jewish life in Poland and Jewish poetry.
In this light, it is clear that much of the sorrow, pain and misunderstanding Kafka represents have roots in his Judaism. Many scholars speculate that some of his works are allegories for larger Jewish issues: The Metamorphosis, for example, may be symbolic of the Jewish Diaspora. Symbolism and allegory aside, it is imperative to have a knowledge to Kafka’s Jewish identity to understand him as a writer and intellectual. In the words of writer and critic Harold Bloom, “despite all his denials and beautiful evasions, Kafka’s writing quite simply is Jewish writing.”