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Rabbi Wolpe’s Picks: Kafka at the Spa

‘The Lost Worlds of Jewish Spa Culture,’ by Mirjam Zadoff

David Wolpe
December 23, 2013

Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. In a new Scroll series, Wolpe will examine a work of Jewish scholarship, either contemporary or classic, which has relevance for modern Jewish life.

“She went from resort to resort and from physician to physician.” The valetudinarian in Israel Singer’s novel, The Brothers Ashkenazi, was not alone. The sick and the well, the seeking and the indolent, the secular and the deeply faithful, took themselves to the spas of Europe from the late 19th century through the early 1930s. This flourishing but little-remembered culture is the subject of a scholarly gem, Next Year in Marienbad: The Lost Worlds of Jewish Spa Culture, by Mirjam Zadoff.

Everyone with the means went to the spa, from Frank Kafka to the revered Belzer Rebbe. Spa facilities had the best medical treatments then known, including the first X-rays. Kafka made his usual fun of them in a postcard to Felice Bauer in 1916: “If you are there, I intend to be with you, but I do not intend to allow myself to be medicated, electrically treated, given therapeutic baths, examined, informed about the nature of my diseases with unusual accuracy owing to an unusually accurate diagnosis.”

In the spas of Europe people were treated together, commiserated together, and formed small, close-knit groups. Many who attended the spas were Jewish. Others, however, were unsympathetic at best to the presence of Jews. German novelist Theodore Fontane wrote from the Carlsbad spa, a place of “caftan Jews with their side-locks, displaying defiance and cockiness, who make every path and trail here unsafe.” Anyone seeking cloud seeding for the gathering storm can find it in the observations Zadoff recorded about Jews attending the posh European spas.

The spas, though, fostered a genuine flourishing of Jewish culture. The large traditionalist presence, as well as the presence of ailments that necessitated prayers for healing, made ritual observance and worship a major component of spa culture. One went to be cured but also to be rejuvenated, and that meant the spirit as well as the body.

Zadoff’s book draws on a large range of contemporary sources—novels, newspapers, journals, and scholarly works—to recreate this once well-known culture. It is also handsomely illustrated and a model of the modern bookmaker’s art, with heavy, sturdy paper stock and old photographs crisply reproduced. In an age when scholarly works often receive shoddy treatment, the University of Pennsylvania Press deserves credit for giving Zadoff’s engaging book the treatment it deserves.

Novelist Aharon Appelfeld once described the spas of Europe as a beit dimyoni, an imaginary home. Mirjam Zadoff reanimates these places where Jews once went to feel whole and to be healed, chronicling an important, if forgotten, element of Jewish culture.

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David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiWolpe