The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn
Under Frederick the Great, every Jew who married was required to buy otherwise unsalable china from the royal porcelain factory. Moses Mendelssohn, a world-famous philosopher in the eighteenth century—a man remembered today as “the Jewish Socrates” and the grandfather of composers Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn—was forced, when he married, to buy twenty life-size porcelain apes.
Mendelssohn was a friend of Immanuel Kant; the first Jew to publish a book in German; and an advocate for Jewish engagement with the world. But, as Nordhaus writes in the afterword, “In ultrareligious circles he is disparaged as a secularist whose liberal ideas led Europe’s ghettoized Jews toward assimilation on the one hand, and the disaster of the Holocaust on the other.”
This book presents self-contained yet interconnected narrative poems that take the reader on a journey through Moses Mendelssohn’s life, from his childhood in an eighteenth-century Dessau ghetto to the pinnacle of his fame to his death at the age of fifty-seven, full citizen at last.
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Praise and Prizes
“Each poetic sketch captures an energy of the moment, which moves both characters and reader along quickly, mimetic of life. . . . Jean Nordhaus triumphs in this volume by not only bringing such specifics to life; her ability to capture the universal is striking.”
“At a time when the whole world is aware of—and debating—the role faith plays in secular life, Jean Nordhaus’s slim book of poetry invitingly frames and deepens that question through the life of an extraordinary man.”
“This is a book of many pleasures: intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic. Jean Nordhaus’s voice is both original and compelling; her insights into history are complex and always ring true. The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn is poetry of a very high order and should bring her the many readers she has long deserved.”
“Unforgettable . . . Jean Nordhaus’s biography in poems brings [Mendelssohn] poignantly to life.”
“A valuable contribution to the poetic sequence as a spiritual biography . . . In these poems Jean Nordhaus captures the complexity of an individual’s life and mind which history cannot fully account for; at least, not as poetry can.”
“Brilliant . . . Jean Nordhaus has an uncanny affinity with the Sage of Dessau’s complex personality, his intellectual courage and unfailing devotion to his mission. Subtly and deftly she treads the unwavering struggle of a poor, stuttering hunchback to ascend from the Jewish ghetto of his forefathers to the foremost rank of German thinkers of his age.”
“The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn is an especially timely book for its secularist message that argues for a universalist notion of humanity over the factionalism of religion or state.”