Sigmund Freud, the Hep-Hep Riots, and the Wimpy Jewish Male

Last week the Yivo Institute co-sponsored a conference on “Freud’s Jewish World.” Many of the speakers brought up an antisemitic incident that Freud related in The Interpretation of Dreams. When Freud was 10 or 12, his father Jacob told him that one Saturday years before in Freiberg, Austro-Hungary, he had put on his new fur hat and gone for a walk when a gentile came up to him and said, “Jew! Get off the pavement!” and knocked his new hat into the street. “‘And what did you do?’ I asked. ‘I went into the roadway and picked up my cap,’ was his quiet reply. This struck me as unheroic conduct.” About that time, Freud began dreaming of Hannibal, the Jewish general of antiquity.

Richard Armstrong of the University of Houston offered the conventional reading: “The father had failed to provide his son with a heroic narrator vis a vis gentiles… His own appropriation of Hannibal was as a killer semite…”

Not so, said Sander L. Gillman of Emory University. Freud’s father had absorbed the lesson of the Hep-Hep Riots, pogroms aimed at Jews; the “ritual” when a Jew met a non-Jew, Gilman said, was that the Jew was to step off the wooden boardwalk “into the street,” which was filled with the leavings of horses. “The Jew stands in the shit while the non-Jew goes by,” Gilman thundered in fresh outrage. It was plain from the story that Jacob Freud had lost his hat because he had refused to get out of the way; and offered the story to his son as a “real act of resistance.”

Gilman did not win adherents. In the Q-and-A that ensued, a woman in the second row who didn’t ask questions but gave mini-lectures (and good ones at that) pointed out that the Hep Hep riots took place in 1819 and Freud’s father was born in 1815 so it was a stretch to say he had absorbed its lessons. Then an older lady said in a somewhat quavery voice that she was disturbed by the image of the wimpy Jewish male that the Yivo Institute was allowing to go out to the world. Did the panelists not feel responsibility for this false image? Shouldn’t they rectify it? Could everyone please respond to this point?

The author Fredric Morton, doing his part to rectify the image in a snappy brown leather jacket, was the moderator. He said the questioner was surely right, but the issue she had raised was big enough for a panel of its own, in the meantime everyone should ponder the matter. And with that he ended the discussion.