Joseph Suss Oppenheimer became the "court Jew" of Carl Alexander, Duke of Wurttemberg in 1733. When Carl Alexander died, Oppenheimer was put on trial and condemned to death for his "misdeeds," and on February 4, 1738, was hanged in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart. He was not allowed to give testimony at his own trial and left no written record of the case; we know little of his biography. Yet he remains an iconic figure to this day, not only as emblematic of the relationship between Jew and the early modern state, but together with Alfred Dreyfus and Shakespeare's Shylock, in the long history of anti-semitism as well.
While previous authors have chosen to limit themselves to barebones-facts or resorted to fictional accounts of Oppenheimer's biography and trial, in The Many Deaths of Jew Suss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew
(Princeton University Press, 2017), Yair Mintzker reinvestigates the case of the "Jew Suss" in light of new sources, as well as by incorporating the lives of four contemporary voices, eyewitness accounts that act as mirrors in which we can grow to see more of Oppenheimer himself. Fascinatingly, rather than presenting a unified narrative, these four voices often come into conflict with one another. The judge-inquisitor Philip Friedrich Jager; university professor and convert from Judaism, Christoph David Bernard; Mordechai Schloss, who wrote the only contemporary Jewish account of the case; and, finally, David Fassman, Oppenheimer's first biographer. While Oppenheimer's case stands as the narrative thread that brings these four voices together, the thick description of each life exposes overlapping worlds tied together by politics, culture, and theology. And here, the "Jew Suss" acts as a prism to better see the context of 18th-century Germany.
Professor Yair Mintzker
is professor of history at Princeton University and winner of the National Jewish Book Award in 2017 .
Moses Lapin is a graduate student in the departments of History and Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, his life can be accurately described as a Rashamon.