Many of his paintings can be interpreted as indirect commentaries on the emancipation of Jews in Germany in the nineteenth century. His own life and artistic career are also examples of the social rise of the Jewish bourgeoisie. In contrast to many other Jewish intellectuals of his generation, such as Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Börne, and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Oppenheim refused to convert to Christianity and always stood by his Jewish roots.
Oppenheim’s famous “Scenes from Old Jewish Family Life” portray Jewish rituals and the major stages of life in the form of genre scenes. But they can also be understood as statements on the cultural allegiance of German Jewry. Oppenheim uses a historicized genre painting style to depict bourgeois values such as piety, a sense of family, education, and respectability. In doing so, he also underscores what these values have in common with the core values of the Christian bourgeoisie. Instead of emphasizing the exotic, as was later the case with Orientalism, the paintings invite the majority society to identify with the foreign traditions and customs of the Jews. From the perspective of German Jewry, they offer a nostalgic view of the settled life of their fathers’ generation, before Jews were granted equal civil rights in Germany: not the life of a marginalized minority, but a bourgeois one.
Scenes from Traditional Jewish Family Life I
This image shows a scene shortly before the circumcision of an eight-day-old boy.
This image shows the young child’s first visit to the synagogue.
The rabbi blesses a boy after the service.
In the rabbi’s study, a schoolboy recites what he has learned from his Talmudic studies.
At home, the boy discusses the section of the Torah he has read out loud in the service.
During the wedding, the bride and groom stand under a wedding canopy called a chuppah.
This domestic scene shows the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday evening, with the female head of the family blessing the candles.
After the evening service, the father blesses the family before the festive Sabbath meal begins.
This scene illustrates that the Sabbath, on which work is banned, is traditionally devoted to religious study.
On the Sabbath, calm returns to the busy Jewish ghetto, as shown by the closed shop shutters.
Scenes from Traditional Jewish Family Life II
The conclusion of the Sabbath is marked by the Havdalah ceremony, during which a braided candle is extinguished.
Purim commemorates the salvation of the Jews of Persia and is a joyous holiday on which children dress up in costumes.
On Passover, which often coincides with the Christian Easter celebration, a festive meal commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
Shavuot celebrates the gift of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai – as emphasized by the Torah scroll in the center of the image.
On Yom Kippur, the highest of the Jewish holy days, Jews fast and pray for forgiveness of their sins.
On Sukkot, families spend time in a sukkah, or hut, which recalls the temporary shelters used by the Israelites after fleeing Egypt.
This image shows the customs on the eight-day Hanukkah festival, during which candles are lit and games are played.
Here, Oppenheim shows a respectable traveling merchant to counter caricatures of the greedy Jewish peddler.
This image shows a service attended by Jewish soldiers from different German army divisions during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
This scene from the Napoleonic Wars emphasizes the patriotism of German Jews, who fought against the French even though the French had granted them equal rights.