In what follows, Marc David Baer and Sarah Imhoff, authors respectively of German, Jew, Muslim, Gay: The Life and Times of Hugo Marcus and the forthcoming A Queer, Crippled Zionism: The Lives of Jessie Sampter, discuss each other’s works and the ways they intersect.
Marc Baer: After reading your fascinating book, I realized that we both wrote what you call “weird biographies.” These are life stories of marginal people full of paradoxes who were anything but typical American or German Jews. The subject of my biography is Hugo Marcus (1880, Posen, Imperial Germany-1966, Basel, Switzerland) and the subject of yours is Jessie Sampter (1883, New York-1938, Petah Tikva, British Mandate of Palestine). They are relatively unknown, pacifist queers who were not the leaders of the movements in which they took part, but writers and supporters behind the scenes, whose literary creations pale in comparison to those of their famous friends and mentors. They were merely foot soldiers in the war to win minds to their utopian causes, patriots—to Germany, or to the Jewish nation—who envisioned universal brotherhood.
Why did you choose to write a biography about such a person?
Sarah Imhoff: I found Jessie Sampter in the archives when I was looking for something else. I was researching my first book, and I wanted to know how American Zionist women thought about American Jewish masculinity. Sampter didn’t turn out to be a central source for that book, but I kept thinking about her. Her letters, her published writing, her autobiographical reflections: they kept coming back to me.
Sampter was a puzzle. She had polio as a child, and she lived much of her adult life in Palestine with a woman named Leah Berlin. And yet this disabled woman became a voice for a Zionist movement that celebrated physical strength, productive labor, and reproductive women’s bodies. I kept turning over a question in my head: What does it mean that a brilliant and articulate woman seemed to embrace an ideology that ran against her own embodied reality? The more I thought, the more I realized that in spite of her distinctiveness, her life helped me see the seams that exist between embodied experience and ideals for most of us.
So, for me, Sampter wasn’t exactly the scholar’s equivalent of “love at first sight,” but she planted a seed. How did you come upon Hugo Marcus?
MB: Ten years ago while I was researching relations among Turks, Jews, and Germans in Weimar and Nazi Germany, I made some surprising finds. I learned that the leading Turk in the city, Mumtaz Fazli Taylan, was a descendant of Jewish converts to Islam, the followers of the seventeenth-century messiah Sabbatai Zevi about whom I had written my second book. The Nazis went after Taylan because of his background, although his ancestors had converted to Islam three centuries earlier. I also discovered that across town, the leading German Muslim in Germany’s only mosque was a recent Jewish convert named Hugo Marcus. I decided to tell his life story.
Like the story you tell, I also composed a biography about an assimilated Jew who was a religious seeker incorporating seemingly contradictory spiritual wisdom in a unique worldview that compelled him to establish utopias on earth. He was a German born as Hugo Marcus who became the Muslim Hamid, who the Nazis forced to be renamed Israel, a gay man who never called himself gay but fought for homosexual rights, who chose to write gay fiction under the pen name Hans Alienus during his decades of Swiss exile.
Untroubled by the paradoxes of their ideologies and lives, Marcus and Sampter confound distinct categories of religion and belonging. They test the boundaries of twentieth-century ways of being Jewish, sometimes defined as racial, at other times as an ethnicity, or even just membership in a religion.
SI: The meanings of Jewishness—as well as the meaning of race, ethnicity, and religion!—change over time. I think both of our people show this from such interesting angles. Marcus converted to Islam, but he maintained his relationship to the Jewish community, was persecuted as Jewish by Nazis, and asserted his own Jewishness after the Holocaust. Sampter learned of her Jewish heritage though she was raised in an Ethical Culture home, decided to commit herself to Judaism, and championed Zionism because, she thought, it would help Jews cultivate Jewish culture. Her sense of Jewish culture and community—what she called the Jewish “nation”—included both inborn traits and learned ones, and Judaism was central. So did Marcus and Sampter believe that Jewishness was racial, religious, or something else? It turns out those categories just don’t work as exclusive or exhaustive options.
MB: Both Marcus and Sampter were full of paradoxes, which is something inherent in the kaleidoscopic identities and beliefs of such people. Do we need to label their identities with neat categories, or do we use their embodying of them to expand the meaning of those identities? I think that because they sincerely believed their own peculiar theology was a unified vision of a better world, there is no need for us to point out the seeming contradictions, but rather to understand the way they lived them.
SI: I think that’s exactly right. One of the things that I loved about your portrait of Marcus is that he comes across as both compelling and flawed. His ideas about friendship can be charmingly utopian, his arguments for Islam are captivating, and I found myself moved by his relationship with his boyfriend. But the book has almost no women in it, and it is clear why: Marcus did not think highly of them. His ideals of friendship, which he thinks undergird both nation and art at their best, are exclusively male-male. Some of his writing is misogynistic.
MB: That is the problem with these utopian dreamers. Marcus envisioned a world without women! He denigrated love and sex between men and women. His ideal of beauty was a young male body.
Reading your book made me realize how important it is to think of people’s bodies and of how people may re-work the ideas they espouse because on the face of it they cannot embody them. Ironically, Sampter promoted muscular Zionism, an ideology that revered the strong and healthy male body, but she was a woman crippled from polio and often weak and sick. Because that ideology praised productive bodies that worked, she settled on a kibbutz in mandatory Palestine although she was not embodied to engage in agricultural work. While Zionism venerated women for their reproductivity, she not only never married or had children, but wrote of her homoerotic yearnings and had intimate, same-sex relationships including a long-term woman partner. Despite these contradictions she saw her body and her chosen ideology as a unity. As she writes regarding her disability, rather than draw distinctions between mind and body, we should see how every life is whole and thus valid (not invalid).
After reading your biography I wished I had focused on embodiment, the way migraines, illness, and violence affected Marcus. I depicted a middle-aged man humiliated in a concentration camp, who afterwards inserted anti-racism messages into the Qur’an commentary he was editing. But I did not think enough about his difficulty writing while suffering from fear, trauma, and physical pain.
Why do you think that Sampter has been overlooked or misunderstood?
SI: There are a few reasons, but let me highlight one: the canon of modern Jewish thought doesn’t include any women before, say, Hannah Arendt. That’s partly because philosophical circles, Zionist circles, and circles of religious thinkers largely excluded women. Women could do philanthropic work or social work or even artistic work, but many people and organizations felt that philosophical and political leadership was a male preserve. People of Sampter’s own time did not see her as a major thinker. Nor was she the dynamic institution-builder like her friend and fellow Zionist Henrietta Szold. So she slips between the cracks of the well-known roles and categories.
MB: Marcus has also been largely forgotten. Why was I, a scholar of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, the first to write his biography? Muslims probably did not want to “own” him because he was gay. Jews likely dismissed him because he was a Muslim. And also perhaps because he was gay. Historians of Germany have focused on the more well-known figures in the gay rights movement, such as Magnus Hirschfeld, about whom there are half a dozen biographies. Scholars of Islam in Germany mainly focus on the notorious Arab Muslims such as Hajj Amin al-Husseini who helped the Third Reich during the Second World War or the Turkish Muslims who arrived beginning in the 1960s. A Jewish, Muslim, gay man born in the late nineteenth century falls between the cracks of German history and Middle Eastern studies.
I had already written books about conversion to Islam and Marcus was another convert. But I wrote this book for so much more than that. His life is significant because it serves as a window into several historical developments that intersect uniquely in him, a marginal life illuminating dominant trends.
They include the long history of the gay rights movement, which began in Germany and to which Marcus contributed as an activist from around 1900, as a member of the world’s first homosexual rights organization, to the end of his life. Passing away three years before Stonewall, he never lived to see victory. His entire life nonetheless he continued to wage the battle, seeking to overturn Paragraph 175 of the penal code, fighting for decriminalization of sexual relations between men. I refer to Marcus as “gay” although he and most men of his generation would not have self-identified in this way.
Sampter would be considered lesbian today although she would not have chosen that label.
SI: Or maybe she would have been pansexual. One of the interesting things about the history of sexuality is that its meaning changes over time and place. In Sampter’s world, sexuality wasn’t a central category of identity. She read Freud and knew about sexual desires and practices, and her autobiographical writings expressed sexual desire for women (and occasionally men), but she could live with a woman and adopt a child without making a public statement about her own sexual acts.
I decided to use “queer” to talk about Sampter’s sexual desire and her kinship, in part because it can be more expansive. It says that those desires or families are not normative, but it doesn’t declare exactly what they are. Sampter expressed same-sex desire in writing, but I don’t know what exactly happened when she and Leah Berlin lived together for all those years. I do know that her family was a queer one: she and Leah made domestic and financial decisions together, and Sampter adopted and raised a Yemenite daughter with Leah’s help. I suppose I also chose the vocabulary of “queer” because it can help focus on how she lived her life in terms of economics, politics, and domestic situations, rather than just what she did (or didn’t do) in bed.
How do you think Marcus’s sexuality shaped his life?
MB: Marcus’s whole life was marked by his being a gay man and a seeker. And he was a typical German Jew, searching to join a universal brotherhood where the difference between Jews and others melted away.
Like other philosophically inclined gay and Jewish young men, he became a devoted follower of the “prophet” and poet Stephan George who aimed to build a masculinist spiritual elite that would guide and redeem Germany. Unexpectedly, this gay rights activist and homoerotic writer fell for another “prophet,” the founder of the Ahmadi Movement for the Propagation of Islam whose followers also created a utopian brotherhood. Marcus became a Muslim in 1925. Yet, again surprisingly, he maintained his gay relationships.
Reflecting the fact that he was gay, he uniquely promoted the idea that one of the core pillars of Islam is “purity,” which includes pacifism, love and beauty, brotherhood, and tolerance of exceptional cases like himself. His “inborn” difference as he saw it helped him create a more inclusive Islam. He wrote homoerotic verse about his imam, fusing eros and religion. His community of Muslims were inclusive of gays and Jews and established a “reformed” Islam that did not demand exclusive adherence to its faith.
Being gay or lesbian inflected Marcus’s and Sampter’s understanding of politics and religion. It compelled them to make a place for themselves in the ideological-spiritual movement they joined, in Marcus’s case Islam, in Sampter’s case, Zionism.
SI: Describing how Sampter’s queerness shaped her Zionism has been one of the enduring challenges of this book. It wouldn’t be right to say that her Zionism offered some queer utopia, or that she fully “queered Zionism.” But her own writing challenged the masculine-centered Zionism she saw around her, both by including women and critiquing the celebration of the masculine values of martial domination and physical prowess. She loved the kibbutz movement, but she was also an outspoken critic when she saw women relegated to the kitchens while men took on plowing and planting. She worried that men were charged with the physical protection as well as the political leadership of the kibbutz.
She was also critical of “productive,” strong bodily ideals of Zionism, in part because of her own experience of post-polio syndrome and chronic pain. In one way, she saw a Jewish space as a space to no longer feel different: “Here being a Jew is the norm, not the abnormal,” Sampter declared several years after moving to Palestine. She had spent most of her life being “abnormal,” in part because she was Jewish but also in large part because she was disabled. But if being Jewish suddenly felt normal, being disabled still did not.
Not only did Palestine have less developed infrastructure than the United States did, but also the Zionist culture there promoted physical health as noble and ennobling. Even Hadassah, the United States’ main women’s Zionist organization, saw the task of Jewish state-building and citizenship as manly—and as things for the able-bodied. Henrietta Szold wrote in 1921: “Our nerves need steadying, our muscles are flabby, our resilience weak, our morale and discipline infirm. … Men of muscle have begun to come—the young, energetic halutzim of whom you have heard. They are the brawn of the Jewish community.” This rhetoric left little place for people who were not able-bodied men.
Though Sampter offered a different view—a Zionism that was far more inclusive of people of different genders and people with disabilities—the dominant vision of strong and manly Zionist bodies still haunted her.
MB: Both of our biographies also concern the history of relations between Jews and Muslims. Marcus’s life informs us that in Germany there were Jews who held positive views of Islam as an outgrowth, or even pure expression of Judaic monotheism. Some of these Jews converted to Islam on account of this favorable view. His life sheds light on the history of Islam in Germany, which began long before the first “guest-workers” arrived in the 1960s and well before the current sterile debate about whether “Islam belongs to Germany.” Marcus’s life and work proved that it does, as he was the leading German Muslim in Weimar and pre-war Nazi Germany who even edited a Qur’an translation and commentary still in use today.
But even after converting to Islam, Marcus retained his membership in the Jewish community. Despite being a Muslim, to the end of his life he maintained that he was always a Jew. But because of it he lost his homeland and two brothers to the Nazi reign of terror. Being Jewish, this gay Muslim was stripped of his wealth and possessions and incarcerated in a concentration camp. After being released, Marcus did not attempt to flee to British Palestine, despite having relatives there. He was an anti-Zionist.
He managed to escape to Switzerland right before the outbreak of the Second World War, thanks to his Muslim and gay networks. Forgotten is this “lost story” of a Muslim, the mosque’s imam, who helped save the life of a Jew, Hugo Marcus. It puts to rest the myth that all Muslims were anti-Semitic (and anti-gay) and supported the Nazis. And through it all, despite his being gay and becoming Muslim, Marcus continued his close relations with his Jewish mother and family members who escaped the Nazis.
How did Sampter view Muslims?
SI: Sampter was basically what we would now call a “binationalist”: she thought that the political society in Palestine needed to have space for Jews and Muslims. And yet she was also an Orientalist. She praised Arab Jews for their colorful clothes and ancient traditions, but she also thought they needed civilizing when it came to social practices, gender relations, and especially education. Far more than most others, she saw an important space for Arab Jews within Zionism.
But when it came to non-Jewish Arabs, she could also be a chauvinist: she thought Jewish culture was more civilized than non-Jewish Arab cultures. She primarily blamed the British for violence in Palestine, but she thought that non-Jewish Arabs were too easily stirred up and egged on by British forces and rhetoric. She thought that Jews and Muslims should live together as brothers, but she also thought that Palestinian Muslims had a longer way to go to meet that goal.
She had spent much of her life reading about religions—various branches of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and theosophy, to name a few—but she did not learn much about Islam. She surely did not have the desire to remove Muslims from the land, but neither did she take the time to learn about the cultures and language of the people whom she imagined should be her brothers in civilization.
MB: Neither of us treat the subjects of our biographies as saints. Sampter displayed cruelty to animals and her writing was pervaded by Orientalist stereotypes of Middle Eastern Jews, Arabs, and Muslims. She was a woman who lived in Palestine but knew neither Arabic nor anything of Islam. Marcus may have been anti-Orientalist, yet his attempt to show the confluence between German and Muslim values, to create an Islam for Germany and Germans, promoted the superiority of Germans as the best Muslims, passing over Arabs and Muslim thinkers in favor of the leaders of the South-Asia-headquartered Ahmadi movement. His was an Islam without Arabs with the exception of Muhammad.
Despite their outspoken anti-imperialism, both Marcus and Sampter benefited from British colonialism. Marcus’s relations with the British India-based Ahmadi saved his life when they obtained him a British visa to India and a pass to leave Nazi Germany. Sampter settled and received citizenship in the British Mandate of Palestine.
Sampter voluntarily left her country never to return, giving up her US citizenship, using her wealth to fund her new life, her financial donations persuading kibbutz members to allow her and her woman partner to live among them despite her disability and age. Marcus was stripped of his citizenship, abused in a concentration camp, deprived of all of his wealth and property and forced into exile, but after the Second World War chose not to return to Germany because of continued persecution of gay men. In a sense, then, both ended their lives as voluntary exiles.
SI: I don’t think Sampter would have called herself an exile, but your description of her is right on. And it makes me think about what it means to be an exile: Do you have to feel not-at-home in the new land? She really did feel a sense of being home, even when living in Palestine was hard. She was proud to give up her US citizenship, which was a bold and unusual move at the time. But she also carried the United States with her. Her optimistic internationalism, where different people groups would bring their distinctive strengths to a shared table, has always struck me as having a particularly American flavor. And throughout her life, she loved Ralph Waldo Emerson and shared some of his naturalistic theology.
MB: Marcus’s connection to naturalistic theology is his concept of “monopluralism.” It is a neologism uniting the terms “monism” (the idea that all life is part of one basic element in the world) and “pluralism” (the idea that there are many basic elements in the world). Marcus argued that all things in the world are united through the interaction of unity and multiplicity. In this sense they form a unity. They are not different manifestations of a single basic element, as in monism, but rather a “multiplicity of parts” that relate to each other. “Unity of multiplicity” is an apt description of Marcus. Unity and multiplicity appear unassociable, but they cannot be conceived without the other: a whole is made of different parts. In Marcus’s case those elements are German, Jewish, Muslim, and gay.
Marcus devoted his final three decades to publishing homoerotic fiction and queering historical figures such as Goethe. He was cremated and his ashes scattered in a grove in the largest cemetery in Basel. There is no trace of him in the world, other than the forgotten writings he left behind.
SI: It’s so interesting that you write, “There is no trace of him in the world, other than the forgotten writings he left behind.” I feel like Sampter left so many traces it was difficult to make sense of them all: quotations from her writings appeared as a children’s poet and songwriter for Reform Jews in the United States (in the 1950s), and as a quotable philosopher appearing in Weight Watchers inspirational books, on websites, as a character in an Israeli novel (in 1975), and on a road sign in India (in the 1990s). I struggled with how to make sense of these small traces, these afterlives. They didn’t seem to fit together.
One of those afterlives begins with the photo on Sampter’s Wikipedia page. Though quite a few photos of her exist, the image isn’t of Sampter. It’s of a roadside sign in Ladakh—a region of India known for the Himalayas and its political unrest, near the borders with Pakistan and China/Tibet. The sign is painted bright yellow with black block lettering: “Border Roads Organization” and below: “Simplicity is the peak of civilization. –Jessie Sampter.” How did it get there? Who chose that quotation? How did they learn about her in the first place? The image captivated me. In 2018, I decided to go see the sign.
Finding it required some sleuthing. My partner is a historian of India and an experienced motorcyclist, and I needed both his language and driving skills in my quest for the sign. We flew into Leh, a town that sits at higher than 11,000 feet above sea level. The altitude forced us to plod along the streets at roughly the same speed as the local cows and donkeys. To get to the Nubra Valley, we would need to go even higher—to navigate Khardung La, the “world’s highest motorable pass” at 18,379 feet, as the sign at its summit (dubiously) declares.
The road itself is terrible. There are no guard rails. It’s cut into a nearly vertical slope, which means that when there are curves, sometimes you cannot see around the mountain to more than twenty feet of the road ahead. “Lane Driving is Safe Driving,” a sign reminds Indian drivers who rarely heed lanes and often drive in the place Westerners think of as the lane for oncoming traffic. But more often than not, on Khardung La, the road is barely a single lane wide. The melting glaciers break up and carry away the pavement and deposit huge rocks onto the path. Road crews, who are actually military units, sometimes blast rock formations above the road to preempt any landslides.
The full version of that journey is in the book, but in the end, it answered a few of my questions, it raised many more questions, and it also showed me that there were things I could never know. In some ways, it’s really fitting. The truth is, Sampter’s many afterlives don’t fit together seamlessly in some kind of tapestry. They are more like colorful threads, reaching here and there but refusing to fit into a single pattern.
This refusal is a double edged sword. Both Marcus and Sampter were passionate and brilliant, but neither the world around them nor history quite knew what to make of them. I like to think that maybe you and I are doing something to change that.