Franz Kafka: Jewish Identity & Amerika
Though it had not yet coalesced into the horrors of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was widespread in Eastern Europe. The bigotry and rejection he encountered because of his Jewish identity was deeply upsetting to Kafka. In his late twenties, Kafka became keenly interested in Judaism - or, more accurately, in exploring his contentious relationship with his religion. Kafka was drawn to many aspects of Jewish culture, particularly Yiddish theater and writing. At the same time, he felt alienated from - and at times repulsed by - his Jewish identity. "What have I in common with Jews?" he wrote in his diary. "I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe."6
Kafka began working on a novel, eventually called Amerika, about an Eastern European immigrant, bewildered and alone on the teeming shores of America. He never finished it. In fact, he never finished a single novel during his life (not counting the now famous novella The Metamorphosis).
In addition to his full-time work schedule, Kafka was also hampered by serious anxiety and depression. "What an effort to keep alive!" he wrote in his journal at one point. "Erecting a monument does not require the expenditure of so much strength."7
Kafka was not all depression and sorrow, however. He liked a good joke, as well as girlie magazines and visits to prostitutes ("I passed by the brothel as though past the house of a beloved,"8 he wrote in his diary). He also managed to fall in love. In 1912, at Max Brod's house, he met a woman named Felice Bauer. They began an epistolary courtship - one conducted almost entirely by letters - with Kafka penning more than 500 letters during their five years together.