I want to share my notes from a few articles and writings on Mendelssohn, excerpts that I felt were significant to me and to the project.
The first two facts are excerpted from an article I read in the Jewish Standard, October 23, 2009, titled "Mendelssohn: The Greatest Jewish Composer?," and those that follow are from "Mendelssohn and His World," by Leon Botstein, published by Princeton University Press in 1991.
Mendelssohn was converted to Lutheranism at age 7.
Although Mendelssohn proved a devoted Christian, he didn’t completely abandon his Jewish roots. He kept his name, despite his father’s wishes that he use only the non-Jewish name Bartholdy. He had helped enormously to bring back the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and as he put it, it was ironic that it took a “Jewish son” to revive Bach.
Leon Botstein has written that Mendelssohn “took a special interest in colleagues who were Jews…When he wrote home expressing his delight at the successful passage in Parliament in England of legislation extending rights to Jews, he referred to the object of the legislation as ‘us.’” ("Mendelssohn and His World,” edited by R. Larry Todd, 1991, Princeton University Press.)
Mendelssohn was also occasionally subjected to anti-Semitism. In 1819, when he was 10, he was spat upon by a member of the Prussian court. In 1824, he and his older sister Fanny, while on vacation, were beaten by a roving gang.
“The presence of anti-Semitism … was never far removed from Mendelssohn's daily life,” Botstein wrote.
As for whether the composer was circumcised, Botstein concluded that he was – because that procedure normally occurs eight days after birth (and the boy was not converted until years later). And in 19th-century Germany, where Mendelssohn lived, circumcision was exclusive to Jews. Therefore, “Every day, and particularly in the conduct of his routine and intimate life, Mendelssohn, if circumcised, would have been reminded of the difference in his birth.
A contemporary Jewish composer, Aaron Minsky, has referred to Mendelssohn as Jewish…”to some extent.”