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The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture

The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture

David E. Fishman
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zw828
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    The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture
    Book Description:

    The Rise of Modern Yiddish Cultureexplores the transformation of Yiddish from a low-status vernacular to the medium of a complex modern culture. David Fishman examines the efforts of east European Jews to establish their linguistic distinctiveness as part of their struggle for national survival in the diaspora. Fishman considers the roots of modern Yiddish culture in social and political conditions in Imperial Tsarist and inter-war Poland, and its relationship to Zionism and Bundism. In so doing, Fishman argues that Yiddish culture enveloped all socioeconomic classes, not just the proletarian base, and considers the emergence, at the turn of the century, of a pro-Yiddish intelligentsia and a Yiddishist movement.As Fishman points out, the rise of Yiddishism was not without controversy. Some believed that the rise of Yiddish represented a shift away from a religious-dominated culture to a completely secular, European one; a Jewish nation held together by language, rather than by land or religious content. Others hoped that Yiddish culture would inherit the moral and national values of the Jewish religious tradition, and that to achieve this result, the Bible and Midrash would need to exist in modern Yiddish translation. Modern Yiddish culture developed in the midst of these opposing concepts.Fishman follows the rise of the culture to its apex, the founding of the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) in Vilna in 1925, and concludes with the dramatic story of the individual efforts that preserved the books and papers of YIVO during the destruction and annihilation of World War II and in postwar Soviet Lithuania.The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture, like those efforts, preserves the cultural heritage of east European Jews with thorough research and fresh insights.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7379-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. PART I: TSARIST RUSSIA

    • 1 THE RISE OF MODERN YIDDISH CULTURE: AN OVERVIEW
      (pp. 3-17)

      The use of Yiddish has been a feature of Ashkenazic Jewish life for approximately a millennium. The first known Yiddish sentence, written in Hebrew letters and containing both Germanic and Hebraic words, is found in a manuscript holiday prayer book from 1272; the first known literary document in Yiddish, a codex consisting of seven narrative poems, was composed in 1382; and the first known printed Yiddish book, a Hebrew-Yiddish dictionary of biblical terms, was issued in 1534. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, numerous belletristic, homiletical, moralistic, and ritual works were published in Yiddish, and this period was the heyday...

    • 2 THE POLITICS OF YIDDISH
      (pp. 18-32)

      In 1897, tsarist Russia conducted a census that recorded the religion and language of the populace. Of the 5,215,000 Jews living in the empire, 97 percent declared Yiddish as their native tongue. Only 26 percent claimed to be able to read Russian. Given this impressive degree of Jewish linguistic cohesion on the threshold of the twentieth century, a lively and developed modern Yiddish culture could have been expected in Russia at the time, comprising literature, the press, periodicals, theater, and education, as well as social and cultural organizations. In fact, however, there was not a single Yiddish newspaper, daily or...

    • 3 LANGUAGE AND REVOLUTION: HEVRAT MEFITSE HASKALAH IN 1905
      (pp. 33-47)

      On December 6, 1905, the Society for the Dissemination of Enllightenment among the Jews of Russia (in Hebrew, Hevrat Mefitse Haskalah; in Russian, Obschestvo Dlia Rasprostranenie Prosveschenie Mezhdu Evreami v Rossii, OPE) gathered in St. Petersburg for its annual general membership meeting. OPE was the oldest and most highly regarded Jewish organization in Russia. During the first three decades of its existence, OPE had supported the spread of enlightenment, education, and culture (all three of which were connoted by the terms Haskalah andprosveschenie) among the Jews by awarding stipends to Jewish students in Russian gymnasia and universities and supporting...

    • 4 THE BUND’S CONTRIBUTION
      (pp. 48-61)

      A 1907 article honoring the tenth anniversary of the General Jewish Workers’ Bund of Russia, Lithuania and Poland offered a glowing evaluation of the movement’s role in the rise of modern Yiddish culture. “The Bund created a modern Yiddish culture…. It turned the market jargon into a language in which serious scientific matters could be discussed…. The Bund taught the Jewish masses how to read…. The Bund created a great circle of readers which needed good books and newspapers, and it created a new literature for this circle.”¹

      This self-congratulatory, partisan assessment was subsequently adopted and elaborated on in Bundist...

    • 5 REINVENTING COMMUNITY
      (pp. 62-80)

      At the turn of the twentieth century, a broad range of Jewish intellectuals in Russia embraced the ideal of Jewish national revival in the Diaspora, an ideal they considered to be compelling, heroic, and ultimately more realistic than the Zionist dream. They shared a common consciousness of representing a third path in Jewish life between Zionism and assimilation, between those who affirmed Jewish nationhood but denied its viability in the Diaspora and those who affirmed their attachment to Russian society and culture but denied the principle of Jewish nationhood. These intellectuals often referred to themselves as Diaspora Nationalists (in Yiddish,...

  2. PART II: POLAND BETWEEN THE WORLD WARS

    • 6 NEW TRENDS IN INTERWAR YIDDISH CULTURE
      (pp. 83-97)

      While the destruction and dislocation endured by east European Jews during World War I and its aftermath hampered Jewish cultural activity, the end of tsarist rule created great opportunities for Yiddish expression. In the Polish territories that were under German occupation from 1915 to 1918, the authorities sanctioned and even encouraged the development of Yiddish culture. In the territories that remained under Russian control, the revolution of February 1917 brought with it the immediate lifting of a wartime ban on Yiddish publications. Moscow, which had been outside the now-abolished Pale of Settlement, became a center of Yiddish culture for the...

    • 7 THE JUDAISM OF SECULAR YIDDISHISTS
      (pp. 98-113)

      The explosion of Yiddish-language creativity in the early twentieth century was accompanied by the rise of ideological Yiddishism. Yiddishism synthesized nationalist and populist ideas drawn from the Russian, Polish, and broader east European milieu, applying them to the Jews. Like other east European ethnonationalist movements, it placed great emphasis on the Jews’ spoken language as one of their defining markers as a national group, which bound them together across time and space. It celebrated and championed the fact that Yiddish, like other east European vernaculars, was undergoing a process of modernization and becoming the vehicle for a modern national culture...

    • 8 COMMEMORATION AND CULTURAL CONFLICT: THE VILNA GAON’S BICENTENNARY
      (pp. 114-125)

      The Jewish community of Vilna first organized a series of public events to pay tribute to its most famous son, Rabbi Elijah, the gaon (1720–1797), on the occasion of his two hundredth birthday, in April 1920.

      Although Rabbi Elijah was frequently invoked throughout the nineteenth century as the spiritual father and cultural hero ofYerushalayim de-lita(the Jerusalem of Lithuania), earlier centennial anniversaries of his birth and death passed quietly, with little fanfare. In traditional Jewish religious culture, great individuals were recalled at the time of theiryortsayt(the anniversary of their death), and not on their birthday, and...

    • 9 MAX WEINREICH AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF YIVO
      (pp. 126-138)

      The Yiddish Scientific Institute, YIVO, was conceived of and developed in 1925 by four scholars, who constituted its original organizing committee: Nochum Shtiff, Elias Tcherikower, Zalmen Rejzen, and Max Weinreich. A fifth scholar, Jacob Lestschinsky, joined this cohort and was appointed secretary of YIVO’s research division for economics and statistics at a planning meeting in Berlin in August 1925, before the institute itself was officially founded.¹

      The founders of YIVO were divided by geography: the Berliners were Shtiff, Tcherikower, and Lestschinsky, and the Vilners were Weinreich and Rejzen. The establishment of a Yiddish academic institute was the brainchild of Shtiff,...

    • 10 EMBERS PLUCKED FROM THE FIRE: THE RESCUE OF JEWISH CULTURAL TREASURES IN VILNA
      (pp. 139-154)

      The effort to collect and preserve Jewish historical documents and cultural treasures in eastern Europe was launched with an impassioned public appeal by Simon Dubnov in 1891, it was institutionalized and broadened into a social movement with the founding of YIVO in 1925, and it reached its heroic culmination with the rescue activities of Abraham Sutzkever, Shmerke Kaczerginski, and others in Vilna between 1942 and 1946. The final reverberations of that movement were felt in 1996, when surviving remnants of YIVO’s Vilna archives were shipped from Lithuania to New York. That shipment was the epilogue to the story of the...