Insid­ers and Out­siders: Dilem­mas of East Euro­pean Jewry

Richard I. Cohen, Jonathan Frankel and Ste­fani Hoff­man, eds.

  • Review
By – August 31, 2011

This book devel­oped out of a con­fer­ence on mod­ern East Euro­pean Jew­ry held at the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty of Jerusalem in 2006 to hon­or the sem­i­nal work of his­to­ri­an Ezra Mendel­sohn in this field. The con­trib­u­tors to this vol­ume explore the theme of insid­ers” and out­siders” in the East Euro­pean Jew­ish expe­ri­ence, exam­in­ing it through the prism of Jew­ish cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion, asso­ci­a­tion, and self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Fol­low­ing an intro­duc­to­ry essay by the intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ri­an Steven E. Aschheim, one of the most acces­si­ble chap­ters to a gen­er­al read­er, the analy­sis revolves around three major themes: The chal­lenges of Jew­ish cul­tur­al cre­ativ­i­ty and its bound­aries; the debates over accul­tur­a­tion, assim­i­la­tion, and iden­ti­ty; and the real­i­ty and con­se­quences of inclu­sion and/​or exclu­sion from the polit­i­cal agen­das of East Euro­pean societies.

In the cul­tur­al conun­drum sec­tion, the authors explore the mul­ti-lay­ered influ­ences shap­ing the work of writ­ers and artists as they nego­ti­at­ed the ten­sion between their Jew­ish back­grounds and their nat­ur­al iden­ti­ties. The accul­tur­a­tion sec­tion exam­ines in detail the ways in which mul­ti-eth­nic and mul­ti-nation­al sit­u­a­tions demand that the Jew­ish out­sider” con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly devel­op inner strate­gies to fash­ion an iden­ti­ty. The sec­tion on soci­ety and pol­i­tics con­sid­ers how Jews con­fig­ured their polit­i­cal alliances and alle­giances in East­ern Europe and the tac­tics they employed to safe­guard their well being and to buffer the tra­di­tions of anti-Semi­tism. The book con­cludes with a focus on two impor­tant cities, Czer­nowitz in the east­ern cor­ner of Hab­s­burg Aus­tria and Vilnius/​Vilne in Lithuania/​Litte where the Jew­ish minor­i­ty was con­sid­ered no less inside” than oth­er groups. The indi­vid­ual chap­ters are sol­id and quite schol­ar­ly, geared to an aca­d­e­m­ic audi­ence already well-versed in the his­to­ry and the schol­ar­ship of East Euro­pean Jew­ish life; how­ev­er, the informed gen­er­al read­er may find them a challenge.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

Discussion Questions