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.