Jew­ish Pub­lic Cul­ture in the Late Russ­ian Empire

Jef­frey Veidlinger
  • Review
By – October 28, 2011

This book explores and maps the devel­op­ment of Jew­ish pub­lic cul­ture in the final decades of the Tsarist Russ­ian Empire. The focus is par­tic­u­lar­ly on the decade that fol­lowed the Rev­o­lu­tion of 1905, when oppor­tu­ni­ties blos­somed for orga­niz­ing a vari­ety of vol­un­tary asso­ci­a­tions and orga­ni­za­tions, although the Tsarist regime con­tin­ued to restrict free cul­tur­al expres­sions that might lead to demands for more polit­i­cal change. Tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish com­mu­nal life was trans­formed with the estab­lish­ment of a pletho­ra of vol­un­tary cul­tur­al orga­ni­za­tions that includ­ed libraries, lit­er­ary clubs, musi­cal groups, his­tor­i­cal soci­eties, and both ama­teur and pro­fes­sion­al the­ater, that were open to both men and women. 

Much of the new Russ­ian Jew­ish cul­ture was oral and aur­al in form, with an array of lec­tures, read­ings, per­for­mances, debates, and dis­cus­sions that attract­ed ever-grow­ing num­bers of Jews. Thou­sands scram­bled to see and hear such writ­ers as Mendele, Peretz, and Sholem Ale­ichem, who trav­eled the Russ­ian Jew­ish lec­ture circuit. 

Nev­er­the­less, decid­ing what lan­guage to use divid­ed many groups, torn over whether to con­cen­trate on activ­i­ty in Russ­ian, Yid­dish, or Hebrew, each rep­re­sent­ing dif­fer­ent aspi­ra­tions and social out­looks. This book pro­vides a sense of the dynamism of Jew­ish cul­tur­al life, broad­ly defined, in what was the world’s largest Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty whose descen­dants estab­lished Amer­i­can Jew­ry. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, map, notes, photographs.

Robert Moses Shapiro teach­es mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Holo­caust stud­ies, and Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­lyn Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. His most recent book is The War­saw Ghet­to Oyneg Shabes-Ringel­blum Archive: Cat­a­log and Guide (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press in asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Library and the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw, 2009). He is cur­rent­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing Pol­ish and Yid­dish diaries from the Łódź ghet­to and the Yid­dish Son­derkom­man­do doc­u­ments found buried in the ash pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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