Jew­ish Renais­sance in the Russ­ian Revolution

Ken­neth B. Moss
  • Review
By – August 25, 2011
This out­stand­ing book exam­ines the remark­able Jew­ish cul­tur­al renais­sance that blos­somed in Yid­dish and Hebrew dur­ing the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and Civ­il War between 1917 and 1921. Russia’s five mil­lion Jews had lived under a bru­tal­ly repres­sive regime that sud­den­ly col­lapsed under the bur­den of mil­i­tary defeat and star­va­tion at home. Rev­o­lu­tion brought free­dom and oppor­tu­ni­ties exploit­ed by Jew­ish writ­ers, poets, and artists seek­ing to cre­ate a new sec­u­lar Jew­ish cul­ture. Com­pet­ing trends focused on the rebirth of the ancient Hebrew lan­guage and the mat­u­ra­tion of the Jew­ish ver­nac­u­lar, Yid­dish.
The Jew­ish sec­u­lar cul­tur­al enter­prise that had begun in the decades before World War I brought the fatal cri­sis of Tsarist Rus­sia. But, it was the trag­ic fate of that sec­u­lar Jew­ish cul­ture to be seized by the Sovi­et Com­mu­nist regime that destroyed most forms of Jew­ish cul­ture, along with many of the very best cre­ators of that cul­ture dur­ing Stalin’s reign. This book is a fun­da­men­tal work on mod­ern sec­u­lar Jew­ish cul­ture in Sovi­et Rus­sia. Moss is a 2010 co-win­ner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture. End­notes, illus­tra­tions, index, online bib­li­og­ra­phy.

Lan­guage, Jew­ish Renais­sance, and Fatherhood

By Ken­neth B. Moss

In 1917, as the Russ­ian empire was con­vulsed by vio­lent polit­i­cal and social rev­o­lu­tion, some Russ­ian Jews threw them­selves into a very dif­fer­ent endeav­or: the cre­ation of full-fledged mod­ern Hebrew and Yid­dish cul­tures with their own lit­er­a­ture, art, music, jour­nals, clubs, pub­lish­ing hous­es, and schools. My book, Jew­ish Renais­sance in the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, is the first com­pre­hen­sive his­to­ry of this excit­ing, trag­ic endeav­or. Based on years of research in Hebrew, Yid­dish, and Russ­ian, in a dozen archives on three con­ti­nents, the book por­trays the lives and works of tal­ent­ed Jew­ish writ­ers, artists, and intel­lec­tu­als amidst gath­er­ing polit­i­cal storms.

These would-be cre­ators of a new cul­ture aspired to re-found Jew­ish life not so much by ren­o­vat­ing tra­di­tion­al Judaism in some way, but on the basis of a sec­u­lar, Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture and art, and above all on the basis of liv­ing in a sep­a­rate Jew­ish lan­guage, be it Hebrew or Yid­dish.

This vision of a new Jew­ish cul­ture was root­ed in pro­found changes in Jew­ish life that had been under­way since the 19th cen­tu­ry. By 1917, many Jews were quite sec­u­lar, or at least irre­li­gious, and alien­at­ed from tra­di­tion­al Judaism. Many were also at home in the Euro­pean cul­tures around them — Russ­ian, Pol­ish, Ger­man. Against this back­drop arose the idea of a new Jew­ish cul­ture that would emu­late these oth­er cul­tures yet also stand as their equal. It couldn’t be nar­row or con­fin­ing either in reli­gious or in nation­al terms. It had to be as broad and as open as Russ­ian cul­ture or as French cul­ture. These con­di­tions led to the new Jew­ish culture’s most para­dox­i­cal rule: that the new cul­ture shouldn’t be defined or lim­it­ed by any par­tic­u­lar Jew­ish con­tent (though it could cer­tain­ly have Jew­ish con­tent too), but did have to be defined by the choice of a sin­gle, sep­a­rate Jew­ish lan­guage (either Hebrew or Yid­dish).

Look­ing back, I don’t think I ful­ly under­stood why the sub­jects of my research/​history/​book embraced this view so intense­ly until I dis­cov­ered a strange bio­graph­i­cal coin­ci­dence. When I first began the research for this project, in 1998, I was a 23-year-old grad­u­ate stu­dent. When I was final­ly ready to take a sab­bat­i­cal and rewrite the man­u­script for pub­li­ca­tion in 2006, I was 32 and the father of two young chil­dren. A great many of the fig­ures I was study­ing had reached that exact point in their lives — mar­riage and chil­dren — around 1917.

I thus had a new per­spec­tive on some­thing that schol­ars have long rec­og­nized: that it was in the 1917 – 1921 peri­od that both Hebrew and Yid­dish children’s lit­er­a­ture began to devel­op and blos­som. But I also under­stood some­thing deep­er: the source of their seem­ing­ly para­dox­i­cal ideas about Jew­ish cul­ture in light of their sit­u­a­tion as cul­tur­al rebels turned young fathers. These were peo­ple who had bro­ken with tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish cul­ture because they had dis­cov­ered the won­ders of West­ern cul­ture — Euro­pean art, music, poet­ry. For var­i­ous rea­sons, though, they had cho­sen not to aban­don Jew­ish life alto­geth­er in search of these things. They had remained faith­ful to some ide­al of Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity and Jew­ish renew­al, which they framed as nation­al renew­al. But they couldn’t imag­ine impos­ing on their chil­dren the kind of nar­row Jew­ish edu­ca­tion they had grown up with. On the oth­er hand, how were they going to give their chil­dren a sub­stan­tial, worth­while Jew­ish cul­ture and pre­vent them from sim­ply assim­i­lat­ing to the larg­er non-Jew­ish cul­tures around them? The answer they came up with was lan­guage: raise the chil­dren in Hebrew or Yid­dish, edu­cate them in Hebrew or Yid­dish, and give them every­thing, Jew­ish texts and non-Jew­ish cul­ture too, in those lan­guages. Ide­al­ly, their chil­dren would nev­er face the ter­ri­ble prospect of hav­ing to choose between being a free, ful­filled mod­ern per­son or a com­mit­ted mem­ber of the Jew­ish peo­ple.

I am tremen­dous­ly excit­ed that the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and the dis­tin­guished judges of the Sami Rohr Prize have cho­sen Jew­ish Renais­sance in the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion as a 2010 co-win­ner of the Sami Rohr Prize. I’m grat­i­fied that oth­er peo­ple who have thought long and hard about Jew­ish life should see in this top­ic some impor­tance, and excit­ed to think that with the impri­matur of the JBC, the book might now reach more read­ers in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty.

My book about this Hebrew-Yid­dish dream, its tragedies, and its incred­i­ble Hebrew real­iza­tion was writ­ten in Eng­lish, for Amer­i­cans and Amer­i­can Jews first and fore­most, and it is for Jew­ish cul­ture in Eng­lish that the Rohr Prize is giv­en. The award cer­e­mo­ny for the prize will be con­duct­ed in Jerusalem, and as we cel­e­brate Amer­i­can Jew­ish cul­ture in Eng­lish, we will also have the chance to immerse our­selves in the sights and sounds of a coun­try where Jews can car­ry Jew­ish cul­ture into the future mere­ly by speak­ing to their chil­dren. Amer­i­can Jews face a hard­er task, I think. We must seek to cre­ate and main­tain Jew­ish cul­ture con­scious­ly, against the flow of every­day life and against the cur­rent of the won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ties that Amer­i­ca offers. Nat­u­ral­ly, we will con­tin­ue to do so above all in Eng­lish, using the rich­es of the Eng­lish lan­guage and its lit­er­ary tra­di­tions for Jew­ish ends. But I believe that if we cre­ate our Amer­i­can Jew­ish cul­ture with­out seek­ing dia­logue with the Jew­ish worlds cre­at­ed and still being cre­at­ed in Yid­dish and Hebrew, we will be the poor­er for it. In hind­sight, Jew­ish Renais­sance in the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion was inspired by this con­vic­tion. That this idea could find a hear­ing among read­ers and judges who have devot­ed them­selves to cul­ti­vat­ing Amer­i­can Jew­ish cul­ture in the broad­est and best sense inspires tremen­dous grat­i­tude on my part, and no lit­tle optimism.

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.

Discussion Questions