In this meticulously researched and skillfully crafted book, Nancy Sinkoff shines a bright light on an undeservedly obscure corner of modern Jewish history. Yet, for all the author’s interest in making clear the ideological battles of southeastern Poland two centuries ago, her strongest intent may be in proposing a plan for the contemporary Jew.
The primary subject of Out of the Shtetl is the work of two important figures of the moderate Haskalah: Mendel Lefin (1749 – 1826) and Joseph Perl (1773 – 1839). The focus is not on their biographies, but on a serious study of their ideology and their practical programs for the modernization of Jewish life in Poland and, by extension, the vast majority of European Jews at the time of the Enlightenment. Against the background of the partitions of Poland by three centralizing Absolutist monarchies, the Jews were still living in a wholly medieval environment.
The various programs for their integration into the general culture of their new nations were in sometimes violent contention, and Sinkoff does much to clarify the specific territory staked by these backers of the moderate Haskalah. On one side stands the Enlightenment as classically understood: anti-religious, favoring the German language and secular modernity. The clearest opposing pole was that represented by the explosive growth of Hasidism: mystical, anti-intellectual and, to its enemies, hopelessly obscurantist.Sinkoff demonstrates how Lefin and Perl took a consciously different path: intellectuals who wanted Jewish souls to keep faith with traditional practices while bringing their bodies into the modern world.
Sinkoff views today’s Diaspora Jew as also being caught between similar extremes and hopes that the model set forth by Lefin and Perl can be recaptured for our time.