Out of the Shtetl: Mak­ing Jews Mod­ern in the Pol­ish Borderlands

  • Review
By – September 21, 2012

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.

Jeff Bogursky reads a lot, writes a lit­tle and talks quite a bit. He is a media exec­u­tive and expert in dig­i­tal media.

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