In their Surroundings: Localizing Modern Jewish Literatures in Eastern Europe



Jewish culture in Eastern Europe evolved with close ties to Central and East-European imperial cultures. This process led, on one hand, to the involvement of Jews in intellectual and literary endeavors in these imperial languages. On the other hand, it generated a flow of aesthetic ideals and political ideologies that originated in Russian and German culture into the Jewish discourses in held Yiddish and Hebrew as well. This reality had a crucial effect on the evolution of Jewish secular literature at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. While this literature was preoccupied with the existential dilemmas of the Jewish people, this did not prevent it from relying on the philosophical apparatus of Russian and German literature and thought. Jewish intellectuals became the messengers of "travelling concepts", be they radical political ideas or literary norms and conventions. Their acculturation to hegemonic cultures was accompanied by the adaptation of narrative models and critical paradigms that brought about a radical change in the conceptualization of history, Jewish collectiveness and Jewish spaces. However, the encounter of Jewish intellectuals with hegemonial cultures took place in specific regional contexts and through contact with other, non-imperial cultures. As a result, East European Jewish literature faced different and even contradictory tendencies: universalism vs. particularism, Russification/Germanization vs. Jewish nationalism, and localism vs. cosmopolitan networking.

The keen interest of early Hebrew and Yiddish writers in Russian and German culture is discussed as a decisive stage in the process of the Europeanization of modern Jewish literature. An important dimension in this cultural process was the longstanding agenda of translating German and Russian literary and philosophical writings to Hebrew and Yiddish, thereby preserving their humanistic legacy. Additionally, Hebrew and Yiddish literary texts often constituted a secondary cultural influence, since during the same period Russian and German literatures fostered their own intensive dialogue.

These multifaceted literary ties point to the existence of an extensive literary system in Central and Eastern Europe. Numerous processes of cultural transfer played a major role in shaping and molding the concept of Europe for East European Jewish intellectuals in the wake of mass migration. This concept of European Culture was disseminated in the literary imagination of Jewish writers and was expanded with the emergence of modernist movements in Europe. Produced mainly in East and Central European metropolises, Jewish modernist literature offered new aesthetic forms through which to understand and come to terms with modernity.

Written against the backdrop of the dramatic political events of the end of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century, Yiddish and Hebrew works posed radical questions regarding the future of Jewish culture on the European continent. The discriminatory conditions of their authors' cultural ties to the European world required ‘transversal’ thinking; constantly re-situating the minority culture, and eventually clarifying the relations between the Jewish and European paradigms. What in the historical-ideological process tends towards exclusion and homogenization, acquires an impressive dynamic, pluralizing and poly-cultural effect in literature and cultural life. This arose not only from a belief in inter-connected Jewish literary life, but also from a belief in its close affinity to the surrounding world, as reflected, for example, in the Yiddish concept of doikayt ("hereness").



Prof. Yfaat Weiss and Dr. Samuel Barnai: Sholem Aleichem's Ukraine

Dr. Natasha Gordinsky and Dr. Rafi Tsirkin-Sadan: Homel – Center of Hebrew Modernism

Prof. Sabine Koller and Tetyana Yakovleva: David Hofstein – between Jewishness and Universalism

Dr. Efrat Gal-Ed and Goda Volbikaite: Kaunas – Yiddish Literary Island


Sholem Aleichem's Ukraine

The project deals with Jewish migration and inter-cultural interaction in the Ukraine region as represented in the works of Sholem Aleichem. Population movement between Kyiv, Odesa and smaller towns in their area was accorded a special place in the prose of Sholem Aleichem, who lived in these cities from the 1880s until the beginning of the twentieth century. Several political, social, and economic processes occurred in the region during this period and impacted the lives of the four major ethnic groups: Russians, Ukrainians, Jews and Poles. The rapid development of industry, trade and transport resulted in a mass influx of the new residents to the major cities of the region. This process transformed the central cities of the region from a collection of a few rustic-looking neighborhoods in the first half of the nineteenth century to the modern cities of the end of the century. The cities became the common multicultural local meeting space of Ukrainians, Russians, Poles and Jews.

The project addresses the ways in which the ethno-demographic, political, social and economic processes in Ukrainian space were expressed in Sholem Aleichem's works (especially in his road novels) and influenced the author's attitude toward his physical and cultural environment. Utilizing the "New Historicism" theoretical model of Stephen Greenblatt, the study aims to analyze the impact of the mobility of the Jews in the Ukrainian region, in particular migrations to its major cultural urban centers (Kyiv, Odesa, Katerinoslav/Dnipro, etc.) on changes to their socio-linguistic loyalty and the reshaping of Jewish cultural identity as represented in Sholem Aleichem's work. Special attention will be paid to the comparative analysis of literary representations in Yiddish, Ukrainian, Russian and Polish that engage with the issues of migration and inter-cultural contacts in the Ukraine.

Homel – Center of Hebrew Modernism


The project of Dr. Natasha Gordinsky and Dr. Rafi Tsirkin-Sadan explores a yet to be discovered locus of East Jewish Culture – the provincial capital of Homel and its area (today’s Belarus). This case study concentrates on Homel as a center of emerging Hebrew Modernism at the turn of 20th century, in which such prominent Hebrew writers as Yossef Haim Brenner, Uri Nissan Gnessin, Gershon Shoffman, Hillel Zeitlin, Yitzhak Zalman Anochi, and Shimon Bichovsky gathered. At this time Homel was an important center of Modern Jewish education and politics that attracted young Jewish intellectuals who had abandoned the traditional scholarship for the sake of secular knowledge and literature.

The aim of the study is twofold: first, to examine the poetic and cultural sensitivities of the Hebrew authors – especially their exposure to Russian and German literature – during their formative years in Homel’s specific local context; and second, to map the biographical and literary relations between members of this group and writers from other places. The basis assumption is that Homel and its specific cultural climate at the turn of the century served as a matrix for one of the most influential literary schools in the Modern Jewish canon. A preliminary study of fiction, letters, and memoirs written by the group of Homel writers shows that the encounter with the non-Jewish world, whether through the Imperial cultural or spatial experience in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual provincial town, had a crucial impact on their literary imagination. Methodologically, the project relies on comparative literature, regional studies, cartography and networking theory. By adopting a local perspective, and in particular aiming to synchronize the Jewish and non-Jewish discourses of the period, the study offers a comprehensive study of Homel as a laboratory of Modern Jewish culture.


David Hofstein – between Jewishness and Universalism

The project of Prof. Sabine Koller and Tetyana Yakovleva is dedicated to the study of David Hofstein’s literary writings. David Hofstein (yidd.: Dovid Hofshteyn; born in 1889 in Korostyshiv, Ukraine; executed in 1952 in Moscow), tried his hand in Hebrew, Ukrainian, and Russian, but eventually devoted himself to Yiddish. At the beginning of 1918, he joined the Kyiv Kultur-Lige (Culture League). A wide-ranging cultural union of art, literature, theater and education, the Kultur-Lige became the most important cultural institution within the Jewish cultural Renaissance. Kyiv, demographically one of the most Jewish cities and ideologically one of the most antisemitic ones in the former Russian Empire, became the backbone of Yiddish culture throughout the new USSR in the first years after the Revolution. With his classic verse and his sober minimalism, David Hofstein became one of the leading literati of the "Kiev group", counterbalancing Leyb Kvitko’s (1890-1952) rural and folkloric verse and Perets Markish’s (1895-1952) futurist and expressionist exuberance. Although he was a key figure of modern Yiddish poetry and of the Jewish Renaissance, there is no systematic study of Hofstein, his poetics of the 1910s and 1920s, and its radical curtailment owing to the ideological constraints of Socialism.

The main goal of the research is to analyze how Hofstein, in a fascinating entanglement of ethics and aesthetics, of European, Slavic and Jewish traditions, developed a rhetorical system, which is intertextual, intercultural and translational at the same time. Hofstein’s poetry oscillates between Jewishness and universalism. It unfolds rich intertextual net linking biblical as well as modern Jewish literary traditions to German, Ukrainian and Russian Romanticism, Symbolism, and Akmeism. Hofstein’s poetic shaping of space and his key topics of wandering and movement engendered modern Yiddish landscape poetry (about the Ukrainian or Palestine landscape) as well as modernist poems about metropolises such as Moscow or Kyiv. Hofstein is unique because of his impulse toward aesthetic synthesis throughout time and space. His intertextual and intercultural Jewish-Slavic-German-Hebrew interplays reveal his commitment to "world culture".

Kaunas – Yiddish Literary Island

The project of Dr. Efrat Gal-Ed and Goda Volbikaite deals with Kaunas, the provisional capital of Interwar Lithuania, as a Yiddish Literary Island. Jewish intellectuals in Kaunas wrote mainly in Yiddish, to a lesser extent in Hebrew, and were influenced by the surrounding hegemonial cultures. Yiddish literary production in Kaunas reflects the construction of collective Yiddish-secular identities, a dynamic specifically exemplified by the literary groups "Vispe" (Island) and "Mir aleyn" (We alone) and their publications. The vitality of this “archipelago” is rooted in the mobility of its Yiddish authors, their engagement with translating and being translated, a peculiar perception of Kaunas as a "parochial metropolis", and a keen longing to be part of a utopia of "groyser velt". Among the authors addressed in this case study are Ester Elyashev (1878–1941), Kalman Zingman (1889–1929), Yudl Mark (1897–1975), Yudika (Yehudit Tsik 1898–1987), and Yakov Gotlib (1911–1945).

The objectives of this research on the cultural dynamics of Kaunas’s modern Yiddish literature are threefold: (i) to examine geographical, political, and metaphorical borders and boundaries connected with or constructed within the inter-war Yiddish literary texts; (ii) to trace its multiple entanglements with the surrounding non-Jewish cultural spaces (mainly Russian and German) and the transfer of aesthetics and ideologies into the works of the above authors; (iii) to locate Kaunas’s Yiddish literary culture within the transnational network of Jewish literatures.

The research is based on the concept of "thinking with the archipelago" originating from Island Theory. To grasp the complexity of the inter- and intra-relations of Kaunas’s Yiddish literary culture, the concepts of "island-world" (a closed-off world) as opposed to "islandworld" (an entire world of islands) is employed and negotiated across the axes of literary reception, intertextuality and cultural contacts.