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.