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").