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The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture (Pitt Russian East European

jan peczkis|Thursday, October 9, 2014

In my review, I do not limit my analysis to the book itself. I extend the content to broader issues of lasting relevance.

This work goes beyond Yiddishist developments. It contains an assortment of interesting information. For instance, Chaim Zhitlovsky, and other cultural radicals like him, rejected Purim as a chauvinistic celebration of Jewish vengeance. (p. 109). On another subject, Fishman provides interesting detail on the origins of YIVO, and the heroic efforts to save part of its archives from the German Nazis


The author traces the relatively late emergence Yiddish as a modern, literary language, and then moves on to its political implications. He points out that the modernization of Jewish society itself, in tsarist Russia, was well advanced by about 1860 (p. 20), contradicting those who suppose that Russia's Jews were too backward to develop modern Yiddish culture until about 1900.


The surprising delay in the large-scale emergence of Yiddish institutions, until nearly the start of the 20th century, owed largely to the repressive effects of the Russification that had been in place since the suppression of the Poles' January 1863 Insurrection. In elaborating on this heavy-handed Russian cultural imperialism, Fishman comments, (quote) After the Polish uprising of 1863, the tsarist Ministry of Education imposed Russian as the sole language of instruction in all elementary and secondary schools in the Kingdom of Poland and the western provinces. This step was primarily designed to uproot Polish and combat the spread of Polish nationalist sentiments among the younger generation. Secondarily, it was intended to preempt the independent cultural development of other languages, such as Ukrainian and Lithuanian. But it also had a direct impact on modern Jewish schools and their use of Yiddish. (unquote). (pp. 29-30). In addition, (quote) Polish was systematically hounded out of the schools and excluded from all official government functions in the Kingdom of Poland. (unquote). (p. 52).


Fishman comments, (quote) Revolutionary disturbances had swept across the empire beginning in January 1905, with the Bund leading a groundswell of demonstrations and strikes in the Pale of Settlement. The revolution shook the tsarist regime to its foundations and culminated with the October 17 Manifesto, in which Tsar Nicholas II made significant political concessions...But in the days immediately following the October manifesto, counterrevolutionary groups vented their political rage by perpetrating pogroms in several hundred locales, killing more than twenty-five hundred Jews. (unquote). (p. 54). The opinion of these events, by Tsar Nicholas II, is very similar. Click on, and read the Peczkis review, of The Secret Letters of the Last Tsar.


Nowadays, Poles are often faulted for once considering Jews "the other", and for not generally accepting Poland's Jews as fellow Poles. However, this very much also went the other way. For centuries, Jewish particularism and separatism had centered on religion. Now, a new, much more aggressive and politicized Jewish particularism and self-imposed apartheid was emerging, based on the secular Yiddishist movement. For instance, the Yiddishist Folkspartei was of the position that a Jew could only join another national group, such as the Poles or Russians, by resigning from the Jewish community. (p. 69).

The Yiddishist movement not only elevated Jews to a separate, formal nationality, but also made its goal the turning of Russia [and later Poland] into a [arguably Balkanized] federation of nationalities. (pp. 64-65). [This maps onto Polish concerns of a Judeopolonia.] The position of Chaim Zhitlovsky, at the turn of the 20th century in Russia, enshrined and expanded Jewish separatism in the following rather extreme manner, (quote) Their demands included: (1) guarantees for the use of Yiddish and Hebrew by government agencies in their communications with the Jewish population and the right of Jews to use Yiddish and Hebrew in official institutions, such as the courts; (2) proportional representation of national minorities, including the Jews, in all elected political bodies; (3) establishment of Jewish national self-government on the local and statewide levels, through the agency of Modern KEHILES and a Jewish National Assembly; (4) recognition of national-minority schools, including Jewish ones, as institutions of public education. (unquote). (p. 63). [Decades later, in the newly-resurrected Poland of 1918, the same aggressive Jewish separate-nation demands were made in the form of the so-called Minorities Treaty, and Poles (notably the Endeks) were (and are) demonized for their disagreement with these arguably-onerous Jewish demands.]

The foregoing does not mean that non-Yiddishist or anti-Yiddishist Jews living in Poland were necessarily "Poles" in any sense. For instance, Fishman speaks of the situation in the resurrected Polish state, (quote) ...the eastern borderlands, the KRESY, where Jews had previously gravitated toward Russian (rather than Polish) culture. (unquote). (p. 85).


In 1936, Polish Cardinal August Hlond made a statement about Jews as freethinkers and vanguards of Bolshevism, and nowadays is regularly condemned for it. Although this work does not mention Hlond, it makes it obvious that, not only was Hlond essentially correct, but what he was describing had begun decades earlier, in Russian-ruled eastern Poland.

Chaim Zhitlovsky, an influential Yiddishist thinker who wrote from 1897 to 1914, followed the atheist line that dismissed religion as something discredited by modern science, philosophy, and morality. (p. 101). Isaac Leib Peretz stripped the Bible of divine revelation, and redefined it as a repository of Jewish literature. (p. 102). Still another leading Yiddishist thinker, Esther Frumkin, writing in 1910, scoffed at Jewish religious practices, and expressed a desire for holidays to celebrate what she called the proletarian struggle. (p. 103).

Although Fishman attempts to soften the secularism of the Yiddishist movement, he finally admits to its militant atheist essence, (quote) Discussion of God as creator, master of the universe, or providential force was beyond the pale of acceptable discourse. Consequently, prayer and religious ritual were likewise anathema...While much of the religious tradition could be recast in national terms, the aversion to religion per se remained nearly total...the Judaism of secular Yiddishists, even of the national-romantic variety, was a Judaism without religion and a Judaism without God. (unquote). (pp. 112-113).

The Jewish involvement in Communism is commonly, but incorrectly, marginalized as membership in Communist parties. Actually, it was much broader than that. Consider the Bund. Although the Bund followed, rather than caused, the advance of Yiddishist tendencies (p. 48), it played an indispensable role in the promotion of Yiddish literacy among the Jewish masses. (p. 50). In addition, Fishman notes that, (quote) The Bund's contribution was to champion after 1905 a version of Yiddishism that was staunchly Marxist, secularist, and anti-Hebrew. (unquote). (p. 60). Although "Marxism" and "socialism" are amorphous terms, it is obvious that these terms, at least as used by Fishman, are essentially indistinguishable from the main features of Communism: (quote) As Marxists, they [Bund] supported the struggle of the proletariat (including the Jewish proletariat) against their economic exploiters and believed that they would lead the battle to overthrow tsarism and replace it with socialism. (unquote). (p. 64).

The author characterizes the Yiddishist Tsisho (Tsysho/Cysho) schools, in interwar Poland, as controlled by two parties--the Bund and Poale-Zion-Left--both of which are identified as Marxist. (p. 91). Fishman adds, (quote) Moreover, the Yiddish schools in particular were harassed and persecuted by the Polish authorities, who considered them to be nests of Communism...Finally, the overtly partisan nature of the Tsisho schools narrowed their constituency to the children of Socialist parents. (unquote). (p. 92).
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