Expressions of freedom

Between the end of the czarist era and the stabilization of the Bolshevik regime, Hebraist and Yiddishist camps competed to shape a new cultural order for Jews.

By ALEXANDER ZVIELLI
March 5, 2010 19:45
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Book cover lissitzky. (photo credit: El Lissitzky)

Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution

By Kenneth B. Moss | Harvard University Press | 408 pages | $39.95

Israeli readers may be interested in renewing their acquaintance with Hillel Zlatopolsky (1868-1932), one of the founders of Keren Hayesod, and his daughter, Shoshana Persitz (1893-1969), the founder in 1917 of the Omanut Publishing House in Moscow, General Zionist MK from 1949 to 1961, and chairwoman of the Knesset Education Committee.

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In February 1917, after the Russian Revolution, Zlatopolsky summoned leading Russian Jewish writers, pedagogues and publicists to Moscow and told them: “The recent revolution in Russia reveals before us a wide perspective for cultural, national Hebraist work. Now all the external obstacles on our way have been cleared away; now we can gather all our powers and organization.”

To Zlatopolsky, who had confined himself during czarist times to the quiet, frequently underground support of modern Hebrew by training teachers and publishing, the revolution was the right time to bring about “the hegemony of Hebrew culture in Russian Jewish life.” A wealthy man, he had dedicated all his time and fortune to creating a Hebraist movement on a national scale by a network of schools, kindergartens, gymnasia, Hebrew press, literature and other undertakings.

Many of the finest Israeli pioneers and writers found their inspiration in his undertakings and in his daughter’s publishing house. The great task of the competing Hebraist and Yiddishist camps was to create a broad, comprehensive modern culture with all its colors and nuances among Russian Jews.

In his excellent and informative study, Kenneth B. Moss, assistant professor of modern Jewish history at Johns Hopkins University, presents a detailed and illuminating story about how the revolution provided the cultural impetus to the Russian Jewish leadership and people desperately seeking to reassert their own freedom, national identity and culture in a war-torn world.

The newly won freedom of expression resulted in a massive desire for Jewish theater, art, literature and music, all of which suffered severe restrictions under the czarist regime. The new era, which lasted only a year or two, encouraged Russian Jewry to create its own cultural world. It was, however, a pity that the Jewish cultural intelligentsia was sharply divided into increasingly irreconcilable Hebraist and Yiddishist camps, each of which claimed to represent the true Jewish national culture and sought to bring Eastern European Jewry over to its side. The division was all the more significant, since the majority of Hebraists were Zionists, while the Yiddishists sided with the Socialist Bund.

STILL, THE expectations of a Jewish national and cultural revival within Russia ran high. In 1917 the Yiddish writer and publisher Kalman Zingman wrote a book named Edeniya, the City of the Future – a utopia of ethnic harmony where Jews, Ukrainians, Russians and Poles live harmonious but separate national and communal lives under autonomous administration. In this novel a visitor from Palestine visits Edeniya. He walks along streets named Mendele and Sholem Aleichem, reads posters advertising the Jewish ballet company, classical music, an opera in Yiddish. Edeniya enjoys a complete Jewish high culture just like in Herzl’s Altneuland, but in reverse. This utopia indicates the extent of the euphoria and high hopes shared by some Jews at the time.

The urgency of the hour was shared by the Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik, who understood that the February revolution was the last chance for the Jewish people to shape a new cultural order that would replace religious self-delusion, assimilation and the degrading, cheap patchwork of popular culture. This was to him the time of hope for a Hebrew spiritual development that would provide the spiritual background for the Zionist movement. Bialik promoted “a new gathering, national not religious, of the best of Hebrew literature of all eras.” The alternative, he warned, was cultural disintegration.

The World War I mobilization, the ensuing battles and deportations, the revolutionary chaos, civil war, hunger and disease made Russian Jews realize that they could depend only on themselves. This strengthened the national awareness – the leadership made up of writers, journalists, artists and various activists. New realities were taking shape and there was a substantial revival of Jewish culture. There was a Habimah Hebrew theater in Moscow and the Yiddish National Theater in Kiev.

Jewish intellectuals welcomed new ideas, but most of them were careful about open criticism of the negative and yet still popular folk traditions. Some writers feared that an extreme cultural effort, an appeal for a total rejection of the past traditions, would speed up assimilation and foster a radical universalism.

THE ERA’S most ambitious and mostly successful Jewish cultural organizations, the Hebrew Tarbut and the Yiddish-promoting Kultur Liege (The Cultural League), both viewed the mass dissemination of a new Hebrew or Yiddish national culture as their central task. They successfully replaced the czarist OPE, the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment among the Jews of Russia, and expected that the new culture would replace the traditional religiosity, cultural assimilation, the popular, cheap way of entertainment and the pulp novels. There was a trend to make the Jewish masses intellectual, read worthy books, including translations of the best of world literature, visit libraries, attend exhibitions, theaters and concerts.

In April and May 1918, the internal situation within the Soviet Union began to stabilize and the regime started exercising control over its Jewish citizens. The pressure to toe the party line increased significantly between 1919 and 1921, when the Bolshevik regime, joined by Jewish communist revolutionaries, began to destroy everything that was achieved and enclose the Jewish cultural endeavor within its own, tight embrace.

The hated Evsektsia, the special Soviet Jewish affairs department, started evaluating Jewish institutions, organizations and publications, liquidating one after another. The Hebraists, seen as the nationalists, were the first to be eliminated and the Hebrew language was condemned, leaving Zionists no option but to leave while there was still time. The Soviet Union made Yiddish culture a state responsibility. Yiddishists gained state protection and resources, but at a suicidal price, since eventually all writers, poets, teachers, editors and artists became Communist Party servants and were charged and judged according to “the revolutionary process.” 

The tragedy continued during the ’30s, when, under Stalinist terror, most of those who joined the Hebraists 20 years earlier and stayed in the Soviet Union were hunted down one by one to fill the quota and sent to the Gulag. This was also the fate of the Yiddishists, when after World War II Stalin liquidated the best of the Yiddish poets and artists as a reward for their active, wartime struggle against fascism.

The author successfully brings to life a very difficult chapter in Jewish history. We share his interest in all those mostly forgotten Jewish heroes of that era who struggled hard to bring our people out of the ghetto, frequently under the most difficult wartime and revolutionary upheaval circumstances. Many Israeli intellectuals might find this study absolutely fascinating in their own endeavor to spread of our own Hebrew culture.


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