Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution
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Jewish Renaissance in the RussianRevolutionJeffrey Veidlinger aa Indiana UniversityPublished online: 26 Aug 2010.
To cite this article: Jeffrey Veidlinger (2010) Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution, EastEuropean Jewish Affairs, 40:2, 183-184, DOI: 10.1080/13501674.2010.494065
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13501674.2010.494065
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East European Jewish Affairs 183
Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution, by Kenneth B. Moss, Cambridge,MA, and London, Harvard University Press, 2009, 408 pp., US$39.95, ISBN 978-0674035102
In Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution Kenneth Moss tells the story of thebrief flourishing of Jewish cultural activity that accompanied the Russian Revolutionsof 1917, and in the process explores the nature of Jewish national aesthetics in themodern world. For at least two decades, historians of the Russian Revolution, followingupon the cultural turn in the historiography of the French Revolution, have been anal-ysing the semiotics of revolution and the cultural meanings attached to it. Historianslike Richard Stites and Katerina Clark have supplemented the grand narratives of theRussian Revolution penned by E.H. Carr and others with in-depth studies of the culturalmeanings that both intellectuals and the common folk attached to revolution.
These studies have demonstrated that often the most striking transformations ofthe early revolutionary years took place not in the Winter Palace and the Kremlin, buton the Arbat and the literary page. Vsevolod Meyerholds theatre shunned the innerpsychology of method acting and theatrical academism in favour of grand gesturesand acrobatics; Dziga Vertov revolutionised the early cinema with his insistence oncapturing film truth; Vladimir Mayakovsky discarded the romance of poetry andbuilt upon his pre-revolutionary appeal to put a slap in the face of public taste; andKazimir Malevich affirmed the principle of art for arts sake alone by rejecting theportrayal of realistic objects. Many of those who advanced the cultural claims of theRussian Revolution were of Jewish descent, and it was not unusual for them to do soin Jewish languages. Kenneth Mosss book focuses on those Jewish culturaladvocates, working predominantly in Hebrew and Yiddish, who saw the promotion ofJewish high culture as a service to the construction of a secular Jewish nation.
The figures who led this movement, Peretz Markish, Haim Nahman Bialik, DovidBergelson, Dovid Hofshteyn and Moyshe Litvakov, among others, shared an overrid-ing appreciation for the role that culture can play in national construction and agreed,at least initially, on the autonomy of culture from politics. They differed, however, inmany respects, ranging from their choice of language to their conceptions of theindividual and the universal. Bialik, writing in Hebrew, believed that a national ethoscould be found in the storehouse of ancient Jewish texts. Modern artists, he contended,must strengthen ties to the Jewish tradition by drawing from the Jewish past to createa contemporary national culture. Others, like the critic David Frishman, lambastedJewish tradition for stifling creativity and instead, like Mayakovsky and the RussianFuturists, advocated the complete rejection of the past. Still others saw inspiration forthe new Jewish revolutionary culture not in Judaic traditions but rather in the adjacentworld of European writings, initiating an effort to translate the canon of Europeanliterature into Hebrew and Yiddish. Only by being embedded within Europe, theybelieved, could Jewish culture be de-parochialised.
The cultural advocates Moss discusses also differed in their approaches to the liter-ary market, but the majority agreed that true culture needs to be liberated from thedemands of the market and decoupled from public taste. As Moss writes, in seekingto wrest cultural dissemination from the corruptions of the market, choke off popularculture at its source, and replace the patchwork culture of East European Jewry withunified secular, monolinguistic Hebrew or Yiddish cultures, the culturist intelligentsiawas clearly seeking cultural authority (154). Rather than catering to the market, oreven taking pride in their independence from the market as the avant-garde, they took
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for granted that the market would eventually catch up with their own activity. Art,they believed, should never be subordinated to the nation; rather the expression of theindividual will uplift national culture as a by-product of aesthetic autonomy. Onlythrough the principle of art for arts sake, the revolutionary culturists contended, coulda genuine national art emerge.
In 1919, only two years after Moss dates its origins, the renaissance began itsdecline as cultural policy came under the purview of political expediency andBolshevik control. First Hebrew expression was curtailed and then Yiddish. In thesecond half of 1920, the Kultur-Lige, the major grouping of Yiddish cultural activistsbased in Ukraine, was taken over by the Jewish sections of the Communist Party andautonomous Yiddish cultural activity was on the wane. Revolutionary poets likePeretz Markish, who had earlier proclaimed their autonomous individuality as theirlifeblood, abruptly embraced the party line, while those who retained their indepen-dence fled the Soviet Union.
Mosss focus on the period 191721 is apt, since the revolution truly unleashed atorrent of cultural expression culminating during this time. However, with such anarrow chronological focus, Moss sometimes overlooks continuities from the pre-revolutionary era. Stybels efforts to translate European literature into Hebrew, forinstance, signify a direct continuity with Binyomin Shimins campaign to translate thehighlights of European writings into Yiddish. One can also be curious about howMoss would account for Jewish writers like Viktor Shklovskii or Osip Brik, whoseliterary contributions in the Russian language paralleled many of the developmentsamong the writers Moss discusses. Future researchers may want to expand the studyof revolutionary Jewish culture from Mosss emphasis on high culture and literaryproductivity to the more common culture of the fairground and town square. If recentstudies of Russian popular culture are any guide, we are likely to find that therevolutionary impetus was just as powerful from below. Jewish Renaissance in theRussian Revolution reminds us, in a compelling way, of the importance of culturewithin Jewish life, and brings to the forefront of scholarship one of the most intriguingexperimental movements in Jewish cultural history.
Jeffrey VeidlingerIndiana University
email@example.com 2010, Jeffrey Veidlinger
Photographing the Jewish Nation: Pictures from S. An-Skys EthnographicExpeditions, edited by Eugene M. Avrutin, Valerii Dymshits, Alexander Ivanov,Alexander Lvov, Harriet Murav and Alla Sokolova, Waltham, MA, Brandeis Univer-sity Press, 2009, 228 pp., US$39.95, ISBN 978-1-58465-792-7
Until quite recently, photography in works of Jewish history served narrowly illustra-tive purposes.1 Photographic images tend to reflect the major subject being discussedor, more likely, portray a chief protagonist. In addition, photographs frequently areused as artefacts, assumed to be unequivocally realistic and immutable. Often anunderlying notion is that the picture helps to tell the story, or may embody a narrative,as per the clich, a picture is worth a thousand words. This is not to say that there