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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2009
Number 71
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Soviet History as it Unfolds

Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture: 1918-1930 by David Shneer. New York/Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
A review essay by Brian Horowitz

I can see a critic approaching this book and taking a cheap shot. He would claim that the book did not hold together, that there was no focus, and write it off. After all, the author speaks about literary institutions in the early Soviet period, individual authors, publishers and censors, the state and ideology, modernization of Yiddish language and thematics of Soviet Yiddish poetry. And that is not an exhaustive list.

But I confess that I enjoyed it a lot. I thought the eclecticism of subjects properly matched the bewildering pace of change and decentralization in literary life in Soviet Russia of the 1920s. I consider it merely a lapse that Professor Shneer did not give a theoretical explanation for his blending together a study of literary institutions and Yiddish literature itself. To my ear, this blending of subjects rang true to the interaction of personal and political fates.

The thesis of the book concerns the mode of writing history. Is there a way to write about the Yiddish culture in early Soviet Russia besides the tragic mode? Seemingly, our knowledge of the tragic end to Yiddish literature and the horrible deaths of individual authors permit no other alternative. But if one could write from the viewpoint not of the end of the experiment, but from the perspective of the unfolding Soviet state, the palette would be far more colorful, since before the repression of all national literatures in 1929, there were opportunities unparalleled for Yiddish literature.

Yiddish received, for the first time in its life, state patronage. This permitted the existence of Yiddish journals, research institutions for linguists and literary scholars, and schools for teachers. But its inevitable alliance with the state was fraught with dangers to its own survival.

The primary theme in the book is state and literature. Shneer only adds nuances to the well-known story concerning the zig-zags in Soviet literary policy, the murky lines of authority in the bureaucracy, and the ultimate hostility to intellectual independence. But the story is told with verve and enthusiasm so that the reader can feel the roller-coaster experience of Yiddish writers who one day might be on top of the heap only to find themselves insecure and fearful the next. His description of Moshe Tayf is emblematic.

Moshe Tayf, the proletarian writer who was the most outspoken critic of VAPP [Jewish Association of Proletariat Writers], found himself on the defensive during the purge. In 1928, Tayf was a member of the Jewish Communist proletarian group, but at the group’s 1929 meeting, an announcement was made that because his activity has led to demoralization, Mashe Tayf has been excluded [from the organization].’ [] Tayf did not try to make peace, and instead asked [Alexander] Chemerinsky [chair of the central bureau of Evsektsiia] to reprimand [Moshe] Litvakov [the editor of Der Emes] for his anti-Party attitude. Evsektsiia, not surprisingly, sided with Litvakov, and Tayf was removed from the Communist group before the April 1929 meeting. In an era of politicization, everyone was vulnerable, and the future of Soviet Jewish culture and the Soviet Yiddish intelligentsia seemed to be up for grabs. (p. 173)

The author avoids black and white moralizing. One of his most interesting themes pivots around how writers may be sympathetic heroes in one context only to become oppressors in another. The Yiddish writers we root for in the first two chapters, Moshe Litvakov or Esther Frumkina, who were involved in creating a modern avant-garde in Yiddish, were the same ones who repressed Hebrew language teaching in schools and extinguished private Jewish religious teaching. Still another fascinating theme is how Jewish thematics change with the growing repression of the state. In fact, as Shneer shows with a long analysis of Izi Kharik’s poem, “Shtetl,” not all proletariat authors were able to write optimistically about the Soviet experiment and meet the growing expectations of the Party for ideologically suitable literature.

In the final analysis, Shneer does not repudiate the thematics of tragedy, but he does suggest that other perspectives can co-exist with the conventional view.

The project to create a secular Yiddish culture and a people who identified with that culture succeeded in 1920s. Secular Yiddish writers penned poetry, school children studied Sholem Aleichem from a Marxist perspective, and Soviet judges conducted trials in Yiddish. But ultimately the project to make Yiddish the marker of Jewish ethnic difference in the Soviet Union did not succeed. By the late 1930s, Jewish children no longer went to Yiddish schools. Birobidzhan did not become the homeland of Soviet Jewry. And, after World War II, Russian replaced Yiddish as the dominant language of Soviet Jews. The overall project did not succeed, because the majority of Soviet Jews did not necessarily support it, and because Stalin had other ideas about the future of Soviet Jewry and the future of ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union. It seems everyone was ambivalent about this project. (p. 219)

As this fragment shows, Shneer has a keen sense of the ambivalence of people and positions, viewing history in terms of people rather than abstract models. This sensitivity permits him to see individuals as free and constantly evolving and history as full of potential. For the historian who rejects a teleological vision, as does Shneer, history remains weighted with potential and freedom. For his subject, Russia from 1917 to 1930, this approach works remarkably well.

Brian Horowitz has also written “Author’s Reflections” in this issue.

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