A Proposal for a Year-Long Seminar at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania

For most of the modern period, the Jews of Eastern Europe constituted the single greatest reservoir of Jewish civilization in the world, the seat of Jewish learning and the inspiration for Dubnov’s theory of “hegemonic centers” in Jewish history. Among the Jews of Poland, Lithuania, Galicia, Russia, and Ukraine there formed many of the key religious, intellectual, and political currents that shape Jewish life even today, and from their ranks emerged the dominant new “centers” of the twentieth century in Israel and North America.

During the last two decades, East European Jewry has begun to move to the center of the study of modern Jewish history and culture. Fresh questions and new areas of inquiry -- now fueled by unprecedented access to long-hidden archival riches in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union -- have stimulated a new generation of scholarship. Drawing on expertise in the areas of history, literature, religion, folklore, and allied fields, we propose to create an inter-disciplinary seminar at the CAJS whose goal will be to assemble and place in perspective the fruits of this new scholarship.

We anticipate that several broad concerns will structure the research and dialogue that develop over the course of the year. First, in scholarship concerning East European Jewry from the seventeenth century to the present, the dominant mode of explanation for all kinds of historical and cultural change has been the idea of “crisis.” What appears to be a virtually unending series of “crises” includes the 1648 Chmielnicki uprising, the messianic “crises” associated with Shabbetai Tsevi and Jacob Frank, the breakup of the Council of the Four Lands and of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the emergence of Hasidism and Haskalah as responses to an alleged “crisis” in traditional society, the forcible imposition of military service and the Pale of Settlement, abolition of the kahal, the pogroms of 1881-82 and the accompanying “crisis” of the Haskalah and liberal politics, the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Sovietization and mass urbanization, and finally - and most emphatically - the Holocaust. Three centuries of East European Jewish history, in other words, have served as evidence for the idea that the path away from “tradition” leads inexorably through “crisis” - personal and collective. How far then have we moved from what Salo Baron famously disparaged as the “lachrymose conception” of the Jewish past? Has the paradigm of crisis merely taken its place? Recent studies of East European Jewry have stepped back to explore the ideas of crisis and catastrophe as Jewish cultural motifs, while others have called into question the crisis model with respect to a wide range of historical episodes and movements. As yet, however, there has been no comprehensive discussion of alternative modes of change. Are there deep continuities in East European Jewish history and culture that bridge the recurrent ruptures?

Second, the seminar will provide a much-needed opportunity to bring together the study of elite and popular culture, and to encourage dialogue among disciplines that rarely speak to each other in any sustained way. Areas in need of cross-disciplinary exploration include the intersection of Kabbalah and various forms of popular magic, including practices absorbed from surrounding Slavic populations; the emergence of an East European orthodoxy within the force-field of the struggle between Hasidism and Haskalah; the evolution of the various strands of Hasidism after their crystallization in the early decades of the 19th century; the political mobilization of the Jewish “silent majority” at the beginning of the 20th; the popular reception of a socialist Yiddish culture in the early Soviet period; and the resurgence of Jewish national identity in the USSR during the Cold War.

We expect that the interstices between history and literature will provide a particularly rich arena for discussion and debate. Scholars of the Yiddish and Hebrew literature that flowered in Eastern Europe have now placed the shtetl, the family, and the search for a modern, emancipated self (and its characteristic genre, the autobiography) at the heart of their work. Historians are only beginning systematically to investigate the specific historical contexts that conditioned Jewish cultural modernism. The extraordinary place of literature and literary criticism in late 19th- and early 20th-century East European Jewish society also has yet to be fully explored, including its relationship to parallel developments in the surrounding Slavic populations.

Third, the seminar would begin the work of critically examining the foundations of modern Jewish scholarship in Eastern Europe, and in particular its strikingly ethnographic, not to say populist, orientation. The scholarly study of East European Jewry began with a generation of fin-de-siècle intellectuals, writers, and artists who in many cases had repudiated the Haskalah as politically naive even as they inherited the role of the maskilim as social critics. As Jewish Studies becomes more self-conscious about the roots of its own enterprise, we need to investigate scholarship in Eastern Europe as intensively as has been done for the Wissenschaft des Judentums. The founding generation of the East European Jewish intelligentsia, from Ansky to Zinberg, fashioned an interpretive lens (including the paradigm of crisis) through which we still perceive much of the East European Jewish past. In addition, many of them led politically engaged lives that intersected with their work (and personal lives) in ways that have scarcely been explored. Greater attention to the pioneering figures who first conceived of East European Jewry as a distinct historical entity promises to cast in sharper relief the categories and assumptions that became the field‚s intellectual lineage.

Finally, there is the question of whether and in what manner the Jews of Eastern Europe constituted a single society with a distinct culture. To what extent did they remain a coherent entity across the various upheavals (internal and external) and recastings of political boundaries, in the course of which they became subjects, and occasionally citizens, of a wide range of states and empires, from the Poland of the magnates to the Russia of the Commissars? How did East European Jews define themselves vis-à-vis their host societies, and other segments of world Jewry, and how did this self-definition change over time?

These are just a few of the arenas in which the seminar might focus its work. The list of lacunae in the field is, not surprisingly, considerably longer. In fact, so many scholars are now turning their attention to the East European Jewish past, and from such diverse vantage points, that it is impossible to predict the full range of questions that will guide the work of the seminar‚s participants. We believe that an interdisciplinary seminar on East European Jewry will generate a large pool of applicants representing an extraordinary breadth and depth of expertise. An informal roster includes over one hundred potential applicants (this list is not meant to be comprehensive):


Henry Abramson, Carol Avins, Carole Balin, Jeremy Dauber, David Engel, Lisa Epstein, David Fishman, Robert Freedman, ChaeRan Freeze, Ken Freiden, Roni Gechtman, Zvi Gitelman, Musya Glants, Sascha Goluboff, Itzik Gottesman, Erich Haberer, Janet Hadda, Joel Hecker, Celia Heller, Kathryn Hellerstein, Brian Horowitz, Gerson Hundert, Sam Kassow, Hillel Kieval, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Rebecca Kobrin, Cecilia Kuznets, Olga Litvak, Shulamit Magnes, David Miller, Dan Miron, Marcus Mosely, Allen Nadler, Alice Nakhimovsky, Benjamin Nathans, Anita Norich, Magdalena Opalski, Alex Orbach, Antony Polonsky, Paul Radensky, Steve Rappaport, Hans Rogger, David Roskies, Gabriella Safran, Robert Seltzer, Jeff Shandler, Nancy Sinkoff, Michael Stanislawski, Michael Steinlauf, Jeffrey Veidlinger, Ted Weeks, Eli Weinerman, Ruth Wisse, Seth Wolitz, Josh Zimmerman, Steve Zipperstein


Oleg Budnitskii, Vera Doehrn, Dmitrii Eliashevich, Christoph Gassenschmidt, Sylvie Goldberg, François Guesnet, Gabriella Freitag, Viktor Kelner, Yvonne Kleinmann, John Klier, Mikhail Krutikov, Alexander Lokshin, Naftali Lowenstern, Shimon Markish, Suzanne Martin-Finnis, Yohanan Petrovksy, Ada Rapoport-Albert, Laura Salmon, Vasilii Schedrin, Anna Shternshis


Mordechai Altshuler, I. M. Aronson, David Assaf, Gerson Bacon, Israel Bartal, Chava Ben Sasson, Mikhael Beizer, Emannuel Etkes, Shmuel Feiner, Ted Framm, Jonathan Frankel, Yehuda Friedlander, Avraham Greenbaum, Vera Kaplan, Eli Lederhendler, Dov Levin, Vladimir Levin, Ilya Lurie, Ezra Mendelsohn, Metatyahu Mintz, Wolf Moskovich, Avram Novershtern, Dov Noy, Ben-Zion Pinchuk, Benjamin Pinkus, Shimon Redlich, Elkhanan Reiner, Yaacov Ro‚i, Moshe Rosman, Efraim Sicher, Yechiel Szeintuch, Michael Silber, Shaul Stampfer, Adam Teller, Chava Turnianski, Scott Uri, Shmuel Werses, Motti Zalkin, Arkadi Zeltser


Z. Baker.

In addition to the outstanding holdings of the CAJS and Van Pelt libraries, we expect that many fellows will want to utilize the unparalleled archival and library collections of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, now in its new home at the Center for Jewish History. In fact, collaborating with YIVO in the organization of lectures by individual fellows, a public conference, an exhibition, and/or publication of fellows research, could considerably expand the audience for the seminar‚s work. Similar forms of collaboration could be explored with the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. Given the widespread interest among the broader Jewish community in the history and culture of East European Jewry, we anticipate that fellows will have ample opportunities during the seminar year to share their research beyond the walls of the academy.

Submitted by Benjamin Nathans (University of Pennsylvania), David Roskies (Jewish Theological Seminary), and Israel Bartal (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)