Jewish History and Culture in Eastern Europe



For over three centuries, Eastern Europe was home to the greatest living reservoir of Jewish civilization in the world. From Jewish communities in Galicia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine emerged many of the currents that shape Jewish life today, and from their ranks emerged the dominant new centers of the twentieth century in Israel and North America. This seminar brought together historians, anthropologists, literary scholars, and political scientists to mine the extraordinarily rich history and culture of East European Jewry. Fellows were animated by the shared sense that the historic Jewish communities that once covered the broad swath of territory between the Baltic and the Black seas have now moved to the center of the study of the modern Jewish experience.

Several broad debates structured the collective conversation over the course of the year. Has the motif of “crisis” monopolized the interpretation of East European Jewish history? If so, why—and what might take its place? Did Polish and/or Russian Jewry constitute worlds unto themselves, or might we see in East European Jewish life certain extrapolations of the surrounding Slavic societies? How did the intensely politicized milieu of the early twentieth century shape the production and consumption of a modern Jewish culture? In the course of these debates, participants brought into focus unfamiliar dimensions of the biographies of figures such as S. Y. Abramovitch (Mendele Moykher Sforim), Shlomo Rapoport (Ansky), and Isaac Babel. The impact of mass violence on Jewish consciousness was a recurrent theme, as was the problem of nationhood. Finally, by exploring the work of Salo Baron, Emanuel Ringelblum, Simon Dubnov, and the founders of the YIVO Institute, the seminar gave participants the chance to scrutinize the original fashioners of the East European Jewish past, and thus to reflect on our own enterprise.  Several essays that exemplify the interrogations of the year are collected in Culture Front: Representing Jews in Eastern Europe (2008), edited by Benjamin Nathans and Gabriella Safran.