The Schmooze

Café Culture in Weimar Berlin

In the 1920s, Yiddish was more than just a lingua franca for East European Jewish émigrés; it was also a language of high culture, as demonstrated by a brilliant new book, “Yiddish in Weimar Berlin: At the Crossroads of Diaspora Politics and Culture” (Legenda Books), edited by New York University Yiddish scholar Gennady Estraikh and University of Michigan professor Mikhail Krutikov.

“Yiddish in Weimar Berlin” describes street scenes in the ironically named “Jewish Switzerland,” a slum northeast of Alexanderplatz, which housed arrivals from Poland. Though poverty-stricken, the area boasted theatrical performances by the touring Vilna Troupe, while Yiddish writers clustered at the Romanisches Café, nicknamed the Rakhmonisches (Pity) Café by its regulars to evoke its “poor food and run-down interior.”

Catty jokes as well as sardonic puns were rampant among the writers at the café; Isaac Bashevis Singer once reportedly claimed that if Sholem Asch ever “wrote in a grammatically correct Yiddish, his artistic breath would evaporate.” Hersh Dovid Nomberg, a tubercular Yiddish author and disciple of I. L. Peretz, said that the Romanisches Café was an ideal sanatorium, since the air was so “filled with tobacco smoke that not a single [tuberculosis] bacillus can survive here.”

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Café Culture in Weimar Berlin

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