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.”
In addition to smart remarks, “Yiddish in Weimar Berlin” also examines overlooked poems by Berlin’s Yiddish writers, such as Moyshe Kulbak’s “Raysn” (“Byelorussia”), a piece of versified bubbe worship that features a grandmother of “supernatural fertility…comparable to a chicken laying eggs.”
Another chapter of “Yiddish in Weimar Berlin” explores how in 1921, Abraham Cahan decided that Berlin was “in a sense, the most significant city in the world” for Jews, and recruited staff for a large Forverts bureau there. Jacob Lestschinsky , a Ukrainian-born scholar of Jewish sociology and demography was hired as the bureau chief.
Though Lestschinsky would be repeatedly arrested for his courageous reporting on Berlin’s anti-Semitic pogroms, his accurate reports were discounted by fellow Jews like Alfred Döblin and Asch, who diagnosed Lestschinsky’s articles as an East European journalist’s overreactions, adding: “Germany is not Ukraine!”
By 1933, the Berlin Forverts bureau was dissolved by exile or deportation. Yet throughout the war, the Forverts had a subscriber in Berlin, Johannes Pohl , a Judaica specialist at the Prussian State Library whose knowledge helped the Nazis loot Jewish libraries throughout German-occupied Europe.
Listen to the “Yiddish Foxtrot,” recorded in Berlin circa 1930: