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A Palimpsest of Literature and Politics

Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity, 1905-1914

By Mikhail Krutikov

Stanford University Press, 248 pages, $55.

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Yiddish and the Left: Papers of the Third Mendel Friedman International Conference on Yiddish

Edited by Mikhail Krutikov

and Gennady Estraikh

Legenda, 330 pages, $49.50.

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In a small ceremony held in 1901 in Imperial Russia, Jewish radicals presented the preeminent Yiddish writer Yitzkhok Leybush Peretz with a tattered volume of his stories. They had used it to send secret messages to one another while in prison by underlining words and letters in the book and passing it from cell to cell. Willingly or not, Yiddish authors have often seen their works tranformed into palimpsests of literature and politics. And never were the imperatives of both Yiddish art and ideology so deeply etched as in the 20th century.

Two recent scholarly studies –– “Yiddish and the Left: Papers of the Third Mendel Friedman International Conference on Yiddish,” edited by Mikhail Krutikov and Gennady Estraikh, and Krutikov’s “Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity, 1905-1914” –– take these imperatives as their point of departure. Krutikov, now a professor of Eastern European studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is a Soviet émigré from Moscow who served until recently as a writer in the European bureau of the Yiddish Forward and as a researcher at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Together, these two books illuminate Yiddish culture in a century that tested its political and literary possibilities and, ultimately, saw its eclipse.

“Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity” is an ambitious exploration of a generation of 20th-century Yiddish writers who reckoned artistically with what Krutikov argues were the three convulsive and defining crises of the pre-World War I Eastern European Jewish experience: revolution, immigration and economics. Although Yiddish prose might call to the general mind only a small pool of classic writers such as Peretz and Sholom Aleichem, Krutikov unfurls the writings of a veritable gallery of novelists who pioneered the Europeanized Yiddish novel by adapting the form and language to the concerns of Jews in Russia and America.

Krutikov argues that the novels reveal their authors’ desire to “abandon the search for authentic Yiddish forms” and instead “accept the norms of contemporary European realism and modernism.” He makes his way from the sentimental Yiddish bestsellers of Jacob Dineson, which were nourished by shtetl life, to the Soviet modernist David Bergelson’s wry portraits of post-shtetl anti-heroes — loveless and adrift against the landscape of a fading Russian empire.

Despite the normalization of the Yiddish novel, it continued to possess a distinctly Jewish consciousness. In novels such as “In the Storm” (1907) by Sholom Aleichem and “Mary” (1913) by the provocative pulp-fiction writer Sholem Asch, young Russified Jews initially dazzled by the reasoning of universal brotherhood discover the brutal anti-Jewish violence that follows in the wake of the revolutionary agitation of 1905. The same Jewish viewpoint is detectable in the work of the American Yiddish writer Leon Kobrin, who found his literary voice after reading the works of Emile Zola and Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev. Not without irony, Kobrin’s first novel, “The Immigrants: A Novel from the Life of Russian Jews in America” (1909), reveals former Russian revolutionaries and traditional Jews rejecting the new country for similar reasons. A traditionalist remarks, “Everything is dead, everything: God, yiddishkayt, parents, decency, justice, everything!”

Generally, however, American soil gave fruit to a Yiddish literature of spirited youthfulness embodied in its foremost literary movement Di Yunge (The Young Ones). The group’s leader, David Ignatov, effectively transposed his penchant for Jewish mystical tales to his descriptions of New York City’s silver skyscrapers. His friend Joseph Opatoshu arrived in America in 1907 and attended evening classes at Cooper Union. His first novel, “A Story of a Horse Thief” (1912), teems with thieves, smugglers and drunkards who differentiate his literary world from that of the classic writers. A number of these novels that so poignantly document the lives of Jews beyond the Pale of Settlement exist in recent English translation, and Krutikov’s work reminds us of their richness and significance.

The literary terrain of “Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity” is vast, but Krutikov charts it with well-honed intuition. His linguistic dexterity lets him pry into Sholom Aleichem’s early literary experiments in Russian, for instance, or consult a Hebrew short story to explore its take on a given theme. His wide lens clarifies thematic and structural currents overlooked by earlier critics who had investigated the more modest precincts of a single work or author.

As a principle of methodology, Krutikov insists on preserving “a polyphonic picture of a variety of different interpretations” and refuses to subordinate earlier readings of a work to his own. But his fluency in Yiddish literary criticism is also his Achilles’ heel. Krutikov’s preoccupation with the differing ideas of his colleagues and predecessors prevents him from reaching the marrow and the magic of some of the forgotten novels he legitimately pulls into our frame of reference. Still, “Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity, 1905-1914” carries great scholarly heft and emerges as the new point of reference on this chapter of Yiddish literary history.

“Yiddish and the Left: Papers of the Third Mendel Friedman International Conference on Yiddish” covers a gamut of topics by an impressive array of independent researchers and academics. No one had ever denied the role that the Yiddish language played in revolutionary politics in the Russian Empire or its status as the lingua franca among American Jewish leftists of all shades of red. Yet the essays in this collection promise to enhance our understanding of communism in America and Jewish culture in the Soviet Union.

A number of the essays chronicle the growth of Yiddish cultural survival as a goal in itself rather than as the tool of political propaganda it had been known for since the 1880s. Estraikh comments, for instance, that “Yiddishism, or the celebration of Yiddish as the spirit of secular Jewish culture,” was so dear to many passionate left-wing Jews that “it was the elixir that facilitated the Jewish activists’ transmogrification from one kind of radicalism into another.” In other words, at times, preserving Yiddish is what made radical politics compelling for some adherents.

The role of Yiddish language and culture became a point of friction among the ever-splintering and conglomerating factions of America’s decentralized Jewish labor movement. In this vein, the historian Tony Michels analyzes the doomed alliance between the New York-based Jewish Socialist Federation –– the Socialist Party’s Yiddish language section from 1912-1921, which absorbed former members of the Bund, among them many of the leading Yiddish journalists and writers of its day –– and the Communist party that was directly answerable to the Soviet regime and the beneficiary of its financial support. The two organizations agreed to pool their resources to create the newspaper Frayhayt (“Freedom”), which ran from 1907 to 1923. Frayhayt began with the promise to be one of the nation’s best Yiddish literary newspapers of the 20th century, but ended a casualty of political strife: The Communist Party hoped it would be an organ of propaganda that would draw immigrant readers away from the Forverts –– the Yiddish-language paper that, though socialist, was far less politicized and far more popular –– while the Jewish Socialist Federation insisted that Frayhayt be a showcase for the elevated Yiddish literary culture ignored by the other Yiddish newspapers. Working at cross-purposes, writers’ frustration ran high and subscription levels faltered.

Investigating similar questions of cultural allegiance in postwar United States, Estraikh and Henry Srebrnik tell the story of American Jewish communists who organized to support the Birobidzhan project, the autonomous Jewish region set up by the Soviet government that conducted daily life in the province of Birobidzhan in Yiddish. Simply put, Birobidzhan was the last hope for Yiddish cultural survival and all interested parties knew it. And the American communists’ Yiddish newspaper, the New York-based Morgn Frayhayt (“The Morning Freedom”) propagated blatant lies on behalf of the Soviet regime in order to protect this hope. In a distressing state of denial, its journalists reported “sugary and mendacious news about Birobidzhan” and averted their eyes from Stalin’s execution of their most talented authors.

Yiddish culture was not only the domain of leftists. Barry Trachtenberg asks why medieval Yiddish culture cast a spell on so many of the first-generation Yiddishists who favored it as a topic of research. It seems that scholars such as Max Weinreich and Ber Borochov believed that medieval Yiddish literature, with its secular and European character, best anticipated the modern Yiddish culture they saw themselves building. Delineated by focused lenses, these essays offer well-researched facets — and premonitions, one hopes — of a larger story that is yet to be told.

Set alongside each other, the two studies suggest that the Yiddish literary imagination proved to be more clear-sighted about the future than the breed of left-wing committees and ideologies that sought to protect it. Peretz was touched by the emotion he stirred among his radical constituency, and he was no stranger to political passion. But Peretz, and the novelists who followed his course, let their artistic insight tell the story.

Alyssa Quint is a research fellow at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

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