Issue 17 /
September 2020 Focus Introduction

Thinking Europe in Yiddish

DOI : 10.48248/issn.2037-741X/1638
Pariz. Yidish hant-bukh: veg-vayzer un firer, eds. A. Bekerman et al.,
(Paris: Naye Prese, 1937). Cover detail of the Yiddish language guidebook
published for the World’s Fair in Paris.


This issue of Quest follows the conference “Thinking Europe in Yiddish,” organized in June 2018 by Efrat Gal-Ed, Andrea von Hülsen-Esch and myself at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, Germany.1 The topic of the conference emerged from Efrat Gal-Ed’s work on the biography of Itzik Manger, a Yiddish poet who had spent each of the phases of his life in a different country and was part of a transnational cultural community often referred to as “Yiddishland.”2 Gal-Ed’s research made clear the need for a renewed focus on questions about Yiddish culture as a European culture that, though posed in the past, have never yet been discussed in depth.

The Yiddish language has its origins in Europe, more precisely in German-speaking lands. On the eve of the Second World War, there were, roughly, eleven million speakers of Yiddish in the world. That may not seem a large number to speakers of German or English, but it was, at the time, more than the number of speakers of all the Scandinavian languages combined.

Yiddish has always been a minor language. It was never a state language, nor even the majority language of a region. Yiddish was spoken, written and printed in language enclaves dotted across large swathes of Europe. Some of these enclaves were small, consisting of a few families in a little town; in recent centuries some of these Yiddish-speaking areas encompassed tens of thousands of speakers. In the first half of the twentieth century, some of them numbered a few hundred thousand, as was the case in Warsaw. There were regions of Europe where Jews had not been allowed to settle for centuries, while in others they were part of the social and cultural fabric of their area during the same periods. It is hard for us today to imagine a Europe with millions of Jewish inhabitants, but such was Europe in the late nineteenth century and up to 1939, the period the conference focused on. During this period, the Yiddish-speaking world in Central and Eastern Europe changed dramatically. Beginning from the time of the French Revolution, Jews were gradually granted civil rights. Following the revolution of 1905, Jews in the Russian Empire were accorded civil rights, as well, the last in Europe to receive equal status as state subjects. As a result of the First World War, the Hapsburg and Romanov empires disintegrated; following this and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, nation states were created in Europe where Jews were no longer a minority among many, but the single recognizable minority or one of a small number of minorities next to a much larger majority. During the early years of the interbellum, minority cultures were able to flourish, but only a few years later growing nationalism in Europe became a danger to these very same cultures. The conference set 1939 as the year ending an era and a moment when Yiddish culture was still vital and its kultur-tuer, its culture activists, thought was worthwhile to formulate thoughts about its then present-day place in Europe along with hopes and fears for its future.

Considering Yiddish concepts of Europe at the conference evoked a population and a culture that have almost entirely disappeared from the continent; the questions discussed had broad ranging implications. Questions about a minority culture beyond borders, about its views of its position on the European continent, about its future and about the conditions that would allow it to co-exist with majority cultures.

Thinking Europe in Yiddish leads us to pose questions such as: What is Europe? How did Yiddish speakers, members of a transnational minority, regard Europe? What did Europe mean for speakers of Yiddish? In what ways were speakers of Yiddish part of Europe and its cultural landscapes? How were they included or excluded socially, politically and culturally? How did their culture adapt to developments in European majority cultures or react against them?

Ideas expressed in Yiddish sources cannot be representative of all of European Jewry, not even of all East European Jewry, which relied on different languages and art forms as its modes of expression. Focusing on Yiddish perspectives on Europe does, however, enable us to see nuances more clearly.

The papers included in this collection, as well as others presented at the conference, show that Europe as seen by Yiddish authors and artists before the Second World War was less of a geographical region than a fluid, shape-shifting idea. It was a cultural ideal of the Yiddish-speaking intelligentsia and the so-called halb-inteligentn, the autodidacts. For many it stood for ‘high culture’ and embodied the aspiration of becoming part of a greater, positive ideal. Ideas about Europe were different in different authors’ political ideology and changed over time, not least in light of changing attitudes toward Jews and the opportunities Europe was deemed to offer. Europe as an ideal became less prominent or even tarnished in the 1930s; with hindsight, we can see how this was justified.

This issue of Quest begins with David Fishman’s essay in which the author returns to his book The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture,3 considering it from the new perspective of Europeanness and the part that familiarity with European culture outside the Russian Empire contributed to the rise of modern Yiddish culture. Marc Caplan, in his essay “Marking Territory: A Flâneur’s Failure in I. L. Peretz's Mayses” traces the setting of Peretz’s story “Mayses” not in the prototypical, imaginary Eastern European shtetl, but in the modern metropolis, Warsaw. Influenced by European – mainly French – literature, Peretz adopts the perspective of the flâneur. The story is rooted in Yiddish culture but also aspires to transcend conventions established early on in the history of modern Yiddish literature as the author looks to European cultural precedents for inspiration.

The enthusiasm of young Yiddish poets and artists after the First World War about becoming part of new avant-garde European culture, thus putting Yiddish works on a par with European “high culture” publications, is the topic of Daria Vakhrushova’s essay “To Hell with Futurism, Too! The Metamorphoses of Western and Eastern European Modernism in Yiddish Manifestos.” Focusing on manifestos, she shows how they are the expressions and virtual centers of the multilayered and polycentric Yiddish culture created by multilingual poets and artists, dispersed among many countries and continents and familiar with numerous cultural and literary traditions.

Debra Caplan’s “An American in Shtetl. Seeing Yiddish Europe through the Eyes of Molly Picon” presents the story of the American Yiddish theater personalities actress Molly Picon and her impresario husband Jacob Kalich. The two traveled to Europe in the early 1920s to help Picon improve her ‘bastardized’ American Yiddish through contact with the language as it was ‘correctly’ spoken in Eastern Europe.4 They regarded Yiddish theatrical culture in Eastern Europe both as authentic and more sophisticated than its counterpart in the United States, even though European Yiddish sophistication was recent and the result of transcultural processes. New York had already become the world capital of Yiddish theater by this time; European Yiddish culture offered a view of a world different from the stereotypical representations of Jewish life that Picon had encountered in the USA, as well as freedom and recognition for the unconventional theater performer that she was.

Whereas the protagonists creating avant-garde manifestos shortly after the First World War brought artists together in a virtual Yiddishland, the intellectuals who organized the 1937 World Yiddish Cultural Congress in Paris saw their aim of bringing like-minded people together to safeguard Yiddish culture in the future thwarted by international political strife. As Gennady Estraikh shows in “A Quest for Yiddishland: The 1937 World Yiddish Cultural Congress,” the conference was well attended, but the international unity aimed for was not achieved. The organization founded following the congress, the World Yiddish Cultural Association (IKUF or YIKUF) in Paris, did not succeed in establishing this city as the hub of Yiddishland located between America, Poland and the Soviet Union.

The papers in this issue of Quest are meant to provide an impetus for further discussion and research on the topic of Europe in Yiddish thought.

[1] The conference was made possible through the generous assistance of the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the Society of Friends of Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf.

[2] Efrat Gal-Ed, Niemandssprache. Itzik Manger – ein europäischer Dichter, (Berlin: Jüdischer Verlag im Suhrkamp Verlag, 2016). The concept of Yiddishland is not clearly defined; see, e.g., Jeffrey Shandler, “Imagining Yiddishland. Language, Place and Memory,” History and Memory 15/1 (2003), 123–149. Efrat Gal-Ed is currently working on a monograph on this topic.

[3] David E. Fishman, The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005).

[4] They traveled through different countries in Eastern Europe but not the Soviet Union.

Marion Aptroot is Professor of Yiddish Culture, Language and Literature at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. She has co-written a Yiddish textbook for speakers of German and a history of the Yiddish language. She has published editions of early modern Yiddish texts such as Storm in the Community: Yiddish Polemical Pamphlets of Amsterdam Jewry, 1797–1798 (with Jozeph Michman, Cincinnati 2002), Isaak Euchel. Reb Henoch, oder: woß tut me damit? Eine jüdische Komödie der Aufklärungszeit (with Roland Gruschka, Hamburg 2010) and Libes briv (1748/49). Isaak Wetzlars pietistisches Erneuerungsprogramm des Judentums (with Rebekka Voss, Hamburg, forthcoming).

  How to quote this article:
Marion Aptroot, “Introduction,” in Thinking Europe in Yiddish, ed. Marion Aptroot, Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n. 17, June 2020

DOI: 10.48248/issn.2037-741X/1638