Early Modern Yiddish and the Jewish Volkskunde, 1880–1938


As an integral part of the cultural history of German Jewry, early modern Yiddish and the literary corpus it produced found their way into the debate over the “Jewish question” in German scholarly discourse of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century. Focusing on the field of Jewish Volkskunde, or folkloristics, this paper explores the place of Yiddish in the works of two ideologically opposing camps: on the one hand, the racial perception of Jewry, which posited an essential sameness among Jews and distinguished them from the peoples around them, and on the other hand, the liberal, integrationist definition of Jewry, which emphasized German-Jewish symbiosis and the historical attachment of Jews to their non-Jewish environment. As demonstrated in the paper, the engagement of turn-of-the-century Jewish folklorists with early modern Yiddish did not derive merely from a scholarly ambition to encompass all aspects of Jewish culture, or from nostalgic longings to a bygone Jewish world. It was, to a large extent, an expression of cultural and intellectual resistance by a minority group, who attempted to promote an alternative to the hegemonic scholarly discourse of the time.