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Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire

Jeffrey Veidlinger

Publication Year: 2009

In the midst of the violent, revolutionary turmoil that accompanied the last decade of tsarist rule in the Russian Empire, many Jews came to reject what they regarded as the apocalyptic and utopian prophecies of political dreamers and religious fanatics, preferring instead to focus on the promotion of cultural development in the present. Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire examines the cultural identities that Jews were creating and disseminating through voluntary associations such as libraries, drama circles, literary clubs, historical societies, and even fire brigades. Jeffrey Veidlinger explores the venues in which prominent cultural figures -- including Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Moykher Sforim, and Simon Dubnov -- interacted with the general Jewish public, encouraging Jewish expression within Russia's multicultural society. By highlighting the cultural experiences shared by Jews of diverse social backgrounds -- from seamstresses to parliamentarians -- and in disparate geographic locales -- from Ukrainian shtetls to Polish metropolises -- the book revises traditional views of Jewish society in the late Russian Empire.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: The Modern Jewish Experience


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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

I have benefited enormously from all my colleagues at Indiana University in the Robert A. and Sandra S. Borns Jewish Studies Program, the History Department, and the Russian and East European Institute. In particular, I am grateful to Matthias Lehmann, Ben Eklof, and Dov-Ber Kerler for their thoughtful comments ...

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A Note on Transliteration

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pp. ix

This book discusses people and places that existed in multilingual environments. Proper names varied depending upon personal inclination and audience and were expressed alternatively in Hebraic, Cyrillic, and Latin alphabets. Even within these alphabets pronunciation varied vastly, ...

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Introduction: Jewish Public Culture

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pp. xi-xviii

Speaking before the All-Russian Zionist Congress in Minsk in 1902, the Zionist thinker Ahad Ha-Am (One of the People), the pen name of Asher Ginzburg (1856–1927), identified two strands of national culture: objective and subjective. He defined objective culture as “the concrete expression of the best minds of the nation in every period of its existence” ...

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1 The Jews of This World

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pp. 1-23

In 1910, Jewish cultural critic A. Mukdoyni (Alexander Kapel, 1878– 1958) wrote of the “this-worldnik” (Yiddish: oylem ha-zenik) who “takes advantage of and enjoys with great appetite all the pleasures of life.”1 “The old generation with its great asceticism has died out,” he declared “and a new generation has arisen, ...

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2 Libraries: From the Study Hall to the Public Library

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pp. 24-66

In 1918, Soviet Yiddish writer Yekhezkl Dobrushin portrayed a scene enacted in cities, towns, and shtetls throughout the Pale as young enthusiasts banded together to establish libraries. “It was not long ago, ten years ago. A small-town young man established a Yiddish library. ...

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3 Reading: From Sacred Duty to Leisure Time

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pp. 67-113

In his seminal work The English Common Reader, Richard Altick suggested new approaches to studying reading habits. In addition to compiling statistical data on book publishing, Altick encouraged historians to uncover the stories of how common readers selected their reading material, ...

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4 Literary Societies: The Culture of Language and the Language of Culture

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pp. 114-140

Literary societies were the foremost means by which Jews in the early-twentieth-century Russian Empire organized for cultural activity in the public arena. They provided forums for community discussions, defined and delimited the terms of public debate, ...

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5 Cultural Performance: The People of the Book and the Spoken Word

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pp. 141-164

When in 1972 the anthropologist Milton Singer recalled his earlier travels through India in search of the “ethos” or “world view” of the people of Madras as they adapted to the modernization of India, he noticed “the centrality and recurrence of certain types of things. ...

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6 Theater: The Professionalization of Performance

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pp. 165-195

Even before theater activists of the early twentieth century began to see the theater as a mystical conduit to another world, the role of theater on the path to cultural refinement and sophistication was well established in this world. As Russian theater critic Ivan Ivanov declared in 1899: ...

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7 Musical and Dramatic Societies: Amateur Performers and Audiences

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pp. 196-228

In the shtetls that dotted the Pale of Jewish Settlement and the Kingdom of Poland, it often seemed as though every young Jewish man and woman was striving to become cultured and modern. “My shtetl longed for beauty,” wrote Moyshe Olgin in his nostalgic portrait of an anonymous Ukrainian town. ...

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8 The Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society: Collecting the Jewish Past

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pp. 229-260

Recent scholarship has acknowledged the dominant role that remembrance of the past and evocation of history plays in public culture and the formation of national identity. Nineteenth- and early- twentieth- century historians have often been credited with creating a “usable past” ...

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9 Public History: Imagining Russian Jews

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pp. 261-282

The historians associated with the JHES regarded history as a tool for advancing their vision of the present and disseminating research about the past. Although they preferred to think of themselves as contributors to a professional field that relied on scientific values, ...

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Conclusion: This World and the Next

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pp. 283-292

For the Jewish community of the Russian Empire, the Great War was a battle between this world and the next. Fighting on the side of this world were the innumerable relief organizations, international aid societies, hospitals, soup kitchens, theater societies, literary groups, artists, and ordinary people ...


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pp. 293-338


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pp. 339-360


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pp. 361-382

E-ISBN-13: 9780253002983
E-ISBN-10: 0253002982
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253352873

Page Count: 408
Illustrations: 18 b&w photos, 1 map
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: The Modern Jewish Experience