3. Yiddish Writers/German Models in the Early Twentieth Century
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66 Chapter 3 Yiddish Writers/German Models in the Early Twentieth Century Jeffrey A. Grossman The standard accounts of Yiddish-­ German relations in the early twentieth century tend to focus on how fraught they were with tensions, misunderstanding, and at times even antagonism. German Jews stereotyped theYiddish language, or some variant thereof, as the expression of a distorted kind of Jewish existence , reminiscent of ghetto life, while at the same time viewing the Yiddish-­ speaking Jews of eastern Europe (Ostjuden) as the living embodiment—­ and bad memory—­ of the ghetto itself, a world from which German Jews had escaped only a few generations earlier.1 If feelings of kinship or guilt or enlightened self-­ interest might mitigate feelings of disdain, the argument goes, German Jews still perceived the Yiddish language as a sign of eastern Jewish Otherness, a lack of Bildung, or worse. Even where the view turned positive, it remained caught in a projection of romantic fantasy and nostalgia.2 With regard toYiddish literature, one reads that though they produced “translations of the older generation of ‘classical Yiddish writers,’” German Jews “took no notice ” of the younger avant-­ garde (Yiddish) writers living in Germany3 —­a criticism mitigated, however, by a glance at North America where the situation in this period was not much different.4 If one reverses the direction to considerYiddish responses to German, the situation changes: despite popular negative stereotypes of German Jews that only grew worse in response to Nazism and the Holocaust, Yiddish writers often turned to German and German-­ Jewish culture in search of models to emulate .5 This was true from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, when the models of Enlightenment culture promoted by Moses Mendelssohn and his adherents held sway in eastern Europe. Those models went into decline in the late nineteenth century, according to Israel Bartal, but by the early twen- Yiddish Writers/German Models in the Early Twentieth Century    67 tieth century Yiddish writers again responded positively to German literary models, if not necessarily in the Enlightenment mode—­ that is, to figures like Heine, Rilke, and Hofmannsthal, as well as Nietzsche and the German expressionists , among others. The aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution , namely uprisings and pogroms in the Ukraine, prompted various Jewish intellectuals from the East, including a number of Yiddish writers, to move to Berlin, a movement aided by the rise of Berlin as a center for Yiddish book publishing. The Yiddish intellectuals, included, for instance, Sholem Asch, known for his nostalgic romanticizing of shtetl life; historians Simon Dubnow and Elias Tscherikover; the linguists Nokhem Shtif and the young Max Weinreich ;6 the poet Moyshe Kulbak; and avant-­ garde writers from Russia and the Ukraine like Lev Kvitko, David Bergelson, or Der Nister (“The Concealed One,” pseudonym for Pinkhes Kahanovitsh, 1884–­ 1950). Additionally, North American writers like Avrom Reyzen, Joseph Bovshover, Moyshe Leyb Halpern , Zishe Landoy, and Anna Margolin, and to some degree those associated with the “In Zikh” (“Introspectivist”) movement, also looked at times to German models. Even as it generally acknowledges this response, however, most literary scholarship on the topic remains cursory at best, while becoming in some cases overtly dismissive. Thus, one critic writes that though he lived in Berlin from 1921 to 1933, one can detect little positive impact of German writing on David Bergelson.7 Another acknowledges the influence of Heinrich Mann’s Professor Unrat on Der Nister’s story “Unter a ployt” (“Behind a Fence,” 1929), only to dismiss it and hence miss one of the key innovations Der Nister introduces into his important and formally complex story. In the following essay, I first revisit the rise of the negative stereotype of the German Jew, hoping thereby to show the complexity of the issue. I then turn to several cases, including those of Bergelson and Der Nister, to suggest why the response to German models, though by no means unified or exclusive, plays an important role in making sense of avant-­ garde Yiddish writing at this time. According to Israel Bartal, the negative stereotype of the German Jew or “Yeke” who looks with condescension upon the Yiddish-­ speaking East European Jew, transmitted in part through modern Yiddish literature, arose in the second half of the nineteenth century. At that time, the idealized model of German rationalism and culture developed by the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) in eastern Europe collided with East European Jews’ actual negative encounters with German Jews—­ encounters arising with migrations westward beginning in...


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Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Germany -- History.
  • Germany -- Emigration and immigration.
  • Jews, German -- Foreign countries.
  • Jews, German, in literature.
  • Germany -- Civilization -- Jewish influences.
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