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Jewish Social Studies 6.3 (2000) 124-159

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Back to the Future: American Jews Visit the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s

Daniel Soyer

In his fictionalized account of his trip to Poland in 1934, the Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein describes how he met a fellow New Yorker who was traveling to the Soviet Union. The man, a Russian-speaking Jewish dentist, had two aims for his journey. One was to visit his native city of Odessa and to show it off to his son, who accompanied him. The second was to see a revolutionary society in action. The successful former immigrant's enlightened circle of friends avidly followed the progress of the first socialist state, and he wanted to witness it for himself. "And then there is Bolshevism!" exclaimed the dentist to Glatstein. "Now that is a difficult question. I must see how it works, how it is going. A group of us, dentists and doctors, have a club where we debate social problems. We have already debated Bolshevism from all sides." In order to prepare themselves properly for their trip, the dentist and his son pored over a copy of Red Medicine, a book written by previous medical tourists in the land of the Soviets. Glatstein also met others en route to the Soviet Union and still others who wished to go there. 1

Glatstein's fellow travelers were participants in a larger movement of tourists to the Soviet Union and other countries of Eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. In part, this stream reflected a general increase in middle-class leisure travel in the interwar period. But Eastern Europe at that time exerted a special attraction on its many natives, Jewish and non-Jewish, who had emigrated in the years prior to World War I. After a decade or more abroad, they now had the time and the [End Page 124] money to visit their old homes, which they remembered with increasing nostalgia. Indeed, during the interwar period these increasingly well-settled immigrants hammered out a new American ethnic identity, partly by looking back at their countries of origin. 2

For those whose former hometowns and regions had been incorporated into the new Soviet Union, however, a visit to the "old home" was simultaneously a journey into a new social order considered by many to be more representative of the future than of the past. 3 These travelers also joined in an overlapping stream of political tourists interested in seeing the realization of socialism. A visit to the Soviet Union thus inevitably stirred up both intense personal emotions and equally intense political passions in those returning home. A complicated calculus of longing for the old and familiar and of attraction to the revolutionary and innovative motivated such visits and the conclusions derived from them. Jewish travelers to Russia expected to judge what they saw and to report their findings, formally or informally, upon their return. They drew their conclusions by making comparisons with other societies where Jews lived, namely America, Palestine, and alternative versions of Eastern Europe, chiefly tsarist Russia and contemporary Poland. Not surprisingly, political orientation largely determined whether travelers would react positively or negatively to what they observed in Russia. The Soviet Union, after all, lay at the center of the Communist worldview, and party members and sympathizers therefore had a particular stake in seeing things there in a positive light. Others, including many Socialists, were more willing to be critical of what they witnessed.

Observers on both sides of the political divide often expressed their perceptions in terms of images of new and old worlds. Those who viewed the Soviet Union favorably generally agreed with their hosts that the country constituted a new world--young, vigorous, independent, and revolutionary. But while they celebrated the Soviet Union's unprecedented newness, the fact that this new world was taking shape within the old formed much of its appeal. It was the transformation of the old into the new that enabled Jewish Communists and sympathizers to maintain their close...


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