Jewish Social Studies 8.1 (2001) 153-198
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Jewish Culture Between Renaissance and Decadence:
Literarishe Monatsshriften and Its Critical Reception
Upon assuming the editorship of Ha-shiloah in 1902, Yosef Klaus-ner announced his plans to expand the belletristics section of the preeminent Hebrew journal. He declared: "We consider the poetic work to be an enormous spiritual power, whose influence on the development of the Israelite nation must increase," and he lamented that "[t]he Jew is still unable to get used to the notion that all poetic works are important attainments of human culture, great national values without which a nation is unworthy of the name nation." 1 This dual belief in literature's unequaled national significance and its sovereign power over hearts and minds may strike the contemporary reader as naive. A century ago, however, such notions were common currency in the burgeoning post-traditional East European Jewish cultural sphere and articles of faith for many in the Jewish intelligentsia. 2
This conception of literature was part of a larger vision of post-traditional or secular Jewish high culture that crystallized in the course of the nineteenth century. Under the influence of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment discourses about religion, politics, art, and the human subject, small but growing numbers of East European Jews began to imagine a new kind of Jewish culture in which Jewish particularity would be expressed and reconstructed through the distinctive forms of modern European high culture: literature, art, theater, and [End Page 153] attendant institutions such as the press and the modern school. This conception of "Jewish culture" constituted a fundamental break with traditional Jewish religious civilization: predicated on a rejection of the entire universe of traditional Jewish beliefs and practices, it posited a sovereign sphere of aesthetic value that was simultaneously an instrument for the reconstruction of Jewish identity in a modern, European form and the highest end of Jewish creativity in and of itself. The rise of Jewish nationalism in the late nineteenth century focused these aspirations through the discourse of "national culture." 3
The central importance of literature in this "modern Jewish culture" in the making owed something to the valorization of text and language in the traditional Jewish world from which so many of the creators and consumers of modern Jewish literature emerged. Yet, in essence, the idea of literature propounded by the East European Jewish intelligentsia was not a legacy of the Jewish tradition but an imperative derived from the intelligentsia's encounter with modern European culture. From the late eighteenth century on, adherents of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, began to cultivate new literary genres like the epic poem and satirical prose or drama in Hebrew and in a more limited sense in Yiddish as vehicles of ethical and religious instruction, intellectual enlightenment and practical education, and linguistic revitalization and aesthetic elevation (in the case of Hebrew poetry); these genres and the larger Enlightenment vision that motivated Haskalah literature were drawn from the European metropolitan cultures, particularly German culture, though they were initially also deeply rooted in the matrix of indigenous, traditional Jewish genres. From the 1850s on, this post-traditional Jewish literature, now centered in Eastern Europe, converged ever more rapidly and completely on what was by now a pan-European model of modern, secular literature with its characteristic genres and institutions, though not without sharp debates over the purpose and value of this literature in its various forms and languages. Finally, the exaltation of literature evident in the writings of Klausner and so many of his contemporaries at the turn of the century owed much to the influence of conceptions of literature prevalent in the metropolitan Russian and Polish cultures, wherein literature was accorded a quasi-religious status and the author celebrated as a creator of new values and alchemist of national consciousness. Such notions resonated especially strongly for Jewish nationalists and for writers and readers who had broken with tradition and looked to aesthetic culture as a new source of Jewish identity. 4
The aspiration to create a modern...