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  • Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture, 1918-1930
  • Harriet Murav
Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture, 1918-1930, by David Shneer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 300 pp. $45.00.

The study of Russian-Jewish culture in the twentieth century is undergoing a major revision. Scholars are increasingly moving away from the tragic view of Jewish victimization that long dominated the field, and are instead developing alternative approaches that give greater emphasis to what Russian Jews created and built as members of Soviet society. Among recent studies that take this revisionist stance may be included, for example, Yuri Slezkine's The Jewish [End Page 153] Century, Gennady Estraikh's In Harness, and Jeffrey Veidlinger's The Moscow State Yiddish Theater. David Shneer's Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture makes a significant contribution to this new trend by offering in the place of the standard tragic narrative of Soviet Jews a fresh picture of the creation of a culture that was both Soviet and Jewish, but Jewish in a new way, with crucial changes to Jewish models of time, space, and identity. The Yiddish language itself was key to the Jewish intelligentsia's view of the possibilities for Jewish peoplehood in the new classless society. In focusing on Yiddish print culture in particular, including, graphic and visual material, the book tells the story of Soviet Jewish culture differently from the way it has been told before, and offers a detailed explanation as to why it should be told differently. One of the most crucial points Shneer makes has to do with the self-creation and self-regulation of secular Soviet Jewish culture in Yiddish. The standard picture of the tragic opposition between the Soviet state and the Yiddish writer is false, according to Shneer, because Jews were part of the Soviet state and controlled their own cultural activity, at least in the period in question. Unlike other studies that focus on nationality policy from the perspective of the center, Shneer offers a detailed and cogent picture of the people, institutions, publication venues, literary groups, ideology, major battles, and literary works that were central to Soviet Yiddish print culture in the early years of the Soviet Union. The work provides an in-depth history of Yiddish, which, while focusing on the modernization of Yiddish in the Soviet period, also contextualizes the Soviet-era controversies in light of the nineteenth-century trajectory of Yiddish and the language wars of the earlier period. By providing a detailed explanation of the Yiddish publishing industry, its internal censorship apparatus, and the numerous Yiddish writers' groups, framed by a discussion of the parallel Russian literary circles, Shneer offers a densely textured narrative of the history of Yiddish literature as an institution, providing, in addition, some discussion of comparable developments of other so-called national literatures. Finally, the book gives portraits of the great writers and critics of the era, focusing particularly on the poet Izi Kharik. It is in his discussion of Kharik that Shneer is particularly successful in demonstrating that Soviet Yiddish literature was not merely "national in form, socialist in content" but was instead deeply engaged with Jewish literary forms and tropes, Jewish tradition, and with current trends in Russian literary modernism. Not political zealotry, but ambivalence, specifically between yearning for the new society and mourning the loss of the old, dominated Kharik's work. Kharik, according to Shneer, offers a window into the "simultaneous psychological process of self-creation an self-destruction" that was so characteristic of Yiddish writers of the era (p. 184). [End Page 154]

All students of Soviet Yiddish interested in revising the lachrymose view face the problem of telling the end of the story of Soviet Yiddish culture. Instead of the conventional conclusion, Shneer offers a reflection on this central question in the afterward of his study. He points out that the centralization of control over culture in the early 1930s did not mean the end of Soviet Yiddish. Shneer also emphasizes the ambivalence with which the Jewish intelligentsia regarded their own project. The question may be raised, however, as to whether Shneer in some way ends up embracing the tragic...


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