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  • Yiddish in the Cold War
  • Zachary M. Baker
Yiddish in the Cold War, by Gennady Estraikh. London: Legenda, 2008. 178 pp. $89.50.

Soviet Yiddish culture is commonly—and erroneously, as the present study amply demonstrates—regarded as having come to a definitive end on August 12, 1952, when several of its leading figures were executed together with other members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Similarly, studies of the pro-Soviet Jewish left in the United States largely concentrate on its fractious origins in the early 1920s and on its heyday during the Great Depression; its post-1945 trajectory tends to be overlooked. Yiddish in the Cold War connects both of these neglected topics by focusing on the resuscitation of institutional Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union and on relations between the revived Yiddish milieu of Moscow and its nominal supporters abroad. These connections are personified here by the figures of Arn Vergelis and Paul (Pesakh) Novick, editors respectively of the journal Sovetish heymland in Moscow and the Morgn frayhayt (Morning Freiheit) newspaper in New York.

Gennady Estraikh, professor of Yiddish Studies at New York University, is excellently situated to produce the present study. He was the managing editor of Sovetish heymland during its final years (1988-1991) and thus has firsthand familiarity with that journal and many of its writers. In addition, he has devoted much of his subsequent scholarship to investigations of "Yiddish communism" in both the Soviet and American contexts.

Yiddish in the Cold War opens with a brief Prologue that provides historical background on Yiddish communism in the Soviet Union and the United States. The reaction of Jewish communists abroad to the repressions of Yiddish writers in the Soviet Union forms the backdrop to the chapters that follow. During the late 1950s American and Canadian communists such as Novick and J. B. Salsberg sought to persuade Soviet authorities to revive Yiddish publishing, which had ceased in 1948. Their exertions took place at a time when the ranks of fellow travelers were undergoing a drastic decline. Revelations about the postwar Soviet purges of Yiddish cultural figures, the suppression of the Hungarian revolution of October 1956, and the hostile Cold War atmosphere of Senator Joseph McCarthy's America led to a rapid attrition in the ranks of Jewish communists. Beyond that, the readership base of all American Yiddish newspapers, including the Morgn-frayhayt, was steadily shrinking throughout this period.

Soviet authorities approved the launch of Sovetish heymland (a "thick journal" in Yiddish along the lines of the Russian-language Novyi mir) in 1961, and it continued to appear until the demise of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. Its editor, [End Page 190] Vergelis, comes across as a skillful apparatchik who regarded himself as the "essential man" of Soviet Jewry. Politics great and small played a key role in his editorial decisions; non-dissident writers of whom he personally disapproved were compelled to seek outlets in communist newspapers abroad, such as Folks-shtime in Warsaw and Naye prese in Paris. Nonetheless, Estraikh makes a strong case for viewing Sovetish heymland as a respectable outlet for Yiddish literary production in the Soviet Union.

Although he was considered a mediocre poet, Vergelis was a capable (if iron-handed) editor, in Estraikh's view, and his journal attracted a devoted readership both at home and abroad. What is more, at a time when no other official venue existed in the Soviet Union for teaching Yiddish, in 1981 Vergelis managed to organize a two-year training course for Yiddish writers and editors under the auspices of the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow. The success of that enterprise can be measured by the fact that, today, several of its graduates—all of them Soviet émigrés in their fifties (including Estraikh)—now write regularly for the New York Yiddish weekly Forverts. One of them, Boris Sandler, serves as that paper's editor.

Ultimately, geopolitics on a grand scale caused the alliance between Soviet and North American Yiddish communists to rupture. Novick viewed the June 1967 war as one of national survival, and his newspaper vigorously defended Israel's pre-emptive actions during that conflict. The Soviet Union, as the...


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