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  • La Renaissance culturelle juive: Europe centrale et orientale 1897–1930
  • Alan Astro
La Renaissance culturelle juive: Europe centrale et orientale 1897–1930, by Delphine Bechtel. Paris: Bélin, 2001. 319 pp.

The author of this book is one of a group of younger researchers who have done much to further academic study of Yiddish language and literature in Paris. Delphine Bechtel has established Yiddish in the conservative bastion of the German department at the Sorbonne; Carole Ksiazenicer-Matheron has incorporated Yiddish into comparative literature courses at Université de Paris III; Gilles Rozier, author of Moyshe Broderzon: un écrivain yiddish d’avant-garde (Saint-Denis: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 1999, 280 pp.), has helped reinvigorate the Medem Library in Paris. Indeed, Medem has just published the first major bilingual dictionary of Yiddish to come out in several decades: the Dictionnaire yiddish-français by Yitskhok Niborski and Bernard Vaisbrot (2002, 632 p.), which incorporates nearly all the Yiddish lexical items in Uriel Weinreich’s Yiddish-English-English-Yiddish dictionary of 1968 and Alexander Harkavy’s Yiddish-English-Hebrew dictionary of 1928, with an added number of words and expressions of Hebrew-Aramaic and Slavic origin. Niborski and Vaisbrot’s dictionary is testimony to the major importance of Paris as a present-day Yiddish academic center, perhaps following right behind New York and Jerusalem.

Bechtel’s work is also something of a landmark. It is an excellent study of the influence of Yiddish literature and Yiddish cultural models on German-speaking Jewry. For example, she goes well beyond the usual study of Hasidism in Martin Buber to consider carefully his misconstrual and mistranslation of Yiddish sources, and she couples this with examination of the little-remembered spate of translations of Yiddish literature into German in the first part of the twentieth century. Sandor Gilman, in Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), rendered our field a major service by surveying the strange symptoms wrought by the repression of Yiddish among German-speaking Jews; Bechtel goes one step further by analyzing a fruitful lifting of that repression: the [End Page 162] encounter with Yiddish literature and culture, which led some elements among German-speaking Jewry to a reinvention of their collective identity. Then Bechtel complements this study of Yiddish among German-speaking Jews with a careful examination of the Yiddish writers living in Germany: the émigré authors in Berlin after World War I, such as Kvitko, Kulbak, Bergelson and Der Nister, many of whom later settled and were liquidated in the Soviet Union.

This excellent book, unfortunately, suffers from a major flaw: its title, easily translated as “The Jewish Cultural Rebirth: Central and Eastern Europe, 1897–1930.” The title is a veritable example of deceitful marketing, by suggesting the book addresses all major Jewish developments in Europe east of the Rhine during the years indicated; however, the focus is almost exclusively on Jews living in the German-speaking lands, with developments among their fellows in Eastern Europe being presented either as background information or as parallels to German-Jewish occurrences. Indeed, the very title of the book, “The Jewish Cultural Rebirth,” comes from the name of a 1910 article by Buber, which argued for artistic and cultural renewal of Jewish life by promoting what Bechtel calls “inter-Ashkenazic contact,” between German- and Yiddish-speaking Jews. But whereas Buber and some other German-speaking Jewish intellectuals argued for alienated and assimilatory Jews to restore themselves through a connection to elements derived from a supposedly more authentic Jewish East (e.g., Hassidism in Buber’s case, the restoration of ancient Jewish territorial sovereignty in Herzl’s vision), Yiddish-speaking Jews looked westward not to restore themselves but to modernize, to accede not to a rebirth but to a revolution.

Of course, the major exception is the implantation of political Zionism in Eastern Europe, whereby a Jewish revival program from the West was adopted by Jews wishing to “re-orientalize” and authenticate themselves. But only a minority of Zionists were Yiddishists, and Bechtel’s concern lies primarily with Yiddish culture and its influence. Bechtel thus foregrounds Peretz’ urging Jews not to write in...

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pp. 162-164
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