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American Jewish History 88.3 (2000) 427-429

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Imagining Russian Jewry: Memory, History, Identity. By Steven J. Zipperstein. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1999. xii + 139 pp.

In this memorable book Steven J. Zipperstein explores what he regards as the necessary intersection of the historian's craft with popular assumptions about the past held in the Jewish imagination. Since Simon Dubnow in the late nineteenth century, Zipperstein argues, historians of the Russian Jewish experience have pitted their "modulated and contextual scholarship" against "a distorted and severely constrained collective memory" (p. 89). This imposed dichotomy between history and memory is false, according to Zipperstein. And in four self-consciously personal essays (which were originally conceived as public lectures), he issues a call for historical writing that balances critical scrutiny, self-awareness, and engagement.

The Russian Jewish past that preoccupies Zipperstein in this volume and his other writings is especially fertile ground for understanding the interplay between history and memory. American Jews retain particularly vivid images of the Old World - a "surplus of memory" - which have shifted over the course of the last hundred years. During the first decades of the twentieth century, Russia came to be seen in the United States almost entirely in dark terms. For instance, the words "pogrom" and "Cossack" entered the American Jewish lexicon early on, functioning as mnemonic devices that conjured up a coherent, bleak portrait of Jewish life in Russia. Later, too, while "pogrom" would continue to serve as an influential metaphor for Russian Jewish life, from mid-century, Russia would also come to remind American Jews of good as well as bad things. As Zipperstein puts it, "Russia, the locus of pogroms, was now also the site of the shtetl" (p. 5).

The shtetl is the focal point of Zipperstein's first and strongest chapter: "Shtetls Here and There," an absorbing literary analysis that draws on, what has become standard, fiction for students of American Jewish history. Besides imaginative works by Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yezierska, and Philip Roth, Zipperstein dwells on the wildly popular play Fiddler on the Roof to "provide insight into moments of Jewish life that fall between the cracks of . . . historical narratives about American Jewry" (p. 19). He posits that, since the 1950s and '60s, Russia has enjoyed a "heightened sentimentality" among Jews in the United States as a result of the Holocaust, the search for identity and place in postwar America, and the geographical dispersion of a formerly urban American Jewry. An inspired comparison of Fiddler and Roth's "Eli, the Fanatic" [End Page 427] rounds out the essay and demonstrates that Zipperstein is equally at home in the worlds of literature and history.

The sweeping vista (of primary sources) that Zipperstein opens up in his first essay is considerably narrowed in the second, "Reinventing Heders." Focusing once again on the transformation of a familiar Russian-Jewish metaphor, the author scrutinizes the transcripts of teachers' meetings held between 1902 and 1904 sponsored by the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment among Jews in Russia (Obshchestvo dlia rasprostraneniia prosvescheniia mezhdu evreiami v Rossii). At the turn of the century, the typical criticism of the heder as "a classroom filled with death" (p. 42) metamorphosed into descriptions of endearing schools of yore worthy of preservation. It would seem that as hadarim neared extinction, the real prospect of facing the future without them, turned even their harshest opponent into their supporter. The highpoint of this essay, it should be noted, is Zipperstein's useful explanation of the slippery term "nationality" within the complicated context of the multinational Russian Empire.

"Remapping Odessa," the third essay of the collection, represents the author's attempt to chart, retrospectively, his observations about his own historical interests and writing. While the meditation on selectivity and subjectivity is admirable for its honesty, it is in the fourth and final chapter, "On the Holocaust," that Zipperstein returns directly to his initial concern with the relationship between history and memory.

Unlike the other chapters that were originally presented as the Samuel and Althea Stroum Lectures at the University of Washington...


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