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Higher education for imperial Russian Jews.

Cecile Esther Kuznitz, YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture: Scholarship for the Yiddish Nation. 307 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. ISBN-13 978-1107014206. $95.00.

Today, higher education is often taken for granted, but for national movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, a university using the nation's native tongue was a key demand. Czechs, for example, won their own section of Charles University in Prague in 1882. Similarly, some courses at the university in Lemberg/L'viv/Lwow were offered in Ukrainian from the 1870s. (1) For Jews--as usual--matters were more complicated. Among the factors contributing to the complexity were the development of both modern Hebrew and Yiddish as national languages, starkly divergent Jewish political groupings, and the muddled issue of the religious--cultural-linguistic elements that would make up the modern Jew. Furthermore, a large portion of educated Jews denied the need for a specifically Jewish institution of higher learning altogether. In any case, it was only after the collapse of empires in 1917-18 and the construction of would-be nation-states that the creation of a modern Jewish university became an urgent possibility. (2)

Cecile Kuznitz's book focuses on the single most famous center of modern Yiddish scholarship, YIVO, which began work in Wilno (the city's Polish name, Vilna in Yiddish, today's Vilnius) in 1925. YIVO in Wilno lasted just over a decade before being closed down and then destroyed--along with most of Jewish Vilna--in the terrible years after September 1939. The influence of YIVO lives on, however, to this day, in part because of the transfer of the institution to New York, where it continues to exist and prosper into the 21st century. Remarkably, given the importance of this institution and its myth for Jewish studies, Kuznitz's is the first full-length study of YIVO in any language. Her work is more than just an institutional study of a major center of Jewish scholarship. It also provides insight into the development of modern Jewish identity and, in particular, of a secular Yiddish-speaking alternative that was almost entirely destroyed by the Holocaust.

The story of YIVO, as this book's subtitle suggests, really encompasses the "history of the Yiddish nation." In 1900, it would have been quite difficult--at least in the context of Eastern Europe, including the Russian Empire--to distinguish the "Yiddish" and the "Jewish" nations (in Yiddish the words are the same). (3) A quarter-century later, when YIVO was founded, that distinction would have been far more apparent, and looking ahead another generation, in 1950, very few would have spoken of a "Yiddish nation" except in a nostalgic sense. Of course, no one could have predicted the cataclysm of 1939-45, but already in the 1920s many were concerned about the future of Yiddish. Long the main language for Ashkenazic Jews, even in the first generations of emigration, the status and continued importance of Yiddish was called into question during the interwar period by linguistic acculturation and the growing strength of modern Hebrew as a language and ideology. Only with a strong Yiddish-language school system, including higher education, could Yiddish retain its importance in the modern world. This is the context in which YIVO was born.

Kuznitz begins her book, appropriately, with a chapter on scholarship on Yiddish before YIVO. In the later 19th century, Yiddish had established itself--not without considerable effort and controversy--as a literary language. But scholarship? To be sure, in the years preceding World War Es outbreak, S. An-sky (Shloyme Zaynvi Rapoport) had carried out ethnographic studies in Ukraine using Yiddish, but--as in Lithuanian, Slovak, Ukrainian, and other nonstate languages of the period--scientific literature and even vocabulary in Yiddish was underdeveloped. (4) One of the explicit purposes for which YIVO was founded was to develop this side of the language.

As Kuznitz makes clear, a number of obstacles--financial, political, even mental--stood in the way of the development of Yiddish scholarship. Zionists and assimilationists had long disdained the language, and postwar governments rarely honored their stated commitment (in the minorities treaties of 1919) to support education in nonstate languages. Then there was the alternative Soviet example, which in the 1920s did more to support Yiddish education and scholarship than any other government. (5) Another persistent difficulty was the constant problem of money: that is, the lack of funding for the kind of ambitious Yiddish scholarship advocated by two of this book's heroes, Nokhem Shtif and Max Weinreich. Shtif in particular, who combined a lack of traditional scholarly prestige and prickly personality with a fanatical commitment to Yiddish scholarship, played a vital role in the creation of YIVO. Weinreich, a much more famous scholar, headed the institute from the start and oversaw its transfer to New York after 1939.

Shtif's initial hope for support from a rich American donor was soon dashed, but against all odds, in the summer of 1925 at a meeting in Berlin the Jewish/Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO) was founded. While funding was still not assured, the enthusiasm of colleagues in Wilno (led by Weinreich) and elsewhere saved the day. The official opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on 1 April 1925 also provided an impetus to Yiddish scholars. In part reflecting the location of leading scholars affiliated with the institute, its workings were to be divided up among Berlin, Warsaw, and Wilno. Scholarly work would be carried out in three sections: philological, pedagogical, and social-economic. A journal designed to publish research by all sections was also planned. The language of all research and publications would be the Jewish vernacular. Questions of specific research programs, pedagogy, and (as always) funding were left open. In particular the tension between a more elitist, research-centered strategy and a more populist approach (in both research and teaching) was not, and could not, be resolved easily.

In late 1925 and early 1926, in great part due to the energy and talents of Max Weinreich and other colleagues in Wilno, YIVO began to establish itself as an actual institute, at first operating out of Weinreich's apartment. Connecting to a scholarly-popular tradition established by Semen Dubnov and continuing with An-sky, YIVO encouraged and organized ethnographic linguistic "collecting" (zameln) work. Part of this "collecting" activity involved expeditions to investigate linguistic and cultural practices, but an even greater aspect was bibliographical and, one might say, organizational: historical artifacts and documents were gathered and catalogued, and a bibliography of Yiddish books was begun. Reflecting YIVO's commitment to developing a proper standardized Yiddish, the Terminological Commission began work in October 1925, concerning itself with establishing a proper Yiddish vocabulary for all aspects of life, work, and science, as well as setting down norms of spelling (in the end, the commission opposed the Soviet standard that eliminated traditional, nonphonetic norms for the spelling of words taken from Hebrew). In cooperation with local Yiddish schools in Wilno, already in these initial years YIVO had a major impact on Yiddish scholarship and learning.

At YIVO's founding, as we have seen, no single location was set down for the institute. Kuznitz devotes a chapter to explaining why very quickly the center of operations moved to Wilno. The energetic presence of Max Weinreich, a large Yiddish-speaking population, and the mystique of the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" all came together to make the city "the capital of Yiddishland." Within a year or two of the institute's official founding, the great bulk of its activities were being carried out here, something that could not have been foreseen in the early 1920s. Most crucial of all, following a great deal of hard work in obtaining funding from private individuals and organizations as well as a number of (Polish) city governments, YIVO purchased a lot on Wiwulski Street in Wilno in 1928 and, just as the worldwide depression hit, construction was begun on a new, modern center for the institute. Despite extreme financial difficulties, the impressive new modern "temple of Yiddish scholarship" opened its doors in January 1933, just days before Adolf Hitler was sworn in as German chancellor. The building itself and its location, outside but within easy walking distance of Vilna's traditional Jewish core--a modern, airy, and dignified setting for scholarly work and exhibitions-reflected YIVO's mission and self-image.

YIVO's work in the 1930s, Kuznitz convincingly argues, reflected the crisis of that decade and attempted to "forge intellectual weapons" to strengthen and inspire the Jewish people. During this decade, despite continual battles to finance even minimal operations, publications like the Yedies (News, the institute's newsletter) and Shriftn were joined by monographs and, from 1931, YIVO bleter, which aimed to broaden readership beyond scholars. Specialist publications like the Historishe shriftn continued to appear, though sometimes years late because of financial problems. Weinreich traveled to the United States and spent a year at Yale in the early 1930s, bringing back to Wilno new methods and approaches to social sciences. In 1934, in an effort to bring in more young scholars, the Aspirantur was founded, offering a small stipend for graduate students to pursue research under the guidance of YIVO scholars. Among the scholars who participated in this program was the young American Lucy Dawidowicz, who spent the crucial year 1938-39 at YIVO, leaving Poland days before the Nazi/Soviet invasion. (6) Reflecting its interest in the younger generation, YIVO sponsored an autobiography competition for young Jews, allowing submissions in any language (not just Yiddish).

When Soviet tanks rolled into Wilno in September 1939, Weinreich was abroad, on his way to a scholarly conference. Deciding not to return to Wilno, he proceeded in 1940 to New York where he took the reins of YIVO in that city. Largely due to his scholarly prestige, energy, and administrative talents, YIVO survived and continued its work in that city. Kuznitz provides a short epilogue about the post-1939 period but essentially her story ends with the war. The postwar American YIVO, while retaining several key figures and managing to salvage a certain amount of the institute's library and archives, was really a new institution, facing different realities and challenges.

In under 200 pages of text, Cecile Kuznitz has provided a sophisticated narrative history of YIVO's formative years. Her study is based on extensive use of archives, YIVO's publications, and even personal interviews with individuals who worked with YIVO's "founding father," Max Weinreich. In the end, YIVO's vision of a modern, scholarly, Yiddish-speaking community was destroyed by the cruel realities of the 20th century. But the story will interest anyone who wishes to know a bit more about "roads not taken" in Jewish and East European history in this period. This book deserves a broad readership and, one hopes, will inspire young scholars to investigate in more depth various specific aspects of YIVO's scholarly mission and legacy.

Dept, of History MC 4519

Southern Illinois University

Carbondale, IL 62901 USA

(1) Paul Robert Magocsi, National Cultures and University Chairs (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980).

(2) The literature on Jewish culture, community, and identity in the Russian Empire is too large to be summed up here. See, e.g., Michael Stanislawski, For Whom Do I Toil? Judah Leib Gordon and the Crisis of Russian Jewry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); Benjamin Nathans, Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); and Jeffrey Veidlinger, Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009).

(3) The classic source on this topic is Dan Miron, A Traveler Disguised: The Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996).

(4) On An-sky and his ethnographic work, see Gabriella Safran, Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk's Creator; S. An-sky (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2010); and Nathaniel Deutsch, The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

(5) On Jewish cultural politics in the early USSR, see, e.g., David Schneer, Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Kenneth B. Moss, Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); and Elissa Bemporad, Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013)--the last reviewed in Kritika 16, 1 (2015): 211-18.

(6) Lucy Dawidowicz, From That Place and Time: A Memoir, 1938-1947 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989).
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Title Annotation:YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture: Scholarship for the Yiddish Nation
Author:Weeks, Theodore R.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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