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La Renaissance culturelle juive: Europe centrale et orientale 1897-1930.

La Renaissance culturelle juive: Europe centrale et orientale 1897-1930, by Delphine Bechtel. Paris: Belin, 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 Universite de Paris III; Gilles Rozier, author of Moyshe Broderzon: un ecrivain 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-francais 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 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 emigre 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 coterritorial languages but in Yiddish as a case of Jewish rebirth. However, that appeal by Peretz for what we may call, following Herzl, the "old-new," is not a defining characteristic of Yiddish modernism. Instead, Yiddish modernism saw Jews as embarking on an entirely uncharted path. Just how new that path actually was is not the question; what matters is how these intellectuals styled themselves and their movement, and they did not engage in a gesture parallel to those of Herzl or Buber. What Yiddishism shares with German-Jewish revival is Herderian nationalism, but that is part of Yiddishists' looking toward the West in general, and not toward Western Jewry in particular.

Thus most of what is infelicitous in this volume concerns errors of interpretation and emphasis, rather than of fact. Two mistakes, therefore, are surprising on the part of so careful a scholar as Bechtel. She identifies Mordechai as Queen Esther's brother (!), and she mistranslates the title of the Berlin Hebrew periodical He-atid as "The Past," when it means just the contrary, "The Future." And although Bechtel is as accomplished a Germanist as she is a Yiddishist, she relies on the imprecise translation of Kafka's Ein Hungerkunstler ("A Hunger Artist") as Un artiste du jeune ("A Fasting Artist") to interpret the story as relating to traditional Jewish fasting. However, Kafka never uses the term fasten and only employs hungern; the sole word in the story that even connotes religion is Martyrer, after which we read, welcher der Hungerkunstler allerdings war, nur in ganz anderem Sinn ("a martyr, which the hunger artist indeed was, though in a completely other sense"). Indeed, the story seems to ask what it could possibly mean to choose to go hungry in a modern, de-mystified (entzauberter) world where religious fasting is impossible; and the connection to Jewishness could therefore not be a traditional one but perhaps is closer to what Gilman suggests as the self-hating Jew's biologistic, racist disgust with his own body. It is surprising that Bechtel would fall into such a weak theological reading of Kafka, when the problem with such interpretations was dealt with an influential essay, read in France well beyond the circle of Kafka specialists: Kafka: Pour une litterature mineure, by the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (Paris: Minuit, 1975).

Rather than end the review with that uncharacteristically dismal moment in Bechtel's work, it is fairer to point to one of her finer moments, which also bears upon Kafka. Quite ingeniously, she interprets his parable Before the Law as an allegory of the Jew's doomed attempt to assert the rights granted to him by emancipation.

Alan Astro

Department of Modern Languages & Literatures

Trinity University
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Title Annotation:Book Reviews
Author:Astro, Alan
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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