It was by all accounts a typical evening in the Romanisches Café: four of the great Yiddish writers of the moment would have been witness to this attack against one of the most provocative Yiddish Hebrew writers committed by the eccentric grand dame (or, as she would prefer, crown prince) of Berlin’s expressionist scene. It is unclear if all of the named players were aware of one another’s presence among the other German, German Jewish, Hebrew, and Russian writers, actors, and artists who must also have been at the café that night. This volatile concentration of artistic and multilingual literary talent, and the social exchange promised by the café culture, drew aspiring creatives from across Europe. This included the young Christopher Isherwood, whose Berlin novels would seduce English readers with the alluring potential of Weimar Berlin just at the moment of ruin for both the city and the era. Weimar Berlin has continued to fascinate readers, scholars, and artists in the century since that period of decadence and creativity succumbed to fascism and devastating war.
1922–1924 was the period when Berlin’s centrifugal force acted most powerfully on the Yiddish modernists in Warsaw, Kyiv, and other towns in Poland and the newly formed socialist republics to the east. This force drew Dovid Bergelson, Leyb Kvitko, and Der Nister, three of the most prominent Yiddish writers who lived in Berlin during the Weimer era. Despite the fact that Berlin’s Yiddish-speaking population was small and made up largely of impoverished, recent refugees from Russia, it was briefly an important cultural and literary center for Yiddish. During these years, Bergelson and Der Nister (“The Hidden One,” pen name of Pinkhes Kahanovitsh) were co-editing the luxury, full-color Yiddish cultural magazine Milgroym (Pomegranate). Over 100 Yiddish books were published in the city from 1921–’23, making it second only to Warsaw as a center of Yiddish publishing. The acclaimed Vilna Troupe theatrical group was in residence in the city during these same years, employing the literally hungry young poet Moyshe Kulbak as a prompter — more about him shortly.
The Yiddish luminaries who spent two or 10 years in Berlin existed largely on a separate plane from the broader world of Weimar modernism. Or rather, they existed on one side of a one-way mirror, observing and closely following the cultural moment though rarely being seen by the German-language majority. Only a few of the Yiddish writers established relationships with their German Jewish counterparts, let alone the German Germans — Lasker-Schüler and Stencl, for instance, and Dovid Bergelson and Alfred Döblin. These rare friendships that crossed the cultural and linguistic divides separating Ostjude from Yekke (the mutually derogatory names for Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews and German Jews, respectively) signal one of the many avenues of scholarly inquiry into Weimar Berlin that continues to prove fertile: the German Jewish fascination with the Ostjude, who was somehow alike and so unlike; an authentic Jew, but also a savage or primitive Jew; a benighted Jew crying out for enlightenment, but also a bearer of true folk culture and pure religious practice. The figure of the Ostjude has been generative for the theorization of Orientalism, the role of the “Other” in European culture, and of course for tracking the rise of racial antisemitism. More recently, scholars approaching from the direction of Yiddish have returned the gaze, investigating the figure of the German Jew in Yiddish and Hebrew literature or taking a comparative approach, reading Yiddish, German, and Hebrew works together to explore the multifaceted crisis of Jewish identity in the modern period.
Two recent additions to this growing body of scholarship are Spinner’s Jewish Primitivism and Marc Caplan’s Yiddish Writers in Weimar Berlin: A Fugitive Modernism. But before I turn to these, I want to highlight a recent translation that lets English readers appreciate for themselves one of the Yiddish masterpieces of Weimar Berlin: Moyshe Kulbak’s Childe Harold of Dysna. Originally written between 1928 and 1933 and informed by Kulbak’s 1921–’23 stint in Berlin, this long poem in seven parts, totaling 62 stanzas, envelops the reader in the firsthand experience of the young Ostjude in the cosmopolitan capital of Europe, experiencing all its pleasures and suffering the subsequent hangovers, through the fog of which the crises of capitalism and national socialism begin to take shape.
Kulbak is one of the great Yiddish poets that you, English reader, cannot be blamed for never having read, because until the publication by Naydus Press of Robert Adler Peckerar’s virtuoso translation (with an evocative introduction by LARB’s Boris Dralyuk), Kulbak’s poems could only be found in a scattering of anthologies, several of which are out of print. The publication in 2013 of Hillel Halkin’s translation of Kulbak’s novel The Zelmenyaners, about an extended Jewish family during the early years of the Soviet era, was the first full English-language volume of Kulbak’s work, with an informative introduction by Sasha Senderovich, and I highly recommend it for its humorous, sympathetic, lyrical portrayal of a multigenerational family struggling to adapt to the new reality of life after the revolution.
But Adler Peckerar’s translation of Childe Harold of Dysna is in many ways a better introduction to what made Kulbak something of a poet pop idol in interwar Poland, and it has continued to draw Yiddish readers to him since his murder during Stalin’s purge of minority cultural figures in 1937. As the title suggests, Kulbak’s poem references Lord Byron as well as Heinrich Heine’s Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen in its frame of a fully modern pilgrimage to discover the heart of Europe and partake of all the wonders that Weimar Berlin had to offer. However, in this case, our young hero is Shmulik Pipeman, son of a tailor from the small provincial Jewish city of Dysna — or maybe Shklov, or Lohojsk, or Kulbak’s own hometown of Smorgon, which are all mentioned, suggesting Pipeman could be any young Jew aspiring to come west to Europe. Kulbak’s signature mixture of irony and empathy captures both the wonder and the superficiality of young Pipeman’s experiences, an effect heightened by Kulbak’s skillful control of poetic form, which Adler Peckerar has recreated splendidly in his translation. The opening stanza of part two, depicting Pipeman’s arrival in Berlin, demonstrates the springy pentameter and playful rhyme upon which float a rich array of multilingual and literary references to the cultural landmarks of Weimar Berlin:
Vivat Europa! O’er the ocean swam
Merchants from Moscow to the Kurfürstendamm;
Millionaires and check-books and wine by the barrel —
And from Lohojsk, Childe Harold.
Like all of those who have here flown,
For every moment give ye praise!
Now Pipeman stands at Bahnhof Zoo
And stares Europe in the face.
O Wond’rous Land! Where electricity passes
Through wires, and through arteries — champagne —
Where Marx and Engels cheer the working masses
And shop-keeps swear by Kant’s immortal name.
While Kulbak’s own arrival at Bahnhof Zoo took place in 1921 and his departure in 1923, it was not until after he was settled in Soviet Minsk in 1927 that he began to write (or perhaps returned to early drafts of) his Berlin poem, publishing short excerpts in the press and the complete work in book form in 1933. It is likely that the first four sections, which focus on Berlin, were drafted closer to Kulbak’s own time there, while the final three zoom out from Pipeman’s perspective and depict unrest in the city in the late 1920s. This is the focus of the long final section, “The Other Germany,” which Adler Peckerar identifies as depicting the 1929 Blutmai riots in the working-class district of Wedding, when laborers and communists clashed with police, leaving over 30 people dead and many more injured. In these final stanzas, Pipeman becomes a socialist, and it is clear the author himself is processing the failures of capitalism and Berlin’s descent into fascism from his Soviet vantage point.
Berlin is not the only location with which Kulbak engaged in his poetry; he is one of the great Yiddish poets of place, and it was something of a pattern for him to write about a place only from afar. Indeed, Kulbak wrote productively during his two penniless years in Berlin, but the city itself does not feature in those works. Instead, he was often writing about the Yiddish-speaking heartlands he had left behind. Jewish Belarus, which Kulbak made the topic of his 1922 long poem Raysn (an antiquated name for the region), had suffered devastation in the course of World War I and the civil and Polish-Soviet wars following the 1917 revolutions. In many ways, it was a place to which there was already no return. And Kulbak wasn’t alone in his avoidance of Berlin as a setting. The absence of the city from the work of Yiddish writers living there is one of the through-lines in Caplan’s Yiddish Writers in Weimar Berlin. How to explain it? Scholars have tried for a decade.
Gennady Estraikh and Mikhail Krutikov’s edited volume Yiddish in Weimar Berlin: At the Crossroads of Diaspora Politics and Culture (2010) was the first major publication in Jewish studies to put the city at the center, bringing together an impressive cohort of contemporary scholars investigating the cultural moment and its products; an earlier version of Caplan’s chapter on two of the works Kulbak wrote while in Berlin (but not about Berlin) appears here. Rachel Seelig’s Strangers in Berlin: Modern Jewish Literature between East and West 1919–1933 (2016) is important to mention as well, because, like Caplan’s and Spinner’s books, it also investigates encounters between German Jewish and Yiddish writers.
Bergelson, Der Nister, and Kulbak are the three Yiddish writers on whom Caplan focuses. Part one of his study mirrors Bergelson with Döblin and part three mirrors Kulbak with the Austrian Jewish Joseph Roth. Part two focuses on the notoriously difficult symbolist stories of Der Nister, who, perhaps fittingly, is not set in front of a mirror but rather in a mirror room with the turn-of-the-19th-century figures Rebbe Nakhman of Breslov and E. T. A. Hoffman, as well as Josef von Sternberg’s Weimar era film Der Blaue Engel. The contemporaneous theorist Walter Benjamin provides the conceptual frame through which these writers are discussed, especially his “constellations” of melancholy, allegory, and the Baroque. The clearest themes in the book, however, are dislocation and homelessness, as the absence of Berlin from the work of the Yiddish writers (with some exceptions in the case of Bergelson) is understood to be a result of the fact that Berlin was only a “stopover.” All three ended up in the Soviet Union between 1926 and 1935, choosing its promise to fight antisemitism and support a revolutionary Yiddish culture over the rising nationalisms of Germany and Poland, the capitalist competition of the United States, or the Hebraist stronghold of Palestine, among other limited and equally limiting options. For all three, choosing the Soviet Union was also the closest they could come to returning home after their time in Poland and Berlin (Bergelson and Der Nister were from Ukraine, Kulbak from Belarus); but of course this was a home that had been transformed by war and revolution. Caplan writes that the Yiddish writers were not the only group in Weimar Berlin to feel out of place; to some degree every citizen of the new Weimar Republic, and certainly every artist who made their way to the cultural capital of Berlin, was homeless and dislocated from the places and ways of life made irretrievable by the first great conflicts of the 20th century. Admirably, the bulk of Caplan’s book features readings of key works by each of the Yiddish and German language writers, because, as he writes,
[W]hat is of greatest interest about their Berlin period is neither the inevitability of their departure from Germany nor their rationale for returning to the East but the aesthetic and emotional complexity of what they managed to create in the midst of their confusion and ambivalence in Germany.
While Spinner’s Jewish Primitivism is not framed by the geography or cultural concept of Weimar Berlin, many of its unassailably cool cast of characters will be familiar by now to readers of this review: Döblin, Roth, Lasker-Schüler, Grinberg (though I wouldn’t invite him to sit at my café table), and Der Nister. To these are added two of the foundational figures of modern Yiddish literature, Y. L. Peretz and S. An-sky (the latter the author of The Dybbuk), as well as the avant-garde photographer Moshé Vorobeichic, known as Moï Ver, and, for good measure, Kafka. While Berlin is still the temporary artistic incubator for many of these figures, and the question or problem of Jewish identity and especially national identity is still at the heart of the book, Spinner approaches with an answer that may seem peripheral and yet quickly convinces the reader of its pertinence. Jewish Primitivism makes a compelling and truly fresh argument for placing the phenomenon of modernist primitivism practiced by Jewish writers and artists at the center of our attempts to understand the paradoxical position of Jews and Jewish art in 20th-century Europe, and consequently the crises of nation and nationalism — for Jews and non-Jews — that underwrite the upheavals and cataclysms of the period.
Spinner begins his argument by reminding us of the set of “ineradicable differences” — black-and-white polar opposites — upon which modern European culture depends: European and foreign, Christian and pagan, science and superstition, male and female, civilized and savage, modern and primitive. The European Jew, however, troubles each of these supposedly irreconcilable oppositions. The problem is that “Jews were plausibly primitive but also plausibly European.” European primitivism was predicated upon a European subject — the observing writer or painter, usually male — inspired by a primitive object, perhaps an exotic woman who serves as an example of a foreign way of life that is pure or authentic because it exists outside the flow of progress represented by European civilization. Think Gauguin in Tahiti, aiming to escape his cultured existence, to become “savage-in-spite-of-myself.” In the examples of Jewish primitivism that Spinner explores, however, the Jew is both subject and object: the modern Jewish writer or photographer — regardless of whether they work in German, Yiddish, Hebrew, or a visual medium — is the observer of the still-existing “primitive” Jewish folk culture that was thriving not only in Poland and the Pale of Settlement, but even in Berlin itself, among those tens of thousands of recent refugees settled in the Scheunenviertel neighborhood. Thus, “[u]nlike European primitivism more broadly, which sought to replace the European subject with the primitive object, Jewish primitivism was the struggle to be both at once — European and foreign, subject and object, savage and civilized.”
Spinner explores a number of examples of this richly paradoxical Jewish primitivism, including the multimedia and gender-troubling work of Lasker-Schüler; those same challenging stories by Der Nister, which are here given a beautiful formal reading; An-sky’s grand ethnographic expeditions to the “Jewish Dark Continent” and his resulting masterpiece, The Dybbuk; and two of Kafka’s most discussed stories, “Before the Law” and “A Report to an Academy,” which are here used to challenge the long-standing practice of setting Kafka “apart from broader trends in European Jewish literature.”
Spinner is not comparing the Ostjude and Yekke here, not focusing on how each sees the other. Instead, excitingly, he reads works written in German, Yiddish, and Hebrew — as well as works of visual art — together, as participating in the same project. This illuminates the kind of transnational Jewish experience that is often hard to bring into focus, used as we are to dividing up our study of culture based on linguistic categories that usually correspond with national identity: German, French, Russian. And that’s just it — these Jewish artists “did not fit the model of a Volk promoted by Romantic nationalism,” even though many of them and scores of other Jewish thinkers and activists were working within the concept of Volk and nation as Zionists, territorialists, or assimilationists. This study of Jewish primitivism is made relevant and meaningful by inviting us to view through this seemingly oblique lens that most aspirational and dangerous ideal of the 20th century: das Volk, the nation. The history of the 20th century offers so many examples of its triumphs and tragedies, and we continue to experience and learn from the problem of what to do with peoples who have no nation, or whose nationhood is denied. All the more reason, then, to keep our attention on this test case of European nationalism, the Jews.
This brings us back to the allure of the Weimar Berlin café, a place where nations and languages mix, where empire becomes republic, where primitive meets modern, where the Jew is European and Oriental, where gender is fluid, where a socialist and a fascist may be sitting at neighboring tables while their arguments have not yet spilled out onto the street. Both Caplan and Spinner, as well as Adler Peckerar, are mindful of and likely alarmed by the parallels between the 2020s and the 1920s, and rightly draw our attention to works of art and literature that might help us navigate our own troubled era.
Madeleine Cohen is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the president of the Board of Directors of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.