Making Jews Modern: The Yiddish and Ladino Press in the Russian and Ottoman Empires

Article excerpt

Sarah Abrevaya Stein. Making Jews Modern: The Yiddish and Ladino Press in the Russian and Ottoman Empires, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004. 328 pp. Photographs. Notes. Index.

The first scholars of the modern Jewish experience, themselves German Jews, created an historical narrative that placed Germany, and their own process of emancipation and acculturation, at its centre. The modernization of East European Jewry was seen as incomplete or non-normative. Later, the first generation of East European Jewish historians would define their own unique struggles and transformations as quintessential, thereby bypassing the stories of Western or Eastern Jewries. In this impressive book, Sarah Abrevaya Stein highlights the multivalent and complex qualities of the process of modernization by comparing the paths of Russian and Ottoman Jews.

Stein's entrée into the subject is close examination of the first daily newspapers in the Jewish vernaculars of Yiddish and Ladino. In her introduction Stein argues that the popular press has been utilized for concrete historical facts, but undervalued as "an agent of historical change" (p. 4). She therefore seeks to use Der fraynd (St. Petersburg, Warsaw, 1903-13) and El tiempo (Constantinople, 1872-1930) to study the process of transformation within these two major Jewish communities.

Stein articulates the tremendous potential for comparative work most completely in her epilogue:

The most exciting possibility afforded by the comparative study of Jewish history is of fathoming the coincidence of heterogeneity and consistency that has marked modern Jewish culture. This exercise allows us to unravel certain inherited dichotomies that have defined the field of Jewish history, and Russian, Ottoman, European, and Middle Eastern history along with it. By illuminating new linkages between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and between Europe, Russia, and the Middle East, this process challenges the notion that there existed "Eastern," "Western," "European," or "Levantine" ways of being (p. 214).

Indeed the book does cause the reader to examine both Ottoman and Russian Jewish societies in a new light. The first two chapters trace the origins of what Stein terms "newspaper culture" in both Jewish communities. By juxtaposing these two chapters, and including a wealth of contextualizing scholarship. Stein induces her readers to note both the convergences and divergences of modernization.

As most of us specialize in only one geographical area, this can be very enlightening. We learn, for example, that while both Russian and Ottoman Jews expressed ambivalence, and even derision, for their vernaculars, both also succeeded, and nearly simultaneously, in creating robust popular presses in those very languages. At the same time, however, the orientations of the press organs, in particular with regard to politics and the ruling authorities, were markedly different.

Two additional sets of paired chapters round out the book. …