Kafka and Cultural Zionism: Dates in Palestine

By Gelber, Mark H. | Shofar, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Kafka and Cultural Zionism: Dates in Palestine


Gelber, Mark H., Shofar


Kafka and Cultural Zionism: Dates in Palestine, by Iris Bruce. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007. 262 pp. $65.00.

Iris Bruce has presented us with an important book about Kafka and Zionism, which makes it possible for readers in English to gain the most comprehensive understanding to date of his personal and literary relationship to the ideology and cultural expressions of this Jewish-national movement. Her stated goals are "to lay out the formative influences (family and personal history, historical events, readings, cultural interests, and activities) that led Kafka to become engaged in Zionist activities and to compare and contrast his practical, cultural Zionism with the beliefs and convictions of other contemporary Zionists" (p. 4). In fact, she accomplishes much more than these aims. A fair amount of scholarly attention has been given to the topic of Kafka and Zionism over the years, and Iris Bruce draws on, and acknowledges her indebtedness to, die scholarly foundation which has been laid in the past. Despite the efforts of many scholars, Kafka's very strong Jewish and Zionist interests seem to be known only to a limited readership or appreciated by a small group of specialists. Why this resistance continues to be the case requires separate consideration. The various Jewish and Zionist contexts of his life and writings, even when noted cursorily by representatives of the vast empire of the Kafka industry, have been neither sufficiently explicated nor integrated into the numerous biographical accounts and ambitious studies of his writings and career.

In any case, Bruces study does not rely solely on previous scholarship as much as it extends its reach considerably, adding a good amount to what has been known until now. Even in the case of Kafka's relationship to the Yiddish Theater or to Hugo Bergmann and his cultural Zionism, as well as its indebtedness to M. J. Berdyczewski, Bruce adds palpably to what we already know. I think it is fair to say that this study is the first to attempt to present a comprehensive, overall picture of this aspect of Kafka's life and works, and it is certainly the most learned. Bruce charts the process and progress of Kafka's Jewish and Zionist education, and she has followed in his footsteps to some extent. Having read the books he did or the published lectures of those public lectures he attended, as well as the correspondence and secondary literature, she is largely successful in reconstructing the pathways and trajectory of Kafka's Zionist orbit. She knows mote about it, including hardly accessible and intimate details, than anyone else has demonstrated so far. Her knowledge of Judaism, the Jewish textual tradition, Jewish life, Zionism, antisemitism, Chassidism, German-Jewish literature, Yiddish literature and more, in relation to Kafka and Prague, is quite extensive and impressive.

Bruces basic strategy is to delineate the Zionist discourses characteristic of Prague and Central Europe during Kafka's lifetime, within the context of the plethora of cultural discourses common to this same cultural space where Kafka perfected and negotiated his expressive and literary talents. Bruces fundamental thesis is that the Zionist discourses were privileged in Kafka's scheme of things, and they played a central role in terms of Kafka's life, consciousness, and activities, but also regarding his writing. Bruce argues that Kafka's works develop and represent a counterdiscourse to the various discourses which constitute or inform his writings, that is, even a counterdiscourse to cultural Zionism itself.

In addition to providing readers with many fascinating biographical tidbits and intimate details of Kafka's Jewish and Zionist connections, Bruce integrates them insightfully into her readings of his "writings," including work published during his lifetime (for example in the Prague Zionist newspaper Selbstwehr or in Martin Buber's Der Jude), but also including Kafka's posthumous writings, his correspondence, his diaries, etc. …

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