Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

When Culture Became the New Torah: Late Imperial Russia and the Discovery of Jewish Culture

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

When Culture Became the New Torah: Late Imperial Russia and the Discovery of Jewish Culture

Article excerpt

Brian Horowitz. Jewish PhUantbropy and Enlightenment in Late-Tsarist Russia. A Samuel and Althea Stroum book. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009. Pp. ix + 342.

James Loeffler. The Moot Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010. Pp. xi + 274.

Kenneth B. Moss. Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009. Pp. ? + 384.

Jeffrey Veidlinger. Jewish Publoe Culture in the Late Russian Empire. The Modern Jewish Experience. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. Pp. xviii + 382.

IT WAS A time when approximately 40 percent of the world's Jews lived in a great empire in decline, where the shifting meaning of Jewish identity in the modern world, the role of Zionism, and the very future of Judaism, itself were all hotly debated in publications, conferences, and other venues. A time when wealthy Jewish patrons, troubled by a sense of unfolding crisis, funded surveys of the Jewish community and helped to establish a wide range of educational and philanthropic initiatives, often collaborating with scholars, who were themselves creating a veritable renaissance of what we would today call Jewish studies. A time when Jewish writers, artists, and musicians were producing a host of new works inspired by the coming together of Jewish tradition and contemporaiy intellectual and artistic sensibilities. In short, it was- in these important respects, at least - a lot like now.

Despite the many profound differences between the Jews of late imperial Russia and those of the contemporary United States, both groups share a common feature that makes this comparison possible: the critical role of culture as a - and for many Jews, the - defining category of Jewish experience and identity. Today, we are used to employing the phrase "Jewish culture" as if its existence were self-evident. But like so many phenomena that seem natural, the concept of Jewish culture actually possesses a long and frequently contentious history of its own, one in which the period leading up to the Russian Revolution served as an important watershed and, in a genealogical sense, as an ancestor to the present-day valorization of Jewish culture.

In his recent study of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (Obshchestva dlia Rasprostraneniia Prosveshcheniia Mezhdu Evreiami ? Rossii), or OPE, Brian Horowitz has explored the ways in which liberal Jewish philanthropists and those whom they supported (as opposed to radical Jewish political parties) sought to promote their own unifying vision of Jewish culture during the late imperial period. He has argued that the questions they struggled with are just as relevant today: "It is my conviction that the ideas about Jewish modernity under consideration here resonate in our own time. In contemporary America, Jews debate issues of synthesis between traditional and modern, collective and private life. They discuss the elements in a Jewish education and the role of Jewish culture in the formation of identity. This study offers a model of individuals and institutions struggling with the concern so central to contemporary Jews in America and around the world: how to foster the development of the Jewish nation while fully integrating into modern society. "'

In this essay, I will explore the nexus between two interrelated "discoveries" of Jewish culture. The first took place in the final decades of the Russian Empire and, as Kenneth Moss has recently argued in his book Jew L) h Renaissance in the Riujian Revolution, continued during the 1917 Revolution. Like many discoveries, this one owed at least as much to changing perceptions and definitions as it did to an encounter with the new. In other words, Russian Jews discovered what had, to some extent, always been right under their noses. The initial shift, then, was partly epistemologica! and taxonomic: to what conceptual category did Jewish values, music, tales, sayings, customs - and, in the case of Yiddish, language itself - belong? …

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