Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

The YIVO Encyclopedia

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

The YIVO Encyclopedia

Article excerpt

The YIVO Encyclopedia Gershon David Hundert, editor in chief. The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jew¿ in Eastern Europe, 2 volumes. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 2008. Pp. xxviii + 2,400; 32 pp. of plates.

With the participation of 450 scholars from sixteen countries, guided by a thirty-four- member editorial board, these two marvelous volumes cover a wide expanse of time and space. By providing information on a host of topics, they offer a portrait and an interpretation of an entire world. A good portion of that world has fallen, at different historical moments, within the political boundaries of the Russian state, imperial or Soviet, or within the sphere of Russian political or cultural influence. In this essay I will reflect on the Encyclopedia from my particular vantage as a historian of Russia.

As the editors of the encyclopedia themselves acknowledge, the title itself raises two central questions: Where is Eastern Europe? and Who are the Jews? Gershon David Hundert explains the reasoning behind the decisions that emerged from collective discussions, but it is worth beginning with a consideration of the choices that were made. The entries range from the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the west (Budapest, Prague, but not Vienna), to what was off-and-on Poland or Lithuania (Bialystok, Krakow, Poznan, Vilnius, Warsaw) in the middle, extending on the east to the empire of the tsars, much at some later point under Soviet rule (the now Belorussian cities of Minsk, Pinsk, Vitebsk; the now Ukrainian cities of Kiev, Odessa; the once again Russian cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow). Also included are Romania, Latvia, and Lithuania, but not Albania or Bulgaria. We visit the Crimea but not Croatia. The Baltic is in, the Balkans out.

Some of the choices are more than geographical. Moscow and St. Petersburg are needed because the policies toward the Jews under tsarist and Soviet rule emanated from the two capitals, where, also, many Jews from the western borderlands ended up. Israel and America (entries for both) were other destinations. If one tries to capture the identity of the people occupying this territory and pursuing its escape routes, other questions arise. Individual figures and families, even clans, moved about: imagine a young Jewish man beginning his life, perhaps, in a small Belorussian or Polish town, heading for the Polish- or Russian-speaking capitals (Warsaw, Moscow); or taking ship for New York, returning to Vitebsk, let us say, to marry a sweetheart, hunkering down in Bessarabia, settling in Palestine, after a stint in Berlin or Paris along the way. He is Eastern European by some critical measure.

Many do not escape the region or want to, but there were other boundaries they crossed. At the starting point inside the Russian empire, some Jews orient toward Polish language and culture, or, while retaining a separate religious identity, restrict themselves to the territory of Poland under Russian rule; others wander between Russian Poland and Russia proper, sometimes following the path of education or culture, sometimes the call of radical movements and political parties. We see both sides of the imperial Jewish profile: while most crowded into the Pale (and the Polish provinces), considerable numbers penetrated the host cultures (the "selective integration" that Ben Nathans, a contributor, has charted).1 The description of the poet Eduard Bagritskii (Eduard Dziubin, 18851934) as "a profusely talented transgressor of boundaries - Jewish, Russian, and Soviet" (Maxim D. Shrayer, 1:110) applies to others as well.

Boundaries are difficult to draw. The question of who counts as Jewish is difficult, too. Some individual figures emerged from Jewish families, were raised in the Jewish tradition, and either drew sustenance from it later in life or rejected it outright (the pathos of rejection is still a Jewish story). Some were raised in families of Jewish origin that were already far from any religious or even cultural sense of being Jewish. …

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