Cecile Esther Kuznitz, YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture: Scholarship for the Yiddish Nation. Cambridge University Press, 2014, 324 pages, ISBN: 978 110701 4206



Over the past decade, a new generation of Jewish historians has produced works that have substantially revised our understanding of the origins, spread and ideological diversity of Jewish nationalism.  Broadly stated, this new trend in historiography has replaced the older historical model of the crisis of 1881-1882 as having led to the rise of Zionism to one that contextualizes the rise of Jewish national consciousness within the growing nationalities’ struggle in the Habsburg and Tsarist empires.  As the processes of modernization and urbanization led them to create the institutional frameworks of modern culture (literature, theatre, press) in their own languages, many Jews, like other stateless nationalities, began to conceive of themselves as members of a modern nation.  Given this contextualization, it is not surprising that these scholars have concentrated on two trends-- namely cultural nationalism and the struggle for rights of national autonomy-- that Central and East European Jews shared with other historically stateless nationalities such as Ukrainians and Lithuanians.  In his Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution, Kenneth B. Moss elucidated both the internal logic and the production of Jewish cultural nationalism.  Jess Olson, Joshua Shanes, Simon Rabinovitch, and Kalman Weiser have written monographs about the origins as well as the political and cultural manifestations of Jewish Diaspora Nationalism in the late Habsburg Empire, late imperial and revolutionary Russia, and interwar Poland respectively.  In my recent book, I have described the rise and fall of both Diaspora Nationalism and Yiddishism from the time of the 1905 Revolution through the Holocaust.[1]


With the publication of Cecile Esther Kuznitz’s YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture: Scholarship for the Yiddish Nation, we now have a welcome addition to this new perspective on Jewish nationalism.  Through her in-depth study of YIVO from its founding in 1925 until the outbreak of World War Two, Kuznitz has made a major contribution to the study of the ideologies of Diaspora Nationalism and Yiddishism in particular, and to our understanding of Jewish cultural nationalism more broadly.  In five lucidly written chapters, an introduction, epilogue and conclusion, Kuznitz convincingly makes the case that YIVO was far more than a rarefied scholarly institution always on the verge of bankruptcy.  Rather, by mining largely previously unpublished sources from the YIVO archives, she makes the case that YIVO tapped into the nationalist identities and aspirations of Yiddish-speaking Jews throughout Eastern Europe and its overseas diaspora.  Kuznitz’s goal, she informs the reader in the introduction, is ‘to tell a compelling tale: how a group of dedicated scholars built an international center of Jewish culture with the help of thousands of ordinary, often desperately poor supporters.’ (14).   By shifting her focus between contemporaneous official YIVO accounts of its mission and more spontaneous comments and actions of support from East European Jews, Kuznitz argues convincingly that YIVO largely succeeded in its mission.  That mission was to produce scholarship that would study the language and culture of the East European Jewish ‘masses’, thereby infusing them with pride for their membership in the ‘Yiddish nation’ (12). 


In keeping with the emphasis of contemporary historiography, Kuznitz contextualizes the rise of Yiddishism and Yiddish scholarship as part of the linguistic nationalism of the small nations of Eastern Europe.  Having not enjoyed political sovereignty for many centuries, such small East European nationalities as the Lithuanians and the Ukrainians could stake their political claims to statehood (or at least to autonomy) through the recognition that academic study would bring to their often-disparaged languages.  Yiddishists sought to elevate the prestige of Yiddish for the same reasons, she argues.  Yet, Kuznitz’s contextualization is richer for the fact that for all its similarities, she recognizes a key difference between the Yiddishist scholarship embodied in YIVO and its East European analogues.   For the Ukrainians and Lithuanians, scholarship of the national language and culture served as the elite, avant-guard stage of nationalist movements that at a later stage produced literature and a periodical press for the masses.  In contrast, for interwar East European Jews, already the consumers of a mass Yiddish press and literature, scholarship ‘became the apex of a mass movement, “the crown of the building of secular Yiddish culture.”’ (7). 


In Chapter I, Kuznitz traces Diaspora Nationalism, Yiddishism, and Yiddish linguistic and philological study from their late nineteenth-century roots through World War I   Her personalization of the intellectual odyssey of Yiddishist scholars through a biographical sketch of YIVO’s immediate founder, Nokhem Shtif, adds layers of nuance and historical contingency to this narrative.  Chapter II tells the story of the founding of the institute more fully.  In particular, we learn about how a speech by a visiting American Yiddish scholar ‘lit the fire’ for Shtif to write a lengthy memorandum, ‘Vegn a yidishn akademishn institut’ (On a Yiddish Academic Institute) in which he envisioned an academy with four research sections and a library.  Throughout the rest of the chapter, Kuznitz demonstrates how the first target audiences of Shtif’s ideas rebuffed them: Yiddish cultural activists in America and in Berlin.  In contrast, their counterparts in Vilna, centered around the Yiddish ideologue and publicist, Zalman Reisen, and the Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich, reacted enthusiastically to the project.  These men were no less passionate than Shtif about the prospects of a Yiddish academy, but wanted also to connect it to the ‘folk’, the Yiddish speaking masses of Vilna and of Eastern Europe. 


In Chapter III, Kuznitz writes about the struggle of YIVO’s four research sections (Philology, History, Economics and Statistics, and Psychology and Pedagogy) to balance the institution’s often conflicting commitments of highbrow scholarship with service to the folk and of political non-partisanship with engagement with Yiddish-speaking society.  Zamlers (amateur collectors) proved the greatest link between the institute and the common folk.  Here, Kuznitz finds support for her thesis that YIVO’s mission of serving as a national academy for the stateless Yiddish nation resonated deeply with the impoverished East European masses.  ‘…[F]rom the poor classes, where our parents only let us bend our necks’, wrote one zamler from Grodno, there was ‘joy that we can do something to repay Yiddish literature for the tenderness and comfort it brings us in our difficult lives.’  (79). Equally compelling is Kuznitz’s relating of how the YIVO ideal of non-partisan scholarship clashed with its reality as a Diaspora Nationalist, Yiddishist institution.  Chapter IV which I analyze in greater length below, studies the ‘geography of Jewish culture’ by explaining why the institute ultimately settled in Vilna and not in Berlin.  The strength of this chapter is that it balances a cultural history of Vilna’s symbolic importance as ‘the capital of Yiddishland’ with a nitty-gritty breakdown of what Kuznitz terms the institute’s ‘geography of funding’. (112). In Chapter V, she writes about ‘Scholarship in Times of Crisis’.  Economic depression, the growing menaces of Nazi Germany and increasing Polish antisemitism and the consequent hardening of internal Jewish political divides only strengthened the resolve of YIVO leaders to retain their commitment to non-partisan scholarship, now seen as the best tool to steer the folk through an era of crisis.  If anything, the bleak final years of the interwar period witnessed an increase in the quantity of YIVO publications and programs committed to scholarship for the people.  In an epilogue, Kuznitz informs the reader about the tragic fate of YIVO during World War Two and the Holocaust and then relates the history of YIVO in New York from the late 1940s to the present. 


At the heart of the book is Kuznitz’s argument, made most forcefully in chapter four, that the reality of mass support for YIVO amongst average East European Jews matched its activists’ high rhetoric regarding its role as a national academy for the stateless Yiddish-speaking nation.  As the folkist, philologist and YIVO-affiliated scholar Noah Prylucki put it: ‘Yiddish itself is recognized as a territory, the anarchic republic with its seat in Vilna.  YIVO is the scholarly academy of the territory “Yiddish”.’ (138)  In order to ground this flowery rhetoric in reality, Kuznitz relates how Vilna gradually replaced Berlin as YIVO’s permanent home.  First choosing Berlin in hopes that a major European cultural center would attract funding, YIVO’s activists slowly abandoned this city when funding there did not prove forthcoming.  Instead, they opted for Vilna that possessed the ‘genius of place’ in East European Jewish imagination to compensate for its geographical and economic marginality as an impoverished city in the backwater of the Polish kresy (borderlands).  On a concrete level, YIVO’s leaders chose Vilna because it possessed a cadre of committed activists and a civic culture supportive of Yiddish culture.  On a deeper level, however, they opted for this city because they recognized that if they were to attract mass support for their institution of rarefied scholarship, it only could come by ‘wrap [ping] themselves in the mystique of “old, eternal Vilna”’(134).   Long referred to as ‘the Jerusalem of Lithuania’, Jewish Vilna prided itself on its role as a center of clashing layers and manifestations of Jewish culture and politics: the rabbinic tradition, Haskalah, Zionism, and the Bund.  Even before YIVO’s founding, Yiddish literati such as Moyshe Kulbak and Daniel Charney penned odes to Vilna, in which they imagined their secular literary production as the latest iteration of its spiritual, intellectual, and literary genius. 


YIVO’s founders and supporters followed in this tradition of writing themselves into the ‘golden chain of Vilna tradition.’ (134). As Kuznitz puts it, ‘…often starkly opposed influences were rhetorically woven into a seamless whole, a Diasporic counterpart to the Zionist Altneuland.’ (134)  Conceiving of secular Yiddish culture and scholarship as the most advanced link in this chain, YIVO scholars and activists advanced an ideology of triumphalist supersessionism, in which quaint but obsolete religious tradition moved aside to make room for secular Yiddish culture.  Commenting on YIVO, for instance, Daniel Charney commented that ‘students followed debates among Yiddish linguists instead of between the Talmudic sages Hillel and Shammai.’  Moreover, Charney and his like-minded contemporaries also argued that Vilna residents channeled their old passion for religious learning into this new scholarship.  As A. Ginzburg wrote, ‘Everything in Vilna has changed, even the Torahs, but the soul remained the same.’(135)


Kuznitz proves very convincing in her assertion that Vilna functioned as the capital of the imaginary territory of ‘Yiddishland’ and that thousands, perhaps more, of ordinary Yiddish-speaking Jews throughout Eastern Europe and beyond looked to YIVO as a source of national pride.  Yet, I am left wondering about several questions that await future research by cultural and social historians of interwar Polish Jewry.  How many East European Jews, including supporters of YIVO, actually subscribed fully to its Yiddishist ideology?  We can find a clue to answer this question in the ‘geography of funding’ that Kuznitz so well researched.  Although small donations and material from zamlers poured in from Yiddish-speaking Jews throughout the world, it was the Polish kresy and the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia that served as the heartland of YIVO’s support. (120).   Other centers of modern Yiddish culture, such as Warsaw, offered YIVO very meagre support.  Kuznitz informs us that, astoundingly, only three hundred of Warsaw’s approximately 300,000 Jews were members of YIVO; this, despite the fact that Warsaw was a major centre of the Yiddish press, literature, and school system in interwar Poland.


In seeking an explanation for YIVO’s popularity in the kresy and the Baltic states, we have to remember the liminal nature of Jewish identity in this region, especially in the interwar period.  Here, as opposed to in central Poland and in Galicia, the interwar period witnessed an actual reversal of the trend of linguistic acculturation, with the formerly Russified Jewish intelligentsia turning to Yiddish rather than to Polish following the incorporation of these formerly Tsarist lands into independent Poland.  In this region, the cradle not just of YIVO but also of the Hebraist school system, Tarbut, Jews modernized and secularized in a Jewish national key, enriching their nascent Jewish national culture with elements from Russian and Polish cultures, but without becoming overwhelmed by them.  Given this reality, Jews in this region embraced disparate and seemingly contradictory ideologies and cultural values as part of their hybrid Jewish identities.  I, for instance, knew a Jew from the Vilna region who, simultaneously was a Tarbut student and later teacher and consequently life-long Hebraist, a lover of Russian and Polish language and literature, in both of which he was fluent, a leader of his town’s chapter of BETAR, the revisionist Zionist youth group, and a life-long lover of modern Yiddish culture and literature.  All the while, both before and after the Holocaust, he was a religious traditionalist, if not an Orthodox Jew, deeply knowledgeable of traditional religious texts and practices.  I go into detail with this example only in order to emphasize the often seamlessly hybrid nature of Jewish identity in the liminal region of the Polish kresy.  Here support of modern Yiddish culture and of YIVO did not necessarily equal identifying oneself as a Yiddishist and Diaspora Nationalist.  In fact, a zamler or small-time contributor to YIVO from this region very well could have politically identified with Zionism and religiously lived as a traditionalist yet not have seen those other aspects of his/her Jewish identity as inimical to support for Yiddish scholarship.  In contrast, in regions such as Central Poland and Galicia, Jews tended to have much more clearly delineated cultural and political identities.  Is it any wonder, then, that the greatest push to end YIVO’s non-partisanship and ally it with the political left came from the young historians who manned the Warsaw Historical Commission, Raphael Mahler and Emanuel Ringleblum?  In that city, unlike in Vilna, support for Yiddishist schools and other institutions most often coincided with membership in the Bund or the Marxist left-Poale Zion.


Nor could YIVO reasonably expect to gain support from the very large percentage of interwar Polish Jewry whom historians label as Orthodox or ‘traditionalist’.  To the leaders of YIVO, the religious tradition belonged to the past and secular Yiddish culture to the present and future. Their enveloping themselves in the mantle of tradition thus proved as much an action of usurpation as one of reclamation.  As the late folklorist, Dov Noy, pointed out, from the questionnaire that YIVO’s Ethnographic Commission distributed to inquire about traditional Jewish folkways and religious tradition, ‘their readers and users could not imagine that in the Vilna Gaon’s Jerusalem of Lithuania there were in the 1920s more yeshiva students than visitors to YIVO.’ (231 ft. 75).  YIVO’s claim to represent the ‘folk masses’ even as it relegated their deeply-held religious convictions and observances to the past, led many Orthodox Jewish leaders, and no doubt also lay traditionalists, to dismiss YIVO’s mission as disingenuous and arrogant.  As Kuznitz herself argues, even if the YIVO leadership bore the Orthodox ‘no ill will’, it nonetheless wrote this large demographic out of its mission by planning its ‘meeting of teachers of the schools of all movements’ on the Sabbath. (108)  In his initial refusal to participate in YIVO scholarly publications, the Yiddish philologist and Orthodox Jew, Solomon Birnbaum articulated the irony of an institution that defined itself in secular nationalist terms yet wrapped itself in the mantle of tradition: … ‘for the majority of members of the institute that is about to be born scholarly work [is] a means of building up a secular culture…with a strong opposition to tradition.’ (108)      


Perhaps, then, YIVO’s imagined ‘Yiddishland’ only existed in the rump territory of the Polish kresy and the Baltic states.  Ironically, then, YIVO’s most ardent supporters may not have been members of socialist and Diaspora Nationalist parties that incorporated Yiddishist demands in their political platforms.  Rather, these supporters were modernizing but still traditionalist Jews for whom YIVO’s rhetoric of representing a genuine aspect of Jewish tradition struck a deep chord.  This fact points toward a key aspect of Jewish religious and cultural life in the Polish kresy that appeared far less frequently in other regions of Poland: many young Jews here did not view religious traditionalism and membership in a nationalist or socialist movement as an ‘either…or’ proposition.  Rather, they tended to incorporate their new ideologies and affiliations into the traditionalist milieu of their families and communities.  It is quite possible that for some, no tension existed between loyalty to YIVO and to traditionalist institutions; some may have even financially contributed to both.  Only future cultural and social histories that study the internal religious and cultural lives of interwar Polish Jews can attempt to address these issues and answer these questions.  At the same time, these studies may point in new directions regarding other imagined ‘Yiddishlands’ in which Yiddish played a different, yet still important role, in religiously traditionalist communities such as in Lithuanian yeshivot and in Hasidic courts. 


Cecile Kuznitz’s YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture: Scholarship for the Yiddish Nation is an excellent book.  With great historical empathy that in no way sacrifices academic rigour, it succeeds in telling the story of an institution whose ideological vision and symbolic importance far surpassed its modest budget.  Through a careful reading of YIVO’s own record, this volume also demonstrates the great popular support that YIVO enjoyed amongst Yiddish-speaking Jews, especially in a culturally significant corner of Jewish Eastern Europe.  When, hopefully, scholars of interwar Polish Jewry turn to the questions that I discussed above, they will do so using this wonderful book as their starting point.



Joshua Karlip, Yeshiva University

[1] Kenneth B. Moss, Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2009); Jess Olson, Nathan Birnbaum and Jewish Modernity: Architect of Zionism, Yiddishism, and Orthodoxy (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2013); Joshua Shanes, Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish Identity in Habsburg Galicia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Simon Rabinovitch, Jews and Diaspora Nationalism: Writings on Jewish Peoplehood in Europe and the United States (Boston: Brandeis University Press, 2012); Rabinovitch, Jewish Rights, National Rites: Nationalism and Autonomy in Late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014); Kalman Weiser, Jewish People, Yiddish Nation: Noah Prylucki and the Folkists in Poland (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011); Joshua M. Karlip, The Tragedy of a Generation: The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism in Eastern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).