Joshua Karlip, The Tragedy of a Generation: the Rise and fall of Jewish Nationalism in Eastern Europe. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013.


Joshua Karlip’s The Tragedy of a Generation: The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism in Eastern Europe makes an important contribution to a growing body of recent literature exploring various forms of Diaspora nationalism, an alternative to Zionism that focused on strengthening Jewish life in the countries of Eastern Europe.1 Karlip focuses on the scholars Elias Tcherikower and Zelig Kalmanovitch and the communal activist Yisroel Efroikin.  As his title implies, through an intellectual biography of these three figures Karlip seeks to trace the ideological journey of a -generation’ of Jewish activists over the tumultuous period from the failed Russian Revolution of 1905 to World War II. As their hopes for securing Jewish autonomy in the Russian Empire and its successor states were disappointed, they abandoned the left-wing movements and engagement with non-Jewish politics they originally championed in a search for alternatives that could relieve the increasingly dire situation of European Jewry.

One of this study’s main goals is to complicate the familiar narrative of ‘a mono-directional line of progress from traditional Jewish religious identity to the triumph of secular nationalist substitutes.’ (312) As Karlip demonstrates, this progression was neither linear nor irreversible. As his protagonists’ disillusionment with secular ideologies grew over time, they embarked on a ‘process of negotiated return’ (308) that led to a positive reappraisal of Jewish tradition. East European Jewish historians, Karlip notes, long focused on moments of crisis (although this paradigm has been challenged recently).2 His own work offers an alternative to the portrayal, well known from maskilic literature, of the move away from religious tradition as a radical rupture.

While others have described how this ‘return to the ghetto’ played out in the cultural realm, Karlip describes how this turn affected the visions of Jewish community as his protagonists reconsidered the fundamental quid pro quo of Emancipation: the dissolution of Jewish kehillahs [communities] in favor of civic rights for Jewish individuals within liberal regimes.  Disillusioned by their engagement in the larger political arena, which bore little fruit, and frustrated by the failure of such regimes to create a tolerant environment for Jewish minorities, they rethought the goals of Jewish integration and reliance on non-Jewish powers. By the end of his story in Nazi-occupied Europe, this metaphorical ‘return to the ghetto’ had become tragically literal.

Indeed, one of the virtues of Karlip’s study is that it encompasses the Second World War. David Engel has argued that most Jewish studies scholars have shied away from confronting the implications of the Holocaust for our larger understanding of Jewish history.3 Karlip takes on this challenge, describing the sometimes surprising turns of these activists’ loyalties in times of previously unimaginable duress. Tcherikower, who arrived in New York in 1940, continued his scholarship even as he lost faith in its power to serve the function of a traditional martyrology. As a refugee in Uruguay in 1944 Efroykin evinced sympathy – simultaneously -- for religious tradition, communism, and Zionism. Imprisoned in the Vilna Ghetto, Kalmanovitch developed a radical critique of the Diaspora and viewed the annihilation of European Jewry as a divine punishment. By showing how these developments relate to his subjects’ earlier ideological evolutions, Karlip helps bridge the divide that too often separates Jewish studies and Holocaust studies.

Karlip argues convincingly against a linear model of secularization, yet the question remains of precisely what role Jewish religion played for his protagonists. Karlip describes their use of the ‘language of the pre-secular past’ to create ‘a new rhetoric’ and ‘a usable past.’ (193) Yet such tropes were common even among staunch opponents of religion as a common vocabulary for traditionally educated Jews. Indeed, elsewhere Karlip writes that the use of such language was a ‘largely unconscious’ (107) and ‘reflexively invoked’ (199) result of traditional upbringing. Yet what did such imagery signify beyond a set of ready-made rhetorical tools?

Karlip suggests some implications based on the familiar concept (here invoked with reference to the work of Jonathan Frankel) of Jewish nationalism as ‘secular messianism.’ (173) Karlip argues that the ‘redemptive, messianic role [these intellectuals] envisioned for Yiddish culture largely derived from the Jewish religious tradition itself,’ (88) and thus by transferring notions of culture from the sacred to the secular realm they ‘elevated Jewish cultural creativity to religious heights.’ (115) As antisemitism rose in the 1930s, this view led them to imbue Jewish suffering with ‘transcendent religious meaning’ (201) as a possible source of cultural renewal and eventually to endow the Holocaust with a ‘meta-historical significance.’ (302)

Moreover, according to Karlip, this latent messianism affected his protagonists’ approach to communal activism as well as cultural work. Because they interpreted political developments – particularly in the era of revolution – in such transcendent terms, ‘these men’s ideological persistence assumed a level of utopianism.’ (175) Karlip acknowledges the role of external factors that could not be foreseen or controlled, yet he implies that this loyalty to Diaspora nationalism even in the face of repeated political failure was on some level irrational.  This is a provocative insight, yet it seems to underplay some objective - if short lived – reasons for optimism into the 1920s. Karlip maintains that these activists could not envision working outside the framework of the Russian Empire, ignoring their reception of the post-World War I Minorities Treaties that gave international recognition to limited minority rights for Jews in Poland and the Baltic states.

Karlip focuses on his three main figures’ intellectual journeys, discussing only briefly the concrete ways they put their ideas into practice. Tcherikower documented wartime atrocities, creating an archive on the pogroms in Ukraine. Kalmanovitch helped to shape modern Yiddish literary culture as a translator and editor. Tcherikower and Efroykin worked with Jewish relief organizations including Emigdirekt and the World Jewish Congress. All three participated in the work of YIVO, the center for Yiddish scholarship founded in 1925. Karlip mentions a telling instance of Kalmanovitch teaching classes for the Kultur-Lige in revolutionary Kiev despite reservations about the organization’s politicization of cultural work. Further discussion of such cases would have illuminated the relationship between these figures’ theories and work on the ground.

If such work is underemphasized, it is in part because Karlip’s study jumps disconcertingly from the end of World War I to the eve of World War II. (This was apparently an editorial decision; the author’s dissertation contains a chapter on the years of 1924-1938). Devoting only a few pages to the interwar period, when Diaspora nationalism claimed its most concrete (albeit still modest) accomplishments, reinforces the overall pessimistic assessment of the movement. Ironically, it also replicates the very focus on moments of crisis that Karlip earlier critiques.

By the late 1930s the three subjects of this study had broken with their mentor, the historian Simon Dubnow, over the latter’s continued faith in liberal democracy. Karlip describes the painful personal dimension of this ideological rift. He might have elaborated earlier on the private as well as professional ties among these figures; for example, correspondence reveals that the Tcherikower and Dubnow families took vacations together. This aspect of Karlip’s story, however, only comes through clearly in his moving account of Kalmanovitch’s ideological transformation and eventual martyrdom in the Vilna Ghetto. 

Karlip’s final verdict on secular Diaspora nationalism is that it was – as his title states – a ‘tragedy’ and an ‘experiment [that] had failed on its own terms.’ (303) He writes that ‘the average East European Jew simply was too involved in the battle for survival’ (308) or too attracted by other movements that offered more radical solutions. Karlip notes that Tcherikower, Kalmanovitch, and Efroykin were vindicated in their assessment that democratic values would not save Jewish culture, while democratic regimes would not save Jews.  The author concludes that, unlike his disciples, Dubnow was correct in holding to his belief in the ultimate triumph of liberalism; this reader can only hope that Dubnow will continue to prove prescient.


Cecile Kuznits, Bard College 



1. See Kenneth B. Moss, Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009; Kalman Weiser, Jewish People, Yiddish Nation: Noah Prylucki and the Folkists in Poland (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011); Joshua Shanes, Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish Identity in Hapsburg Galicia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012; Cecile Esther Kuznitz, YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture: Scholarship for the Yiddish Nation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014); and Simon Rabinovitch, Jewish Rights, National Rites: Nationalism and Autonomy in Late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014).

2 See Jonathan Frankel, ‘Crisis as a Factor in Modern Jewish Politics, 1840 and 1881-1882,’ Crisis, Revolution, and Russian Jews (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 15-31.

3 David Engel, Historians of the Jews and the Holocaust (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).