Review of Samuel J. Spinner’s Jewish Primitivism

Jeffrey A. Grossman


Samuel J. Spin­ner, Jew­ish Prim­i­tivism. (Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2021). 272 pp. $65.

“Three Languages—One Single Literature”? A Review Essay


How to relate the culture of various Jewish worlds to one another? This is today a central question and challenge for Jewish cultural, literary, and historical studies. In his preface to the important collection Cultures of the Jews (2002), historian David Biale asks: “Can we speak of one Jewish culture across the ages or only Jewish cultures in the plural, each unique in its time and place?” 1 1 David Biale, Cultures of the Jews: A New History (New York: Schocken, 2002), xviii.
The volume’s title points to an answer, even as Biale rejects the notion that nothing whatsoever is shared across different times and places. 2 2 From a literary-theoretical angle, Lital Levy and Alison Schachter emphasize the “rich, multilingual body of modern Jewish writing [that] exemplifies the dynamic interaction of diverse literary cultures along circuits of exchange in the so-called global peripheries”—the study of which provides an alternative to the “center-periphery” model that predominates in much of comparative literature. Lital Levy and Alison Schachter, “Jewish Literature/World Literature: Between the Local and the Transnational,” PMLA 130, No. 1, 105. With his elegant new study, Jewish Primitivism, Samuel J. Spinner offers a new answer to this question as it relates to German and East European Jewish culture, dealing in this context with German, Yiddish, and, to a lesser degree, Hebrew writers (where “German” refers here to the primary language used, not the country of origin). At the same time, Spinner’s decision to focus on “primitivism” in art and literature offers an innovative response to a second major implication of Biale’s edited volume: To what degree and in which ways do differences among Jewish cultures reflect differences and interactions with the non-Jewish culture(s) around them?

In Jewish Primitivism, Spinner shows that modern Jewish writers and artists adopted an aesthetic mode that proliferated among modern painters like Paul Gauguin, with his Tahitian paintings, and Picasso, with his well-known use of African masks, as well as among certain artists associated with German Expressionism. The figures Spinner treats include well-known writers—I. L. Peretz, An-sky, Alfred Döblin, Franz Kafka, Else Lasker-Schüler (who also produced painterly illustrations and performance art), Uri Zvi Grinberg, and Der Nister—as well as the photographer Moyshe Vorobeichic, probably less well known to most students of literature. In an epilogue, Spinner concludes with a fascinating treatment of the Berlin-based writer Egon Erwin Kisch, who, born in Prague into an affluent German-speaking Jewish family, was known especially for his gritty, socially critical reportages and for his sympathetic travelogues about the Soviet Union up to the early 1930s, and whose late “primitivist” writing stems from his exile in Mexico in the 1940s.

To clarify what he means by “Jewish primitivism,” Spinner first explores European primitivism, about which he acknowledges as valid two scholarly claims that are in tension: 1) the long-established view finding in primitivism “a critique of Western modernity” that “stemmed from the purported discovery of alternative aesthetic and epistemological models in the art of so-called primitive peoples” (7); and 2) more recent arguments that find in it “an aesthetic ideology of domination of non-European others by means of the appropriation of non-Western art as source material and the objectification of the people who produced it” (7). In turning to Jewish primitivism, Spinner seeks a third way. Drawing on recent work by and about Black primitivist literature and art, Spinner cites the case of Jamaican-born, Harlem renaissance writer Claude McKay who engages in a cultural reclaiming of primitivism in opposition to a colonialist gaze (8-9). Responding as well to Gauguin, who searched among Tahitians for an unschooled “beauty that comes from instinct,” Spinner underscores the difference of Jewish primitivism. Gauguin declared his need “to become ‘savage-in-spite-of-myself’”; in contrast, “Jewish primitivism asserted a savage identity for Jews not in spite of themselves but because of themselves” (8). As such, it stands “much closer” to those primitivisms that arose “in the shadow of Europe’s empires, like that of Négritude” in the French/francophone context and the Irish revival beyond the English coast (8).

Before fleshing out Spinner’s argument, it would help to briefly situate it within the context of recent work on modern German-East European Jewish literary and cultural relations. If the study of those relations first gained traction in the 1980s, recent decades have witnessed a spate of new studies on the subject. 3 3 Others, to mention only some studies published in English since 2010 (and omitting all but one of those dealing primarily with Kafka and Yiddish), are: Dan Miron, From Continuity to Contiguity: Toward a New Jewish Literary Thinking (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010), esp. chapters 10 & 11; Gennady Estraikh and Mikhail Krutikov, eds. Yiddish in Weimar Berlin: At the Crossroads of Diaspora Politics and Culture (London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2010); Mikhail Krutikov, Expressionism, Marxism, and Yiddish Literature in the Life and Work of Meir Wiener (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2011); Shachar M. Pinsker, Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2011), chapters 5 & 6; Allison Schachter, Diasporic Modernisms: Hebrew and Yiddish Literature in the Early Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012), chapter 3; Na’ama Rokem, Prosaic Conditions: Heinrich Heine and the Spaces of Zionist Literature (Evanston, Ill; Northwestern UP, 2013); Nick Block, “Ex Libris and Exchange: Immigrant Interventions in the German-Jewish Renaissance, The German Quarterly 86.3 (2013): 334-353, and “On Nathan Birnbaum’s Messianism and Translating the Jewish Other,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 60 (2015): 61-78; Ruth von Bernuth, How the Wise Men Got to Chelm: The Life and Times of a Yiddish Folk Tradition (New York: NYU Press, 2016); Rachel Seelig, Strangers in Berlin: Modern Jewish Literature between East and West, 1919-1933 (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2016); Marc Volovici, German as a Jewish Problem: The Language Politics of Jewish Nationalism (Stanford; Stanford UP, 2020); Marc Caplan, Yiddish Writers in Berlin (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2021); Sonia Gollance, It Could Lead to Dancing: Mixed-Sex Dancing and Jewish Modernity (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2021); earlier studies include: Delphine Bechtel, “Cultural Transfers between ‘Ostjuden’ and ‘Westjuden’: German Jewish Intellectuals and Yiddish Culture, 1897-1930, Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 42 (1997): 67-83; David A. Brenner, Marketing Identities the Invention of Jewish Ethnicity in Ost und West (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998); of my own modest attempts, see, e.g., “The Invention of Love: Or How Moyshe Leyb Halpern Read Heinrich Heine” in: Marion Aptroot, et al., Leket: Yiddish Studies Today 1 (Düsseldorf: Düsseldorf UP, 2012), 129-152, and “The Yiddish-German Connection: New Directions,” Poetics Today 36.1-2 (2015): 59-109; a survey of recent literature can also be found in Matthew Johnson, “Rethinking the Relationship between German- and Yiddish-Language Culture,” German Studies Review 45/2 (2022): 363-373. Yiddish and Hebrew studies have, to be sure, long acknowledged the influence of German literature and thought from the Haskalah/haskole onward. At the same time, the tensions between German(-speaking) Jews and East European Jews have also long been known, though rarely studied systematically. Focusing on German and German Jewish views of the East, several book-length studies took up the subject in the 1980s, of which two were especially influential: Sander Gilman’s provocative study Jewish Self-Hatred (1986) and Steven Aschheim’s Brothers and Strangers: The East European Jew in German and German Jewish Consciousness, 1800-1923 (1982). 4 4 Sander L. Gilman: Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986); Steven E. Aschheim, Brothers and Strangers: The East European Jew in German and German Jewish Consciousness, 1800-1923 (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1982); there were to be sure various other related studies, mostly in essay form or delving into the subject in connection with specific writers. See, e.g., Paul Mendes-Flohr, “Fin de Siecle Orientalism, The Ostjuden, and the Aesthetics of Jewish Self-Affirmation,” in Studies in Contemporary Jewry 1 (1984): 96-139; reprinted in Divided Passions: Jewish Intellectuals and the Experience of Modernity (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1991), 77-132; and before the 1980s, David Bronsen, Joseph Roth: Eine Biographie (Cologne: Kiepenheuer und Witsch, 1974); Hannah Arendt, “Privileged Jews,” Jewish Social Studies 8.1 (1946): 3-30; Peter Gay, “Encounter with Modernism: German Jews in German Culture, 1888 – 1914,” Midstream 21.2 (1975): 23-65. Though not a one-sided affair, as attested to, e.g., by Sholem Aleichem’s story “Der daytsh” (1902), the differences in legal status as well as economic and social capital generally made relations lopsided—a hierarchy albeit inverted in Mandate Palestine and, later, Israel. 5 5 Sholem Aleichem, “Der daytsh,” in Ale verk, 28 vols. (New York: Sholem Aleykhem folksfond-oysgabe, 1925), vol. 9: 131- 47; José Brunner, ed. Deutsche(s) in Palästina und Israel: Alltag, Kultur, Politik. Tel Aviv Jahrbuch für deutsche Geschichte 41 (2013): 8-9. If such works attested to the cultural divide between German and East European Jews, more recent studies have sought ways to reveal those moments that were mutually productive or at least to find shared characteristics. It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore this scholarship extensively. I will note here only a few to give some indication of their range.

Among the most provocative is Dan Miron’s From Continuity to Contiguity, which addresses the subject in the context of a broad historical and theoretical argument about what Miron calls the “Jewish literary complex.” Rejecting approaches that look for continuities in writings by Jews across languages and cultures, he seeks out contiguities instead, finding them, for example, in the works of Franz Kafka and Sholem Aleichem. Both writers explore vulnerable individual characters whose words and lives undermine grand ideologies, intellectual systems, and their institutions. 6 6 Miron, From Continuity to Contiguity, 399-402. In Miron’s account, no over-arching system will reveal these contiguities; they need to be sought on a case-by-case basis, from one writer—or even one work or one moment of a work—to another.

In How the Wise Men Got to Chelm (2016), a study that for all its differences shares with Miron’s a concern with literary-historical change, Ruth von Bernuth presents an exhaustively researched, lucidly written, philological study of cultural and textual exchanges, showing “what is shared and what is distinctive” in German and Yiddish, as well as Christian and Jewish, traditions from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. 7 7 von Bernuth, Wise Men, 3. Also concerned with historical change, Sonia Gollance focuses in her study It Could Lead to Dancing: Mixed-Sex Dancing and Jewish Modernity (2021) on the specific role of such dancing as an expression of modernity in popular German and Yiddish literature from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century. She shows how mixed-sex dancing figures in “the transgression of religious, class, and cultural boundaries” in a modernizing Jewish culture, be it in German or in Yiddish (183). While, to my mind, Gollance might have dwelt more on the two different trajectories into modernity—and hence on the problem of “contiguity” rather than continuity—exemplified in much German and Yiddish literature, her study is rich in materials and analyses, illuminating an aspect of Jewish literary history rarely discussed.

Turning to the interwar period primarily, two books make Berlin the focus of their explorations—a focus explained by the sheer number of East European Jewish writers, artists, students, and other intellectuals residing in the European metropolis at the time. In Strangers in Berlin: Modern Jewish Literature Between East and West, 1919-1933 (2016), Rachel Seelig explores Berlin’s position as a “threshold,” a key “transit station” (“Zwischenstation”), upon which Yiddish and German writers—in this case Uri Zvi Grinberg and Moyshe Kulbak from Eastern Europe, Gertrud Kolmar and Ludwig Strauss from Germany—descended and underwent personal, writerly transformations. 8 8 Seelig, Strangers in Berlin, 3. Not surprisingly, many studies that focus on Yiddish and Hebrew responses to German culture deal with writers who lived and worked in Berlin especially in the interwar period – indeed, several more also incorporate “Berlin” in book or chapter titles. All four writers, she argues, gazed “eastward” seeking to resolve their sense of estrangement, which in turn spurred them to new creativity in their writings.

In contrast to Seelig, Marc Caplan argues in Yiddish Writers in Weimar Berlin: A Fugitive Modernism that the city “functions . . . as a crossroads,” where all are estranged: Not only “refugees, outcasts, and bohemians” but “everyone, even citizens of the nation, felt displaced, uprooted, and foreign” (91). Exploring “how [from the periphery] Yiddish literature participates in” Weimar culture, he emphasizes the Yiddish writers’ engagement with other movements and styles of the European avant-garde. The study deals with Yiddish writers Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister, and Kulbak and, on the German side, Walter Benjamin, Alfred Döblin, and Joseph Roth (8). Distinguishing between the two, he contends that “the relationship [of German Jewish writers] to traditional Jewish culture . . . is one of melancholy, whereas” that of East European Jews “is one of mourning” (19)—a division that may be a little too neat. 9 9 Alas, Caplan’s emphasis on allegory also runs into problems, in part because he sometimes seems to take Benjamin’s view of allegory as the sole form that persists into the twentieth century, in part because while that view may apply to some Yiddish writers, e.g., Der Nister, it is less clear that it applies as broadly as he claims, and in part because his introductory explanation of the subject is sometimes muddled. There, Caplan cites, for instance, a passage from An-sky’s Khurbn Galitsiye which, though it clearly reads as displacement of trauma by one of An-sky’s interviewees—she flatly recounts the killing of family members only to then express devastation over the killing of animals—it does not read as allegory. As Benjamin himself (among others) knew, allegory as a literary technique is a conscious expression, shows conscious awareness of such displacements, of offering an image or story that seems to stand in for something else that would give meaning to that image or story, but behind which—for Benjamin—there lie only ruins, i.e., devastation devoid of any redemptive meaning to be found. Such conscious markers are, significantly, absent from the passage cited (Caplan, Yiddish Writers, 13; cf. Sh. An-sky, Der yidisher khurbn fun poyln galitisiye un bukovine fun togbukh, in Gezamelte shriftn (Warsaw: Farlag An-sky, 1920), vol. 4:190; Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: NLB, 1977) 178-179).
Still, Caplan shares with Seelig a valuable emphasis on Berlin, suggesting how that focus might reframe our understanding of such cultural relations.


Whereas the locus of Berlin is central to Seelig’s and Caplan’s arguments, Samuel Spinner’s Jewish Primitivism proceeds rather differently. Jewish Primitivism is a book very much deserving to be read, in part because Spinner discloses a distinct artistic-poetic mode that persists across the linguistic, cultural, and geographic divide, and in part because he produces a series of insightful, compelling arguments about the writers he deals with. Additionally, the Jewish primitivism he explores persists across different genres or subgenres, such as expressionist poetry, memoirs, travel writing, reportage, realistic novels, experimental drama drawing on myth and folklore (An-sky’s Dybbuk), Hasidic lore (Peretz), and experimental novels, like Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. Further, Jewish Primitivism deserves to be read if only to engage with what may well be the study’s boldest claim: Recalling Bal-Makhshoves’s dictum “Two languages—One Single Literature,” which refers to the purported unity of Yiddish- and Hebrew-language literature, Spinner proposes that, by including German, the aesthetic, literary practice of Jewish primitivism “expands … to three languages, one literature” (16, emphasis added). 10 10 Bal-Makshoves (Isidor Elyashev), “Tsvey sprakhn—Eyn eyntsike literatur,” in Geklibene shriften (Warsaw: Kooperativ “bikher,” 1929) vol. 2: 57-64.

This claim becomes more striking when one considers the continuing sense of cultural and literary divide often registered by the early twentieth century writers themselves. 11 11 On the early twentieth-century Viennese Jewish society he hailed from, art historian Ernst Gombrich claimed, for instance, that “it is utterly unrealistic, not to say ignorant, to talk of Jewish culture while ignoring the distinction between Eastern Jews—such as [Belarussian-born painter] Jehudo Epstein—and the assimilated Jews of Germany and Austria. If the truth is to be told, Western Jews despised and cruelly ridiculed the Eastern Jews for their frequent failure to understand, adopt and assimilate the traditions of Western culture.” “The Visual Art in Vienna: Reflections on the Jewish Catastrophe,” in: The Art Newspaper 8 (Sept. 1997), 28. Even the efforts of many who attempted to bridge the divide—like Martin Buber, Nathan Birnbaum, Arnold Zweig, or the women’s rights activist and translator Bertha Pappenheim—often only served to underscore it. Why else would there have been such a need for their writings and activities? Significantly, many who sought to bridge that divide, especially before the First World War, did so programmatically, whether in the name of (often cultural) Zionism or diaspora nationalism; nonetheless, Spinner finds in Jewish primitivism a literary mode that transcends political ideologies or programs. Hence, one can identify primitivist strains in works by politically progressive writers like Döblin, Kisch, and Else Lasker-Schüler, as well as the work of a radical right-wing poet like Uri Zvi Grinberg. No less significantly, Spinner does not stake his thesis on the question of direct influence, though such influence is not completely absent; rather, he presents Jewish primitivism as a phenomenon that connects writers from West and East who often worked independently from one another, though they were all responding, it would seem, to the experience of modernity and to the literary and artistic movements it engendered.

Spinner does discuss the influence exerted by Peretz, but only on writers from the East. He characterizes Peretz’s initial use of folklore as a form of “folklorism,” defining it as “the assimilation of folkoric/primitive source material into one’s own (Western) aesthetic” (39). It is in the criticism of Peretz’s “folklorism” by both Peretz himself (he came to disavow it as mimicry) and by other writers and artists that Spinner detects the seeds of primitivism. Primitivism does not “assimilate” such source material into its own aesthetic; instead, it mounts “an attempt (even if it is unachievable or not even properly articulable) to synthesize its sources with the aesthetic vernacular in pursuit of something new” (39). Jewish primitivism wants “to produce an art essentially (or structurally) transformed by folklore and ethnography, rather than simply quoting its morphology or style” (40).

Beyond Peretz and other writers in the East like Peretz Markish, Spinner finds primitivism among German Jewish writers as well. Hence, besides An-sky, his second chapter also deals with Alfred Döblin and Joseph Roth. In their travelogues, each of these writers describes disappointing encounters with the “reality” of Jewish life and culture in the traditional world, which expose their fantasies of such “primitives” as precisely that. Yet rather than abandon the impulses that led to these encounters, An-sky (in Yiddish) and Döblin and Roth (in German) all ultimately turn to the primitive in fiction. In his Journey to Poland (Reise in Polen, 1925), for example, Döblin reports on his meeting with the Gerer Rebbe. Approaching the Rebbe with great expectation, he experiences utter disappointment marked by total failure of communication. Yet, early in Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), one of the seminal works of twentieth-century German literature, the protagonist Franz Biberkopf encounters two Hasidic Jews upon his release from prison as he struggles to re-enter the chaotic vortex of modern life in Berlin. The Hasidim, Spinner notes, do not pass on any notable Jewish thoughts or wisdom, but present Biberkopf with a form of pre-modern oral storytelling—in a somewhat Yiddishized German—that suggests a possibility for countering the modern “urban malaise” plaguing the protagonist, a possibility that might in turn aid his reentry into society. Their primitive storytelling, Döblin suggests, presents a possible “antidote” to the hectic, disorienting, alienating modern city and its institutions.

Similarly, in the travelogue Khurbn Galitsiye (1921), An-sky’s posthumously published memoirs of the destruction of Jewish life in Eastern Europe that coincided with the First World War, the author is unable to resolve the conflict—or paradox—between the primitivist aesthetics he projects onto the traditional Jews of Galicia and his own humanitarian aims, for “primitivism tends toward denying its objects human agency, while humanitarianism seeks just the opposite” (70, emphasis added). Yet with Der dibek (The Dybbuk), An-sky manages to realize his primitivist aesthetics. The protagonist Leah, like An-sky’s “modern audience, . . . needs to be taught the meaning of the objects and beliefs that will determine her fate,” something Spinner identifies as “the most primitivist of all An-sky’s gestures: the idea that disenchantment does not preclude reenchantment and that attachment to an enchanted world of dybbuks and exorcists can be acquired” (80). The work of theater makes such reenchantment and attachment possible. Hence, Döblin, An-sky, and, though omitted here, Joseph Roth find ways in their works of fiction and drama to re-imagine their encounters with the “primitive.” They do so not by mere appropriation of “folklore,” but by investing the primitive with an agency that makes it a counterpoint to the modern. The encounter with the Jewish primitive hence becomes the means by which each writer can develop a literary aesthetic that responds to modernity.

Spinner goes on in the third chapter to offer a truly ingenious reading of Kafka, especially of his story “A Report to an Academy,” in which the ape narrator, Rotpeter [Red Peter], tells of how, after being captured, caged, and shipped to Europe, he found a “way out” of his predicament by imitating human habits and speech. Although it has no Jewish characters, the story can be read as a satire on Jewish emancipation in the German lands: having acquired the language and habits of the German-speaking world in emulation particularly of the educated middle classes (Bildungsbürgertum), Jews nonetheless remained hairy apes, or perhaps Hasidim, in the eyes of non-Jews. Spinner adopts yet a different view, stressing that the role Rotpeter plays for the scientists he addresses at the academy is that of both observed subject and of scientist/observer who reports the story of his own transformation. Rather than viewing “the metonymic exchangeability of ape for Jew” as “signal[ing] that this story is … about Jewish identity,” Spinner finds precisely “the collapse of observer and observed” to be “a fundamental condition of Jewish modernity. The ape is Jewish because his experience is Jewish. For the Jewish writer who took Jews as his subject, the prerequisite of literary primitivism—ethnography—automatically became autoethnography” (91).

Spinner does not wholly reject the association of the ape with the Ostjude as “primitive,” but the primitivism in Kafka’s story results precisely because the Ostjude is both similar to and different from the modern German-speaking Jew. In becoming both observer and observed, Rotpeter himself stages the encounter between the modern and the primitive (91-92). Spinner goes even further, however, arguing that Kafka questions the various “ever-reversing roles of subject and object,” of observer/observed, primitive/modern, but only to point ultimately to the “impossibility of any form of identification,” citing Kafka’s well-known response to his own query, “What do I have in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself; I should stand quietly in a corner, happy that I can breathe” (92). 12 12 Kafka, Tagebücher. Historische-Kritische Ausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1990), 622. Kafka’s writing points in the end not to an escape into the primitive but to a flight from identity altogether (93).

In chapter four, Spinner explores the “politics of primitivism,” beginning with one instance of influence that did cross the linguistic divide, that of German Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schüler on the Hebrew-Yiddish poet Uri Zvi Grinberg, who knew Lasker-Schüler in Berlin. Grinberg, Spinner notes, took “one of the most provocative images in his oeuvre, ‘the Society of Savage Jews (Berit hayehudim hapera’im)’…directly from Lasker-Schüler’s ‘der Bund der wilden Juden,’” incorporating it into the title of a cycle of Hebrew poetry, where both the German “Bund” and Hebrew “berit” refer to both “society” and “covenant” (94, 110-11). Spinner shows in this chapter how Jewish primitivism could transcend political ideology, noting that despite their profound political differences Lasker-Schüler’s and Grinberg’s “applications of the ‘Society of Savage Jews’ reflect a shared attempt to connect past to present, Jewish history to lived experience” (96). Acknowledging criticism of Orientalist imagery sometimes evoked by Lasker-Schüler’s primitivism, Spinner suggests that her distinguishing between Jews and Hebrews problematizes such criticism (96-97). Indeed, if the community she “envisions” were to arise within a “political entity,” it would amount “in its strong form [to]… an artists’ city-state” (95), while in her prose work about Palestine, Das Hebräerland, Lasker-Schüler ultimately envisions savage Jews and savage Arabs living in harmony. Further, she conducts an autocritique of her own primitivism, of “her position as a German poet in the land of the Hebrews,” after having long “cultivated an identity as a Hebrew [!] poet in the land of the Germans” (119-120, exclamation added).

This contrasts radically with Grinberg’s own presentation of savage Jews. Across several poems in the “Savage Jews” poetic cycle, Grinberg establishes connections between covenant and society, savage Jews and Zionist pioneers, and even blood, while at the same time “invert[ing] the typical identification of the traditionally religious Jew, bedecked in tallis and tefillin, with primitive authenticity”—imagery he ultimately infuses with an aura of political violence (110-112). Their political differences notwithstanding, Lasker-Schüler maintained a friendship, even a certain fascination with Grinberg. If she peppered an angry letter to him with accusations of fascism—“Brown is to your taste and suits you,” “Herr Hauptmann”—it is at least in part because she felt personally slighted by him (115). Still, such references, made in 1941, display a sharply critical stance toward Grinberg’s radical right-wing politics, expressed in activism (as a founder of the radical right-wing Zionist “Berit habiryonim” or “Society of Thugs”) and in poetry, in which “he creates an internally consistent network of allusions reaching into both biblical antiquity and primitivist modernity, to Genesis and to Lasker-Schüler, to craft an image of the Zionist settler who is a natural replacement for the people already there” (95, 113, 118). Spinner’s demonstration that Jewish primitivism can become politically charged in radically opposed ways has broader theoretical implications. It points to the difficulties and, at times, reductionism involved when one seeks to ascribe to an aesthetic or poetic mode a univocal political ideology.

Spinner’s fifth chapter, “The Aesthetics of Primitivism I: Der Nister’s Literary Abstraction,” gives his most elaborate discussion of aesthetic theory, exploring especially how narrative can express ideas of space and primitivism found in modern abstract art and art theory. Drawing first on later theories of space in narrative, Spinner delves into the theory and criticism of Der Nister’s contemporaries, art historian Wilhelm Worringer and German Jewish art theorist Carl Einstein, the second of whom related primitivism to abstraction and sought in his own experimental writing to translate such art theory into narrative. Der Nister, Spinner shows, created in narrative a new form of Jewish primitivism that would address the concerns with space and abstraction expressed in such theories and the visual arts themselves. Indeed, his experiments with space and abstraction led to a primitivism that staged a modern encounter with Hasidic tales and Jewish folklore. Spinner’s treatment of both aesthetic theory and Der Nister’s work is generally excellent in this chapter (despite a brief lapse into some repetitiveness regarding the story “Tsum barg,” cf. 124-5 and 137), and it undergirds much of what follows.

The treatment does nonetheless raise certain questions. In his analysis of “Tsum barg,” Spinner explores Der Nister’s use of frame narrative—also used in other stories like “Unter a ployt”—showing how the frames actually intersect, citing the moment when the protagonist of “Tsum barg” comes upon a book that tells his own story, producing the effect of infinite regress (mise en abyme). So far, so good. Spinner goes on to argue that this kind of play with intersecting narrative frames distinguishes Der Nister’s writing from the use of frames in romantic writing. Yet, precisely this use of intersecting narrative frames is a pronounced feature of the German Romanticism Der Nister was clearly familiar with, even if in a form partly mediated by the group of Russian writers known as the Serapion Brethren (a reference to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s own circle and work). 13 13 See Kh. Shmeruk, “Der Nister’s Under a Fence”: Tribulations of a Soviet Yiddish Symbolist,” in: The Field of Yiddish: Second Collection, edited by Uriel Weinreich (The Hague: Mouton, 1965), 278-281. Indeed, in one of the central works of German Romanticism, Novalis’s posthumously published fragmentary novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802), an (anti-)bildungsroman, the protagonist has an experience nearly identical to that depicted in “Tsum barg.” On his travels, he discovers a book belonging to a cave-dwelling hermit, in which he finds an illustrated narrative (written in Provençal) and depicting his own story. 14 14 Novalis [Friedrich von Hardenberg], Heinrich von Ofterdingen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2007), 92-94. Hoffmann produces similar effects in “Der Sandmann” (1817) and Der goldne Topf (1814, rev. ed. 1819) by destabilizing narrative frames. Does Der Nister’s writing in this case actually break with romantic aesthetic practices, or does he not actually recall and renew them? If so, how might that figure in a treatment of European primitivism more generally and of Der Nister’s Jewish primitivism in particular?

The second question is not wholly unrelated. Arguing that the “political aspect of Der Nister’s ‘symbolist’ works becomes legible” when we focus not on their meaning but on “the question of form, of space, and of vision that constituted primitivist aesthetics,” Spinner finds a key to this politics in Daniela Mantovan’s suggestion that the “‘complete annihilation of individuality’” lies at the “heart” of Der Nister’s story “Mayse mit a lets” (“A tale of an imp”), which amounts, in turn, to a “social critique” of “the deleterious aspects of revolutionary collectivism” (136, emphasis added). With his formal experiments, Der Nister, in this view, divests the individualistic subject of meaning and thereby offers a new angle on collectivity:

the narrative techniques used to deconstruct individualistic subjectivity do so by creating plural, collective forms of description and narration. This destabilization of both meaning and subjectivity is buttressed by . . . the interchangeability of signifier and signified in the late stories. In this light, Der Nister’s annihilation of individuality . . . is primitivist and revolutionary. As with [Carl] Einstein’s primitivist aesthetics, the consequences are far-reaching: breaking down the individual’s centrality clears the way for collectivity. (136)

The elegance of this argument notwithstanding, it raises the question, first, of what the nature of that collectivity might be. Socialist? Nationalist? Bundist? Bolshevik? Perhaps this concern amounts to nitpicking but, given that the question concerns Der Nister’s relationship to the Soviet Union, it seems not irrelevant. More generally, a revolutionary aesthetics may translate into progressive revolutionary politics, but it does not do so necessarily. It did for Bertolt Brecht; for the German right-wing, conservative revolutionary Ernst Jünger, it did not. Nor did it for T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound. Perhaps it is more useful to think of such works as modeling possibilities, while noting that the implications for social relations or political actualization depend on the nature and context of their production and reception. Spinner seems to be aware of these issues, but might have spelled them out more clearly, especially given the penchant in literary studies for inflating claims regarding the impact, positive or negative, of literary texts in the political world. 15 15 Cf. Rita Felski,The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 11-12; Toril Moi, Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 168; and John Guillory, some time ago, regarding acrimonious debates about the canon: “By insisting on the interrelationship between representation and distribution, I hope to move beyond a certain confusion which both founds and vitiates the liberal pluralist critique of the canon, a confusion between representation in the political sense—the relation of a representative to a constituency—and representation in the rather different sense of the relation between an image and what that image represents”; see Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), xii-xiii.

That said, in the fifth chapter, Spinner gives his most elaborated treatment of how primitivist aesthetics in the visual arts and art theory relate to literary primitivism. He additionally offers what, despite the few reservations noted, are generally excellent readings of various stories by Der Nister, especially those collected in the volumes Gedakht (1922/23, Soviet edition, 1929) and Fun mayne giter (1929).

The sixth and final chapter, “The Aesthetics of Jewish Primitivism II,” picks up where the fifth leaves off, continuing to explore aesthetics but with a focus on Moyshe Vorobeichic’s avant-garde photography. In his analysis of Vorobeichic’s photobook Ein Ghetto im Osten: Wilna (A Ghetto in the East: Vilna, 1931), Spinner shows how Jewish primitivism finds a parallel and an extension in visual culture. Like all visual artists of his generation, Spinner argues, Vorobeichic faced the challenge of “Chagallism,” a term drawn from an article by artist Henryk Berlewi, who criticized the early El Lissitzky’s use of Jewish folk motifs (144). The term is exemplified by artists Yisokher Ber Ryback and Boris Aronson who claimed that the primitive in Chagall finds expression in iberdikhtung (sometimes translated as “stylization”) or a “Romantic aesthetic of folklorism and its continuation into modernism” (Spinner 145-46), which is akin to the folklorism Peretz was initially drawn to and later critical of.

If visual artists wanted to escape this Chagallism, Spinner argues, they typically had recourse to one of two alternatives. They could either abandon Jewishness in figural art or, like Lissitzky and Berlewi, turn to abstraction (152). Vorobeichic staked out a third way, producing a visual Jewish primitivism devoid of sentimental folklorism. He did so by staging a collision between abstraction and ethnographic views in ways suggested by James Clifford’s term “ethnographic surrealism” and by Luis Buñuel’s cinematic engagement with ethnography in his thirty-minute documentary Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (Land Without Bread, 1933) (159). Spinner explicates that collision and the turn in visual aesthetics it involves by viewing Ein Ghetto im Osten next to Vorobeichic’s modernist photobook Paris (also 1931, published under the pseudonym Moï Ver), showing how the photographer brought experimental techniques of the kind he developed there to bear on Ein Ghetto.

Additionally, Spinner stresses the significance of the fact that Ein Ghetto was published in three different bilingual editions: Yiddish-German, Hebrew-German, and Hebrew-English (154). That each edition had two different covers—for the Hebrew and Yiddish a montage of closed doors, for the German edition an image with the caption Judengasse mit Balkon der grossen Synagoge (The Jewish Street with the balcony of the Great Synagogue)—suggests two different ways to signify to (at least) two different audiences. The first raises the question: What is behind the doors and who are they meant for? (154). The second targets a western audience and “displays the clutter and darkness of the ghetto with an only partly visible single point of egress at the image’s vanishing point” (154). Spinner gives a rich discussion of the covers and of Vorobeichic’s photobook overall, noting its often satirical and sarcastic “commentary on images,” which undermines their potential for sentimentality (162). Most revealing and seductive is a double image he analyzes, in which the left side bears the caption “Architektur und Mensch” (Architecture and man) and the right side “Mensch und Umgebung” (Man and surroundings) (164). The right image shows a poor man photographed from above against a rather barren environment. The left one recreates the one from the right, but in cropped form and presented as the dot in an exclamation point: Its “transformation of image into typographic sign […] casts it as a caption for its facing image, as well as a caption for the textual caption below it, rather than the other way around” (163). Vorobeichic, that is, embeds his subject in a polysemous context, the reading of which requires more than its mere interpretation as visual image. Indeed, Spinner reads the image as a witty play on the notion of “dos pintele yid,” finding that it “deconstructs the essence of this idiom,” hence undermining essentializing views of Jewish identity conveyed by both the idiom and the image of the Ostjude. Vorobeichic’s photograph thereby reveals itself to be not transparent “documentary” but an image that “spell[s] out an interpretation in itself, of itself” (164).

Yet Spinner’s aim is not merely to show how, by introducing self-reflexivity and irony (or satire) into his photography, Vorobeichic undermines ethnographic discourse and primitivism in art. Rather, he distinguishes Vorobeichic’s project from that of the surrealists (especially in the French context) who more stridently satirized the “humanism” of ethnography as part of the colonialist project. By virtue of his own East European Jewish background, Vorobeichic “did not have the luxury of distance” that made their critical stance possible (168): “Rather than critiquing the ethnographic basis of primitivism . . . Vorobeichic used the tools available to him—ethnography and primitivism—to recuperate the subjecthood of the Jews he photographed,” something that suggests his sense of the “precarious situation” of European Jews in the early 1930s (168). This personal connection to his subject produced a primitivism different from others in Europe, while lending Vorobeichic’s response to ethnography and the primitive an ambivalence not found in the more aggressive dissent of the surrealist avant-garde: “Jewish primitivism,” Spinner concludes, “reckoned with a different set of stakes than other forms of European primitivism: Ein Ghetto im Osten is thus a rarity in primitivist visual art—it is personal” (169).

In making this point, Spinner has thus taken his readers full circle, while reiterating and extending his initial claim about the way Jewish primitivism differed from other forms of primitivism, namely, that in their primitivist works or moments Jewish writers and artists engaged not with a remote “other” but with the “self,” turning to primitivism not in spite but because of the “self.” The conclusion of the Vorobeichic chapter, with its reference to historical developments in the early 1930s, also sets up the short but moving conclusion to Jewish Primitivism. There, analyzing two short texts by Egon Erwin Kisch—including a striking account of Kisch’s visit in Mexican exile to an Otomi Indian village known to have a Jewish community—Spinner shows how “[i]n the face of genocide, primitive difference loses its significance” (177). In this context, Spinner further reflects on the loss in the post-Holocaust age of the possibility of a literary and artistic Jewish primitivism that could offer what would be both a humane and meaningful encounter between the “modern” and the “primitive” (177).

Indeed, Spinner begins his conclusion with a series of recent quotations from The New York Times and other news media, celebrating the ostensible “magic” of Borough Park and the “costumes” of the Hasidim, citing as well as Michael Chabon’s overrated novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, all described as “Chagallism warmed over, sometimes with a seasoning of postmodernism,” and all of which might suggest that the notion of “primitive Jews” is still alive: “but,” Spinner adds, “the self-aware, critical posture of modernism is gone. Jewish primitivism has receded to bland exoticism” (170).

Ultimately, Spinner offers a very compelling—and often moving—account of this aesthetic mode, a study whose value the extensiveness of this review is meant to convey. Still, as with any account, no matter how insightful and intelligent, it provokes further thoughts and questions. Do, for instance, the compelling examples Spinner cites for the decline in Jewish primitivism mean that there are, today, no creative, self-aware, modern Jewish responses to the traditional world (here one might, e.g., look to music as one resource), even if there is much kitsch to be contended with? A second question concerns Spinner’s rewriting of Bal-Makhshoves’s “One single literature” dictum: Viewed from the angle of literary and artistic production and the “primitivist” aesthetic, Spinner has made the case eloquently and convincingly. Yet, when Bal-Makshoves published his essay, he was conscious not only of writers working in both languages but also of the readership that turned to such writers, for whom he envisioned a unified or, in Dan Miron’s words, “integral” bilingual culture (which contrasts with a “differential” bilingual culture, as when, for instance, Hebrew was reserved for intellectual writings and Yiddish for other, more popular purposes) (Miron 224-25). In such a culture, an avant-garde novel or poem could be written in Yiddish or Hebrew, or both (as in the case of Abramovitsh/Mendele’s works). Yet, by the interwar period, choosing to write in Yiddish or Hebrew usually, though not always, signaled cultural ideology. Writers often chose, that is, to project themselves into a Zionist future with Hebrew, or a diasporist future with Yiddish—choices that again construct their own projected readership (Miron 291-295). How, in this context, would taking readership into account figure into the claim of “one literature—three languages”? My point is not to refute the claim, but to suggest that one think it through further, and one avenue for such further thought would be to introduce the question of translation and the reader (e.g. between German and Yiddish and/or Hebrew, in all three directions, to be sure). Indeed, though not presented as an issue of translation, Spinner’s discussion of the “Society of Savage Jews,” first in Lasker-Schüler (der Bund der wilden Juden), then in Grinberg (Berit hayehudim hapera’im) suggests how one might in future studies move precisely in that direction.

* I thank Josh Lambert and Matthew Johnson for their comments on earlier versions of this essay.

Grossman, Jeffrey A. “Review of Samuel J. Spinner's Jewish Primitivism.” In geveb, January 2023:
Grossman, Jeffrey A. “Review of Samuel J. Spinner's Jewish Primitivism.” In geveb (January 2023): Accessed Jun 23, 2024.


Jeffrey A. Grossman

Jeffrey A. Grossman is Associate Professor and Chair of the German Department at the University of Virginia.