Review

Review of Marc Caplan’s Yiddish Writers in Weimar Berlin: A Fugitive Modernism

Marc Volovici

Marc Caplan, Yid­dish Writ­ers in Weimar Berlin: A Fugi­tive Mod­ernism. (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2021). 394 pp. $40.


I.

“No Eastern Jew goes to Berlin out of his own free will. Who in all the world goes to Berlin voluntarily?” When Joseph Roth raised this question in The Wandering Jews (1927), he was touching on an ambivalent trait of Berlin’s popular image in the interwar period. On the one hand, Berlin was a global center of visual arts, literature, and theatre. It served as a hub for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, including about 70,000 Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe and Russia, providing them with a temporary — for some, a permanent — shelter. Berlin also offered indispensable anonymity and the ability to engage in clandestine, revolutionary politics. It was the land of the free. On the other hand, Berlin was a battleground, at times a violent one, between political ideologies, and a turbulent metropole associated with aggressive urbanism and rapid, chaotic expansion; a disorienting city that was spiraling into an unfathomable future.

Marc Caplan’s Yiddish Writers in Weimar Berlin: A Fugitive Modernism, a study of avant-garde Yiddish literature produced in Berlin in the 1920s, explores both the allure and the threatening facets of Weimar Berlin and its cultural landscape. It assesses the streams of resonance between Yiddish modernist literature produced in Weimar Berlin and the literary and cultural currents of German modernism. Caplan reads Yiddish modernism “through aesthetic categories developed in the experimental culture of the Weimar Republic” (5), focusing on the work of three Yiddish writers, Der Nister, Dovid Bergelson, and Moyshe Kulbak, who spent several years in Berlin during the 1920s before moving back to the Soviet Union. The theoretical apparatus guiding Caplan consists of the categories of allegory, the Baroque, and melancholy, where he relies on and draws inspiration from Walter Benjamin’s work. Caplan reads Bergelson’s short stories as echoing the modernist “New Objectivity” of German literature, cinema, and art. Bergelson’s novel Mides ha-din (“Harsh Judgment”) about the disintegration of Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement is read in conjunction with Alfred Döblin’s travelogue on Jewish life in Poland. Caplan finds parallel aesthetic and political features in the authors’ respective efforts to capture the crisis of Jewish modernity in Eastern Europe. Der Nister’s experimental and somewhat mystical stories are read alongside German modernist classics such as E. T. A. Hoffman’s The Devil’s Elixirs and Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film The Blue Angel. Kulbak’s apocalyptic work is read through “aesthetic lenses cultivated in Berlin,” using for that purpose Fritz Lang’s movie Metropolis (1927) and Joseph Roth’s essays and novels. This rich and insightful exploration presents the multiple layers of which Weimar Yiddish modernism was composed.

The book follows a growing body of literature published in the last years by scholars such as Rachel Seelig, Gennady Estraikh, Delphine Bechtel, Allison Schachter, and others, who investigated how interwar Berlin became a center of Yiddish literature and its significance in Jewish cultural history. The immigration waves westwards since the late nineteenth century, alongside the eruption of Jewish political activism across borders, enhanced the social, cultural, and political interactions between Eastern European and German Jews, leading at least in part to what Caplan identifies as the “increasing inability of Jewish writers to conceptualize East and West as civilizational opposites” (10).

There is, however, an inherent limit to the study of literary encounters insofar as it treats Yiddish and German cultures as separate entities. 1 1 On the growing scholarly attention to the nexus between Yiddish and German, see Matthew Johnson’s review essay: “Rethinking the Relationship between German- and Yiddish-Language Culture”, German Studies Review, vol. 45 no. 2, 2022, 363-373. Similar to the flourishing of Hebrew literature in Weimar Berlin, the Yiddish literary and intellectual productivity emerging in Weimar Berlin is frequently presented as an island or a colony within the cultural fabric of Berlin, rather than an integral part of it. To be sure, there are valid reasons for this proclivity. By and large, Germans had little access to — and often little interest in — the Yiddish work produced in the city. While the label ‘Weimar culture’ continues to hold an air of prestige in historiography and popular memory, the presence of the Yiddish renaissance within it remains a mostly geographical detail, a sub-tenant residing in the basement of the prestigious Weimar Berlin edifice. This image is captured in memoirs and excerpts from the Jewish press on the “Yiddish corners” in Berlin’s literary coffeehouses, where some of the great Yiddish authors of the period wrote, smoked, mused, and argued, while remaining largely unheeded by their German (Jewish and non-Jewish) neighbors. One account from the period mentions rare moments when German bohemians joined Yiddish tables, albeit feeling there “like a goy who joined a Jewish minyan.” 2 2 Israel Rubin, “Bay di tishlekh fun romanishn kafe”, Literarishe Bleter, 10 January 1930. Cited in: Gennady Estraikh and Mikhail Krutikov, “Introduction: Yiddish on the Spree”, in Yiddish in Weimar Berlin: At the Crossroads of Diaspora Politics and Culture, ed. Gennady Estraikh and Mikhail Krutikov (2010), 12.

II.

Is it possible to integrate Weimar Yiddish literature into its German context? Caplan’s book offers a new path in that direction. He treats the writers in question as carriers of a Yiddish modernism that was in close and intimate interaction with German modernist traditions surrounding it. The geographical and temporal reach of the book is even broader, with frequent juxtapositions with nineteenth-century and twenty-first century literature and popular culture, where the author gestures toward a genealogy of modernism in which Jewish and German modernist traditions seem to converge. In so doing, Caplan studies the significance of avant-garde Yiddish writers in modernist aesthetics “not in spite of their peripheral culture and language but because it is from the periphery, whether defined in geographic, cultural, or social terms, that modernism articulates its most productive critiques of modernity” (5). Seen through this lens, Yiddish modernists appear not merely as members of a Jewish cultural movement inspired by European modernism but rather as a sophisticated and lucid expression of it, as “true representatives of their time and place” (7).

Caplan’s effort to situate Yiddish modernism onto German modernism (and vice versa) reveals entwined engagements with the condition of precariousness, displacement, homelessness, and political turmoil. He alludes to this shared preoccupation when noting that the rise of urban modernity in Germany was widely perceived as a cataclysmic breakdown, a sentiment which resonated with Jewish Eastern European culture for whom, in Caplan’s words, “modernity had always been experienced as breakdown, not breakthrough” (104). Whether this applies to all forms of Eastern European Jewish modernism is worthy of further discussion — Kenneth Moss’ study of Hebraist and Yiddishist culture in the Russian Revolution comes to mind as a potential counter-example — but Caplan’s work offers a compelling lens for dwelling on the latent convergence between Yiddish and German cultures. One encounters here the familiar contours of the “Weimar moment,’” albeit in a Yiddish key: Weimar modernism is often described as shaped by the devastating legacies of violence and destitution of the First World War. Its Yiddish counterpart, which the book title dubs “fugitive modernism,” was shaped more directly by the Russian Civil War and the anti-Jewish mass violence it involved. The Weimar moment in Germany was shaped by revolutionary zeal of several socialist movements, whereas the Yiddish one responded more concretely to the Communist Revolution in Russia and the transformative, emancipatory yet threatening potentialities it seemed to hold for Jewish life. The Weimar moment signaled the fall of Imperial Germany and the birth pangs of a fledgling democratic regime. Yiddish modernism was responding to the overall collapse of the imperial order in Europe and its repercussions. Whereas the mystique of Weimar Culture is inevitably related to its fall in 1933, the impending doom of Yiddish Berlin as it is told in Caplan’s work is located in the Stalinist assault on Jewish cultural and intellectual life in the 1930s and 1950s, to which Der Nister, Kulbak, and Bergelson all fell victim.

The juxtaposition between Yiddish and German modernisms invites the reader to observe the entangled contexts shaping European modernisms and the resonances between their different forms. But it also reveals the parallel forms of nostalgia for Weimar Germany and for pre-Holocaust Yiddish culture in the present day. Both serve a symbolic function in contemporary culture as short-lived, generative movements that were brought to ruins. The aesthetic features found in them are presented here as a polyphonic exploration of the destructive and self-destructive forces that are ingrained in modern society itself.

III.

The story of Yiddish and German modernisms is inextricably tied up with the long history of the power relations between the two languages. Popularly seen as a German dialect or a distorted form of it, the history of modern Yiddish was largely shaped by its inferior position in German-speaking lands, where both intellectuals and statesmen perceived it as a marker of Jews’ alleged cultural and moral backwardness. This position played a key role in the history of Jews in Central and Eastern Europe, leaving its profound imprint on attitudes of several currents of the Haskalah, which deemed the transition from Yiddish to German as a necessary step on the path to culture and emancipation.

These power relations, whereby German appeared as the model of a pure language against which the Yiddish language was judged, underwent a gradual transformation beginning in the late nineteenth century. The affirmation among Jewish political and cultural movements of Yiddish as a literary and a national language, as well as the declining appeal of liberalism in Jewish political culture in Europe, meant that the traditional hierarchies of Jewish multilingualism no longer held sway. With Yiddish presented by Jews of various political affiliations as a historic asset of Jewish life and a living repository of Jewish culture, not knowing Yiddish became for many European Jews a matter of discomfort. The symbolic prestige of German as a Kultursprache in the long nineteenth century became less and less relevant in the emerging age of nationalism out of which Yiddish modernism, too, took shape. Authors writing in the autochthonous language of Ashkenazi Jewry could proclaim Yiddish’s legitimacy as a Jewish language, and indeed as a language at all, in a manner that was unthinkable to previous generations.

Several artistic manifestations of this predicament appear in Caplan’s study. The malleability of Yiddish through its contact with multiple surrounding languages, long deemed a liability to its status as a language, appeared in the interwar period as an aesthetic asset. Bergelson, for example, integrated into Mides ha-din Soviet terminology recently introduced into Yiddish. Der Nister employed neologisms (such as nozir-shul and nozir-hoyz) composed of Hebraic and Germanic components, thus demonstrating “the liminality and heterogeneity of the author’s imagination; they are words, like the story as a whole, between linguistic, cultural, and religious orientations” (214-215). The openness of Yiddish to influences of other languages no longer signified the language’s weakness, but rather its enhanced capacity to perform modernism’s different and contradicting impulses, putting to use the trait of Yiddish as a language in which “one can speak several languages in the same sentence,” as Benjamin Harshav once put it. 3 3 Cited in Caplan, Yiddish Writers, 233.

Yiddish Writers in Weimar Berlin offers a riveting analysis of the poetic and political force of Yiddish modernism, but it is also an invitation to look at Yiddish avant-garde beyond the confines of Jewish culture. Indeed, the readers of this book are bound to acknowledge that in order to understand Yiddish modernism, it is necessary to look at the canon of German modernism at eye level.

MLA STYLE
Volovici, Marc. “Review of Marc Caplan's Yiddish Writers in Weimar Berlin: A Fugitive Modernism.” In geveb, October 2022: https://ingeveb.org/articles/review-of-marc-caplans-yiddish-writers-in-weimar-berlin-a-fugitive-modernism.
CHICAGO STYLE
Volovici, Marc. “Review of Marc Caplan's Yiddish Writers in Weimar Berlin: A Fugitive Modernism.” In geveb (October 2022): Accessed Dec 07, 2022.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marc Volovici

Marc Volovici is an Alfred Landecker Lecturer at the University of Haifa's Department of Jewish History.