Review

Review of Nick Underwood’s Yiddish Paris: Staging Nation and Community in Interwar France

Sarah Biskowitz

Nick Under­wood. Yid­dish Paris: Stag­ing Nation and Com­mu­ni­ty in Inter­war France. Bloom­ing­ton: Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2022. 266 pp. $35.00.

Young leftist Yiddishists are a growing force today, and we have a rich inheritance to call upon. My peers in the U.S. and around the world often look to Eastern European history for their models. But the French Yiddish case might, in some ways, be even more relevant. Nick Underwood’s Yiddish Paris: Staging Nation and Community in Interwar France (2022) illustrates how French Yiddishists embraced modernity, built multicultural coalitions, and resisted fascism as a minority group in a diverse urban context.

In this way, Underwood’s book is valuable not only to academics but also to lay Yiddishists such as myself. It highlights the triumphs and struggles of French Yiddishists as they grappled with issues that remain as urgent as ever-–from assimilation to inequality to the rise of antisemitism, racism, and xenophobia. In response to these challenges, they sought to create and maintain Yiddish cultural institutions and foster political unity among and beyond Jewish groups. While Underwood does not discuss contemporary politics, his book provides a usable past for today’s leftist Yiddishists.

By the mid-1930s, 150,000 Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants lived in Paris, from famous artists like Marc Chagall to working-class organizers like Leo Glaeser. Largely excluded from the native-born French Jewish community, they established their own Yiddish newspapers, libraries, theater troupes, choruses, congresses, and more. The politics of these organizations reflected the Yiddish community’s overwhelmingly leftist beliefs.

Underwood paints vivid portraits of these Yiddish cultural institutions and groups in the 1920s and 1930s. The pan-leftist Kultur-lige [Culture League] served as a hub for events and lectures for a wide swath of Yiddish-speaking workers. Bundist institutions like the Medem-farband organized excursions and even a summer camp, in addition to pursuing their political agenda. YIVO pariz [Yiddish Scientific Institute Paris] collected and produced materials related to Jews in France. The Parizer yidisher arbeter teater [Parisian Yiddish Workers’ Theater] performed avante-garde Yiddish theater on a low budget, and the Yidish folks-khor [Yiddish People’s Choir] presented participatory concerts.

The array of classes and activities in Yiddish, as well as French-language offerings, helped Yiddish-speaking immigrants keep their Yiddish culture as a transnational Jewish identity while developing a French national belonging. Underwood describes this dynamic as a type of Franco-Yiddish diaspora nationalism that “enable[d] Yiddish speakers to perform both civic Frenchness and cultural Jewishness.” Not only did these groups unite Yiddish speakers from different origin countries and political affiliations, but they also occasionally engaged with non-Yiddish speakers, including native French Jews and non-Jewish leftists.

This grassroots movement eventually allied with the French Popular Front, an alliance of left-wing movements that held power from 1936 to 1938, originally under the leadership of the Jewish socialist Léon Blum. The French Popular Front promoted multicultural pluralism (to an extent) within France and transnationalism beyond France. French leftists had developed a fascination with “exotic” cultures, as well as a political interest in male Jewish immigrants, who were granted a path to citizenship in 1927. This milieu emboldened Yiddish leftists. In fact, Jews organized their own Jewish Popular Front (1935-1937) as well. They embraced French ideals like republicanism and anti-clericalism, promoting an integrationist but non-assimilationist model. While both Fronts only lasted a couple years in a formal sense, Underwood explains how they each reflect many more years of political organizing.

Of course, the unity among the left partly developed in response to the rise of fascism across Europe. In addition to their direct political action, Yiddish speakers recognized a “cultural front” to the struggle against anti-fascism; there was even a group with the name Kultur-front. For instance, choirs performed songs that expressed solidarity with the Spanish republican cause. (Tensions later rose over whether antifascist solidarity in this case and others could remain pacifist or needed to include military action.)

But even when their work did not explicitly incorporate anti-fascist elements, Yiddish cultural organizers still saw it as radical. They were educating laborers, empowering immigrants, and defending and sustaining Jewish culture. They fought to “[maintain] the norms, rights, livelihood, and freedoms that fascists sought to destroy,” especially for Jews.

Devoted to their cause, the organizers provided these events to working-class Jewish immigrants in financially accessible, politically meaningful, and culturally relevant ways. For example, the Kultur-lige’s People’s University offered affordable classes in Marxist and Jewish history, as well as statistics, book-keeping, and French. Non-Jews also engaged with Yiddish culture as a way to oppose the racism and antisemitism of fascism, and they were at times catered to intentionally. Notably, the Parizer yidisher avangard teater performed The Bewitched Tailor in a mixed neighborhood and provided a bilingual printed program, attracting non-Jewish attendees and a positive review in the French socialist newspaper Le Populaire.

Underwood recounts how Franco-Yiddish culture reached its “crescendo” with the Modern Jewish Cultural pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. (The Fair also featured a separate Land of Israel in Palestine Pavilion.) Housed in the International Pavilion, the Modern Jewish Culture Pavilion showed “artifacts and images highlighting twentieth-century developments within French and global Yiddish culture,” including sections on the press, emigration, arts, science, and more.

The pavilion was designed by a committee with representation from several Paris Yiddish groups, including YIVO. It emphasized the contributions of Jews and immigrants to society. The Yiddish-, French-, and German- press characterized it as a bold refutation of European antisemitism and racism. ​​The bravery of the Yiddish pavilion’s creators comes into sharp focus when we consider that another of the fair’s pavilions was hosted by Nazi Germany.

Also in 1937—just two weeks after the Modern Jewish culture pavilion’s inauguration—Paris hosted the First International Yiddish Culture Congress. The five-day event involved ninety-three delegates; twenty-five were residents of France and the rest came from twenty-four different countries. Speakers, including prominent French non-Jews, shared messages of unity and calls to action against fascism. The conference culminated in the establishment of a new international Yiddish cultural group (YKUF, the Yidisher kultur farband).

This period of flourishing came to an end when Nazis invaded Paris in 1940. During the war, Parisian Yiddish speakers contributed to the French resistance. While Underwood recognizes the devastating losses French Jews suffered from World War II, he also explains that many fewer French Jews were killed than Jews in other countries, and the post-war French Jewish population was quite large. Yiddish-speaking French Jews who had survived were joined by new immigrants; some pre-war Yiddish organizations continued their work, and new ones were founded.

Underwood’s faithful chronicling of Yiddish life in Paris brings it into the scholarly and general imagination of twentieth century Yiddish culture, which usually centers Eastern Europe or the so-called New World. To write this popular history, Underwood researched extensively. He explains that he consulted “a wide range of sources including Yiddish-, French-, and German- language newspaper articles, playbills, photographs, postcards, memoirs, personal and institutional correspondence, French police reports, and archival records” (27). He also incorporates the memories of cultural participants like Yiddish folks-khor member Eva Golgevit and communist historian David Diamant.

Despite difficult circumstances, Yiddish culture in Paris thrived during its interwar heyday, and this period enjoys a concrete legacy today. A generation of leaders born in the late 1930s and 1940s, especially Batia Baum z”l, Yitskhok Niborski, and Rachel Ertel, carried the legacy of Yiddish Paris forward from the mid-twentieth century into the twenty-first century. As French Jewry shifted from majority Ashkenazi to majority Sephardi due to immigrants from North Africa, French Yiddish institutions have remained remarkably strong.

Staffed by fluent Yiddish speakers, including many immigrants, the Maison de la Culture Yiddish Bibliothèque Medem (MCY) offers classes, performances, lectures, and a summer intensive, for Parisians and foreigners of all ages. Nearby, the Arbeter Ring Centre Medem also offers courses and programming in Yiddish and other Jewish languages. While the Arbeter Ring Centre Medem aligns itself with democratic socialism, MCY usually remains apolitical, reflecting a turn from activist to academic in Yiddish Paris. University students can learn Yiddish at INALCO and the Sorbonne. Today, Paris provides a rich center for young Yiddishists such as myself to study the language or even immerse in it.

While French Yiddish culture is not as political as it once was, contemporary Yiddishists all over the world can draw from the example of its interwar activism. In this difficult moment, leftist Yiddishists are banding together and engaging with Yiddish culture to fight for causes like an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire and reproductive rights. Although fewer in number than in the interwar period, groups like the Workers’ Circle in New York and Boston and the United Jewish People’s Order in Toronto combine Yiddish culture with social justice initiatives. Like the heroes of Underwood’s Yiddish Paris, we should work to build bridges across the Jewish left and beyond, and make Yiddish culture accessible to all. May the example of our forebearers educate and inspire us.

MLA STYLE
Biskowitz, Sarah. “Review of Nick Underwood's Yiddish Paris: Staging Nation and Community in Interwar France.” In geveb, February 2024: https://ingeveb.org/articles/review-of-nick-underwoods-yiddish-paris.
CHICAGO STYLE
Biskowitz, Sarah. “Review of Nick Underwood's Yiddish Paris: Staging Nation and Community in Interwar France.” In geveb (February 2024): Accessed May 20, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sarah Biskowitz

Sarah Biskowitz works at the Jewish Women's Archive as the manager of the Rising Voices Fellowship.