Review of Polish Jewish Culture Beyond the Capital, edited by Halina Goldberg and Nancy Sinkoff with Natalia Aleksiun

Elena Hoffenberg

Hali­na Gold­berg and Nan­cy Sinkoff, eds, with Natalia Alek­si­un. Pol­ish Jew­ish Cul­ture Beyond the Cap­i­tal: Cen­ter­ing the Periph­ery. New Brunswick, NJ: Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2023. 322 pp. $37.95.

At the POLIN Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw, the impressive interwar gallery “On the Jewish Street” has a cobblestone lane at its center. Visitors can step off the street and into a cinema showing Jewish films, a coffee shop, the interior of the headquarters of the Jewish Writers’ and Journalists’ Association at Tłomackie 13, and a room presenting a timeline of Jewish politics in Poland—and this is all on the first floor.

Making one’s way beyond these scenes staged largely in Warsaw requires peering around a corner to a flight of stairs up to the mezzanine. Those visitors who do so find themselves on a tour of cities and towns throughout the Second Polish Republic on a kind of tourist trip under the rubric of landkentenish. This principle of “knowing the land” was championed by an organization formed in 1926 to strengthen Polish Jews’ own knowledge of (and thus ties to) local and regional histories. 1 1 For more on landkentenish, see David G. Roskies, “Landkentenish,” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, 2010. In the gallery’s design, landkentenish serves to demonstrate the “broad panorama of everyday Jewish life,” as the historian who curated this gallery, Samuel D. Kassow, has written; in the interwar period itself, the movement’s aims extended beyond establishing regional diversity to “emphasiz[e] their rootedness in the country.” 2 2 Sam Kassow, “The Interwar Gallery,” in New Directions in the History of the Jews in the Polish Lands, edited by Antony Polonsky, Hanna Węgrzynek and Andrzej Żbikowski (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2018), 26.

Landkentenish is also where Halina Goldberg and Nancy Sinkoff, the editors of Polish Jewish Culture Beyond the Capital: Centering the Periphery, find their guiding principle. This book brings together papers presented by scholars working in North America, Israel, Poland, and Germany at a Polish Jewish studies workshop held at Rutgers University in 2018. Goldberg and Sinkoff lay out the volume’s goal quite explicitly in their co-authored introduction. Drawing from Philip Friedman’s writings on “regionalism” from the 1930s in the journal of the landkentenish society and invoking his work with YIVO to collect materials from local communities, Goldberg and Sinkoff emphasize that their own volume seeks to “highlight the dynamism of interwar Polish Jewish culture and make abundantly clear the rootedness of Jews in Polish soil while at the same time underscoring their regional diversity” and “resisting the centralizing pull of the metropole” (3). For Friedman, “regionalism” provided authenticity and rootedness as an antidote to consumerism, materialism, and homogenization. For Goldberg and Sinkoff, too, the attention to Jewish culture beyond Warsaw “reasserts the cultural doikayt of Polish Jewry” (11).

What forms the culture at the center of this book? The twelve chapters are organized into three parts—“Tradition and Rebellion,” “Performers and Audiences,” and “Maps and Spaces”—that share an emphasis on the diversity of Polish Jewish culture. The book offers an inclusive definition of culture: theatrical performances, visual art, poetry, architecture, concert music (including reproducing the program for the concert that took place in connection with the workshop in 2018, which is also available online with performance recordings), public monuments, reading rooms and schools, political rallies and discussion groups. The chapters travel from the industrial and population centers of Łódź and Kraków to the provincial cities and smaller towns in the eastern regions of Wilno, Polesie, and Volhynia.

While the work as a whole does not claim to provide an exhaustive or representative account of culture outside Warsaw, these chapters present an attempt to accomplish the objectives laid out by the editors to reassert the cultural doikayt of Polish Jewry. Attention to rootedness in the field of Polish Jewish history over the past decade has retrieved but also reassessed this sense of Jewish belonging in the Polish lands. In these accounts, actors on the periphery—that is, outside Warsaw—often voiced the loudest doubts or dissatisfaction with Jewish rootedness in Poland. 3 3 Autobiographies submitted in the YIVO competitions of the 1930s from market towns and regional cities provide much of the evidence for Kamil Kijek’s argument about how Polish culture and state influenced the political consciousness of Jewish youth in Dzieci Modernizmu (2017). While Wilno itself is a main locus of thought and activity in Kenneth B. Moss’s An Unchosen People (2021), accounts from residents of small towns throughout Poland and, especially for writers and party activists, experiences of traveling throughout those small towns shaped the pessimistic assessments of the Jewish future in Poland. Against this backdrop, it is useful to note that Sarah Cramsey’s recent book Uprooting the Diaspora (2023) relies upon writers and thinkers in the urban centers of Poland to offer a compelling case for how the rootedness of Polish Jews was understood by Jews and non-Jews alike and, importantly, taken for granted through the 1930s. As a whole, this book tells a more complicated story about the relationship between center and periphery, as well as the relationship between local difference and rootedness in Poland. The evidence is clear and not surprising: Polish Jewish culture existed in a variety of forms outside Warsaw. At the same time, the specifics of these cases underscore the interdependence between the center and the periphery. Far from landkentenish’s embrace of local folk custom, Polish Jewish culture beyond the capital in this volume still looked like and looked to the culture of Poland’s capital and cultural capitals beyond Poland’s borders.

Given the volume’s expansive view of Polish Jewish culture, its commitment to regional diversity and, in line with landkentenish principles, interest in local folk customs, I was somewhat surprised to see a new central figure and geographic center emerge: Moyshe Broderzon in Łódź. Chapters by Zehavit Stern, Małgorzata Stolarska-Fronia, and Marcos Silber each offer compelling readings of Broderzon’s role in literary and theatrical activities in the city. Yet these readings are made more compelling by their evidence of the interdependence between the culture scene in Łódź and in Warsaw. Stolarska-Fronia presents Łódź as a “kumen-shtot” or a tabula rasa, adopting a framework that reinforces its peripheral position in the cultural landscape of Jewish Poland and, in my view, underplays what regionalism may have been there (83, 88). Silber notes that the Lodzermensz figure Broderzon deploys in Łódź had been forged on the stages of Warsaw (163-164). Stern follows Broderzon’s innovative Ararat theater through 1934, when it relocated to Warsaw (32). Rather than an example of regionalism and rootedness, Broderzon here emerges as a case of the centripetal forces shaping Polish Jewish culture, in which the decline of Łódź as an industrial center meant the material conditions for innovative theater could be more easily secured in the capital city of Warsaw.

The Polish Jewish culture of this book took place in Polish and Yiddish, but hardly in Hebrew. In addition to relying on the popular and daily press as a source, the culture in Yiddish examined in this volume takes many forms, from the “folk modernism” of Yung-Vilne poetry to the popular performance and art theater of Ararat and performances by Bais Yaakov students. The chapters by Bożena Shallcross, Alicja Maślak-Maciejwska, and Sylwia Jakubczyk-Ślęczka offer different modes of considering Jewish culture in the Polish language, from individuals of Jewish background participating in Polish left-wing literary circles to explicit identification as Jewish participants in broader Polish cultures of commemoration and performance. The place of Hebrew-language culture remains marginal in this volume, limited to brief references to a reading room established by a Zionist group of women in Kraków in Eugenia Prokop-Janiec’s chapter and to the resistance to Warsaw-based activists’ efforts at Hebraization in HaShomer HaTsair and Betar in Daniel Kupfert Heller’s chapter. This is a far cry from “trilingual Jewish culture” in Poland, as Chone Shmeruk described it, and suggests that Hebrew-language cultural production may sit outside the framework that emphasizes Jewish rootedness in the Polish lands. 4 4 Chone Shmeruk, “Hebrew-Yiddish-Polish: A Trilingual Jewish Culture,” in The Jews of Poland between Two World Wars, ed. Yisrael Gutman, Ezra Mendelsohn, and Judah Reinharz (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1989), 285–311.

In addition to laying out an argument about regional diversity, Sinkoff and Goldberg claim in the introduction that this volume provides a “more evenhanded presentation of women’s roles as producers, intermediaries, and consumers” to challenge “male-centered historical narratives” (5). Indeed, the contributors to this volume retrieve women’s names and still too-limited biographies from the records of Polish Jewry. Eugenia Prokop-Janiec’s mapping of cultural and educational institutions in which Jewish women were active in Kraków from 1899 to 1939 is perhaps the best example of this, providing a detailed empirical basis to argue for the importance of women in Jewish culture in Poland beyond Warsaw.

While doing so, some chapters also present intriguing examples of how gender—understood as the cultural and social significances ascribed to differences of sex, and not just the inclusion of women—has a role in this story of Polish Jewish culture. In an essay on Bais Yaakov theater, Naomi Seidman describes a “double drama” taking place as young women in market towns like Chmielnik and Błonie staged all-female productions of plays featuring masculine, patriarchal dramas and Gerer Hasidim enforced the single-sex composition of the theater’s audience by stopping the young boys who dressed as girls trying to slip into the theaters (97-98). Seidman’s account of this drama relies on the reporting by Warsaw-based Haynt and Hayntige nayes. I could not help but wonder whether this could be a triple drama, with the small-town events represented to urbane readers to solidify Warsaw’s position as “the center of both Orthodox Jewish life and Polish cultural life more generally” (101). Together with Magdalena Kozłowska’s account of the sexualization of the performer Bracha Zefira during her tour of Poland in 1929, I was left with a question of how to read the modesty of Bais Yaakov together with this less-modest popular culture.

Other examples left me eager for more thorough analysis of how gender and sexuality shaped Polish Jewish culture. Stern mentions that one of Ararat’s most popular dances was a pseudo-Hasidic folkstimlekh number, “performed, quite untraditionally, as a solo by a female dancer” (29). Justin Cammy briefly mentions Shimshen Kahan’s romance with a local Roma girl in the Wilno region as his inspiration to incorporate Roma motifs into Yung-Vilne’s repertoire (41-42), and Elkhonen Vogler asserts the Jewishness of the Litvak borderlands in his book of poetry A bletl in vint by structuring the speaker’s encounter with nature as courtship and then marriage (44). These are suggestive of artistic visions of rootedness that rely on gender and sex to make arguments about the relationship between Polish Jews, their traditions, and the lands in which they live.

What is perhaps most interesting for a volume dedicated to elevating Polish Jewish culture beyond Warsaw is that many of these stories end in Warsaw, or return to Warsaw. The Ararat Theater is an example of an institution’s relocation. Silber and Seidman also follow the movement of theatrical practices from stages in other cities and towns to the capital. As such, the contributors confirm what Philip Friedman himself already saw in the 1930s: the pull of the metropole threatened this cherished regionalism. In a chapter on cinemas as a public space in the interwar period, Ela Bauer emphasizes the role of movie theaters as gathering spaces and of film itself as a way to reduce the divides between Jewish residents of provincial towns and of Warsaw, as well as between Poles and Jews (222-223). Bauer characterizes this positively as an opportunity for residents of Poland—Jewish and not—to imagine themselves as part of a larger community. I could imagine that Friedman might bemoan the replacement of local performances or other forms of entertainment with these films produced in the big cities and brought to the small market towns as the flattening of geographic diversity.

The chapter in which the cultural practices of the provinces assert themselves most strongly against centralizing influence is the last one, Daniel Kupfert Heller’s study of the Zionist youth movements in Poland’s east. Drawing on directives written by party leaders in Warsaw, correspondence between central offices and regional hubs, and autobiographies and memoirs of party activists, Heller traces the durability of local forms of political culture. As an account of movements with a shared view that the future of Polish Jewry lay beyond Polish borders, Heller’s chapter offers a kind of ambivalent ending for this edited volume interested in tracing regional diversity to establish the rootedness of Polish Jews. Regionalism and rootedness, diversity and doikayt did not always coincide.

Hoffenberg, Elena. “Review of Polish Jewish Culture Beyond the Capital, edited by Halina Goldberg and Nancy Sinkoff with Natalia Aleksiun.” In geveb, December 2023:
Hoffenberg, Elena. “Review of Polish Jewish Culture Beyond the Capital, edited by Halina Goldberg and Nancy Sinkoff with Natalia Aleksiun.” In geveb (December 2023): Accessed Feb 21, 2024.


Elena Hoffenberg

Elena Hoffenberg is a PhD student in modern Jewish history at the University of Chicago.