Review of Tubercular Capital by Sunny Yudkoff

Tova Benjamin

Sun­ny Yud­koff. Tuber­cu­lar Cap­i­tal: Ill­ness and the Con­di­tions of Mod­ern Jew­ish Writ­ing. Stan­ford: Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2019. 256 pages. $65.

Susan Sontag opened her 1978 Illness as Metaphor by describing a kingdom of the healthy and a kingdom of the sick, with everyone born holding a “dual citizenship” to both, and sooner or later forced to identify as a citizen of the sick, either briefly or permanently. It was in this 1978 work that Sontag identified the metaphors surrounding disease, and the romanticization of tuberculosis in particular, arguing that such metaphors eclipsed actual suffering. The “cult of tuberculosis,” Sontag wrote, was not “simply an invention of romantic poets…but a widespread attitude,” with the tuberculosis sufferer seen as someone “interesting.” 1 1 Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978), 30. This belief was widespread throughout European culture, both East and West, and made an indelible mark on modern Jewish literatures. To name one example of the cultural cache of the disease, in a 1903 I. L. Peretz story, the protagonist wryly wishes to be afflicted with tuberculosis, because at least, then, something interesting would happen to him (abi zol epes geshen).

Sunny Yudkoff’s new monograph, Tubercular Capital: Illness and the Conditions of Modern Jewish Writing takes this protagonist’s desire for a debilitating disease, and the attending belief that illness opened up possibilities, as its starting point. This artfully argued work considers the role of tuberculosis in the writing, publication, and reception of early- to mid-twentieth century Yiddish and Hebrew literature, in Europe, the US, and Palestine. Heeding Sontag’s call to look past metaphors to illness itself, Yudkoff elaborates the cultural and material world of disease in the first half of the twentieth century, and the opportunities tuberculosis provided modern Jewish writers. How could tuberculosis be a catalyst for literary fame, financial security, or literary identity? Historicizing the “lived reality” of disease doesn’t prevent Yudkoff from examining the rich Romantic symbolism of tuberculosis, in order to understand how Jewish writers working between Hebrew and Yiddish inserted themselves within tubercular literary traditions. Existing links between tuberculosis, disease, and Jewishness extend the stakes of Yudkoff’s inquiry. Was the symbolic world of disease particularly fraught for modern Jewish writers? How did Jewish writers afflicted with tuberculosis understand the illness and its importance for their work?

With tuberculosis no longer a leading cause of death in Europe or the US, the contemporary reader might find it puzzling to imagine how a terminal illness could facilitate literary production and fame. However, as Yudkoff demonstrates in her introduction, tuberculosis was rife with symbolism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Though scientific understandings of tuberculosis shifted over time, earlier connotations persisted, and the physical symptoms (pale, thin bodies, inflamed cheeks and mouths) gave tuberculosis the reputation of an affliction of “literary genius,” or the “author’s disease.” In an age of increased globalization and modern empire, causes and cures for tuberculosis were seen as social rather than purely biological (lack of fresh air, the abject conditions of poverty), and racial or colonial discourses coded the disease as a force that marked a person or population as other, or even as Jewish. That authors could rely on these various implications of tuberculosis toward material and literary effect is part of a process Yudkoff cleverly terms “tubercular capital.” The term describes thematic use of tuberculosis, as well as the material reality of tuberculosis, evoking both the abstract cultural capital of disease and Sontag’s “kingdom of the sick,” or tuberculosis as a center that transnational Jewish writers all held citizenships to.

Yudkoff’s book is divided into four chapters, which travel from Eastern Europe, to the US, to Palestine, and then back to Central Europe. She moves between cultural history and literary analysis, examining the 1908 jubilee and fundraiser organized for tuberculosis stricken Sholem Aleichem, the poetics of Hebrew-language and Zionist poet Rahel, and a Jewish health institution in Denver, Colorado that became a “fountain for poetry” (80), before returning to Central Europe where Dovid Vogel wrote his Hebrew novel In the Sanatorium. Yudkoff’s original concept of tuberculosis as a repository that writers drew upon, either for cultural or economic capital, ties together seemingly unrelated individuals and institutions. The concept of “tubercular capital” engages with theoretical formulations by Sontag, Pierre Bourdieu in his classic work on cultural capital, and Bruno Latour’s articulations of Actor Network Theory. Yudkoff’s skill is in combining these different ideas while keeping her prose clear and engaging.

Using the lens of disease, Yudkoff successfully uncovers another side of Hebrew and Yiddish literatures of the early twentieth century. Readers interested in Yiddish literature will find fresh insights on Sholem Aleichem, about whom much ink has already been spilled. In Yudkoff’s handling, tuberculosis is more than just a detail in the writer’s biography: it was tuberculosis, she argues, that allowed “Sholem Aleichem to be Sholem Aleichem” (46). Yudkoff demonstrates this point by showing how a 1908 jubilee, celebrating Sholem Aleichem’s work, doubled as a fundraiser to lift the writer out of poverty and secure treatment for his illness. Not only did the “capital” of tuberculosis mobilize the financial support of an international Yiddish-reading public, who considered the beloved Yiddish writer’s sickness and poverty a “national embarrassment,” it also marked the first organized “highbrow criticism” of Sholem Aleichem’s work (46). The image of a tubercular Sholem Aleichem garnered international attention, helping the writer buy back his lost copyrights, and contributed to the writer’s public self-fashioning.

Yudkoff also shows how this attention to disease was reflected in Sholem Aleichem’s writing during the period. A little-known Sholem Aleichem story, “Shmuel Shmelkes,” fictionalizes the 1908 jubilee and ends with the protagonist homeless and impoverished. Turning to tuberculosis allows Yudkoff to intervene in a long-standing debate among literary scholars on the Sholem Aleichem persona, and its relationship to the writer Sholem Rabinovitsh. In reading this pseudo-autobiographical story, Yudkoff asks: Who was sick, the author or his persona? Only the persona, she notes, was recognizable enough to mobilize audience participation in the jubilee and fundraiser. Thus, Yudkoff argues that Sholem Aleichem’s tuberculosis helped inaugurate him as a “unifying force of global Jewish culture,” with the Jewish reading public claiming the writer by virtue of his “lively language, his Jewish humor…his poverty and his sickness,” as one advertisement for the jubilee phrased it (33, emphasis in original).

In contrast, the capital of tuberculosis was more complex for the Hebrew-language poet Rahel (born Raia Bluvshtein), especially in its geographic and spatial dimensions. In Palestine, where Rahel lived and wrote as early as 1919 until her death in 1931, tuberculosis carried with it the stain of the Diaspora, especially when it prevented Rahel from performing manual labor in the yishuv. In Palestine, labor Zionists did not view tuberculosis as a romantic or “distinguished disease,” as Rahel once described her illness in a letter, but rather as a national threat (58–60). A symbol of the diasporic condition, disease represented a tension between Rahel’s childhood in Russia and adulthood in Palestine, or her roots in the Diaspora and commitment to Hebrew territorial nationalism. Yudkoff reads Rahel’s poetry in light of this tension, unraveling the complex Romantic symbolism of her sickroom, a regular feature of her poetry, and how Rahel’s language grappled with the threat of her disease alongside Zionist ideology. Yudkoff frames Rahel’s Tel Aviv sickroom, and the Denver-based Jewish sanatorium considered in the following chapter, as centers for literary self-fashioning. Much like a literary salon, Rahel’s sickroom became a place where she read her work to visitors and developed her public persona. Meanwhile, the Denver-based Jewish Consumptive Relief Society, which housed among its patients writers like the Yiddish poet Yehoash, better known for his Bible translations into Yiddish, functioned like an “ersatz writers’ retreat in the shadow of the Rocky mountains” (79). Yudkoff sees tubercular centers as additional mediators in the writing and reception of modern Jewish literature, as locations where writers were able to produce, translate, and share their works, as well as fine-tune their personas.

Tubercular Capital treats Yiddish and Hebrew literature as two parts of one national corpus (or, we might say, as two citizens of the diasporic network of tuberculosis), rather than antagonistic literary traditions. In this interpretation, Yudkoff joins a Hebrew-Yiddish literary subfield that examines these two literatures in tandem. 2 2 Yaakov Herskovitz and Shachar Pinsker, “Translingualism Today: A Review of Naomi Brenner’s Lingering Bilingualism,” In geveb (September 2016): However, Yudkoff doesn’t focus her attention here on the contact between Hebrew and Yiddish as much as she focuses on the two languages in their overlapping multilingual contexts, which did not always require this particular linguistic binary. For instance, a reading of Yehoash’s poetry locates the writer between Yiddish and English, arguing that the tuberculosis sanatorium in Denver was the place where Yehoash tested out his “American voice” and experimented with “Anglo-American literary traditions” (91). Yudkoff’s interest in the capital of disease, and in how Jewish writers engaged in multiple literary and linguistic traditions, sets her work apart from others that have considered the same Denver-based sanatorium and the Yiddish writers who gathered there, such as Ernest B. Gilman’s recent Yiddish Poetry and the Tuberculosis Sanatorium 1900–1970 (Syracuse University Press, 2015). Yudkoff’s reading of Dovid Vogel’s Hebrew novel, In the Sanatorium, joins scholarly efforts to uncover interactions between Hebrew literature and German modernist traditions (Yudkoff mentions here Na’ama Rokem, Amir Eshel, Rachel Seelig, and Maya Barzilai as fellow travelers). More than a Judaized re-telling of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, In the Sanatorium is located between the German cultural and literary traditions of disease and Vogel’s personal difficulties maintaining his Hebrew while learning German. In a fascinating reading of Vogel’s novel, Yudkoff singles out specific instances of wordplay to demonstrate how the Hebrew-German conversation was actually facilitated by Yiddish, a language Vogel knew and occasionally wrote in.

Disease featured prominently in turn of the century racial discourse and biological notions of Jewishness, which imagined Jews as more prone to tuberculosis, lice, or hemorrhoids. Sander L. Gilman’s work on Jewish difference, and especially his Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient (1995), is the obvious precedent for Yudkoff’s work, as Gilman situates Kafka’s writing within racial discourses that predetermined the male Jewish body as feminized and sickly. Yudkoff acknowledges her debt to The Jewish Patient at the outset, even if she argues that Gilman’s view of Kafka is “overdetermined.” Yudkoff’s treatment of disease strikes a careful balance by avoiding ascribing inevitability to the symbolic world of tuberculosis and its implications for Jewish writers. For instance, in addition to exploring the cultural capital of tuberculosis in Rahel’s poetry, Yudkoff is sensitive to the conditions of Rahel’s illness, the type of sickroom she required, and the fact that Rahel’s tuberculosis motivated her editors to find her appropriate lodgings by the sea (64). Yudkoff’s concept of “tubercular capital” suggests that the symbolism of illness must always be viewed alongside the lived reality of the afflicted.

In spite of these efforts, the question driving Tubercular Capital can seem cruel. How could one argue that writers benefited from the horrors of illness? Yudkoff is conscious of the ethics lurking behind her study. As she notes in her introduction, the writers under consideration would have surely preferred to avoid the disease. But the fact that tuberculosis was a bargaining tool for an individual’s place in society is not specific to the coughing, sickly writers at the heart of Yudkoff’s analysis. While examples abound, we could turn to anthropologist Adriana Petryna’s 2002 Life Exposed, which introduced the term “biocitizenship” to describe how post-Soviet individuals in Ukraine struggled for legal and social inclusions based on their status as “sufferers” after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion. If disease can be a way for a person to negotiate their humanity in modern conditions, it is not the fault of a scholar who identifies this fact, but of a society that demands such demonstrations of suffering for its attention in the first place.

Inspired by Latour’s theories, Tubercular Capital centers tuberculosis and literary institutions alongside Yiddish and Hebrew writers, treating humans and nonhumans as “mutually affective actants.” (147, fn. 58). “Actant” is a neologism Latour introduced in order to analyze people and things in the same breath (it combines the words “actor” and “agent”). By treating disease, institutions, and writers with equal weight, Yudkoff intends to shift our traditional understanding of the modern Jewish experience. As she states in her study’s outset, “The concept of ‘tubercular capital’ urges readers to look beyond grand narratives of war and privation as the structuring agents of modern Jewish literature and cultural history” (19). But grand narratives aside, it isn’t necessarily clear why one must look beyond war or privation in order to focus on the ubiquitous presence of disease in modern Jewish literature and experience. If anything, war, poverty, and disease seem interdependent. As seen in some of their journals and writings, Eastern European welfare organizations and Jewish doctors considered tuberculosis and war as entangled enemies. 3 3 For example, in a 1923 issue of Folksgezunt [The People’s Health], a Vilna-based, Yiddish-language popular scientific journal designed to educate the general Jewish public about disease prevention, editor Dr. Tzemakh Schabad writes: “Tuberculosis is one of the most terrible diseases in the world…it seizes more sacrifices than all other contagious illnesses…and thanks to the war, tuberculosis has spread even further, and the number of sick [people], as well as the [amount] of tuberculosis deaths, has grown greater.” See Schabad, “Tuberculoz,” Folksgezunt 2–3 (1923): 27–28. (Translation mine.) In a footnote Yudkoff mentions how Jewish welfare organizations in Eastern Europe worked to provide Jewish populations with health care in the wake of WWI (148, fn. 4). However, she does not expand on how these forces (tuberculosis, literary institutions, welfare institutions, in addition to war) combined to create the total universe conditioning the literary act.

This question aside, there is no doubt that Yudkoff makes an important contribution to scholarship on literature and disease. Many works in literary studies have focused on the tradition of tuberculosis in the American and German contexts, thanks to the famous sufferers of tuberculosis who popularized the links between the disease and their literature (John Keats, Edgar Allen Poe, and Fyodor Dostoevsky among them). Yet Yudkoff’s contribution is the first to treat the subject in the context of modern Jewish literature, across Europe, the US, and Palestine, and in its multilingual interactions. More than simply filling in the gaps, Yudkoff’s thoughtful engagements with Sontag, Latour, and others offer a methodological intervention to the fields of modern Jewish literature and the cultural history of disease. It is unlikely that tuberculosis could mobilize the same cultural and economic capital today. However, Yudkoff’s book leaves the door open for comparisons to the present, beyond the specific historical contingencies of her study. I found myself thinking about the links made between literary genius and mental illness, and the way suicide is often glamorized in artist biographies, confessional poets like Sylvia Plath being a prime example. We might say the idea of disease as capital continues to survive in the contemporary memoir market, where publishers mobilize individual suffering to sell books, and readers demand “authentic” displays of suffering in turn. Yudkoff’s notion of capital has further resonances in the narrative of perpetual death that surrounds the Yiddish language. If not yet dead, Yiddish is almost always dying in both the popular media and imagination, a kind of never-ending sickness that inspires “rescue campaigns,” mobilizes philanthropic efforts, and helps to raise the profile of Yiddish, for better or for worse.


A final note on the material, disease-inflected conditions of this book: Tubercular Capital was published by Stanford University Press, a major publisher of Jewish Studies scholarship, which recently announced that it would be closing. Closing this press would be a terrible loss for the kind of excellent multi-disciplinary scholarship we’ve come to expect, which Yudkoff’s book exemplifies. Since the press announced its closure there has been significant backlash from the academic community. As of this writing, the university has temporarily halted the press closure, though Stanford’s administration still maintains that the press should be self-sustaining, suggesting that the only value of a university press is in its market capital. Can the looming death of a sickly academic publishing industry produce enough capital to save the press, profitability aside? As Yudkoff implicitly asks in Tubercular Capital, do our cultural institutions need to be sick in order for us to truly value them? One hopes there are other ways, outside the metaphors of illness, to communicate the worth and necessity of these institutions. Or, if we must resort to metaphors, that the right sanatorium exists where we might seek out the cure.

*Sunny Yudkoff is In geveb’s Peer Review Editor

Benjamin, Tova. “Review of Tubercular Capital by Sunny Yudkoff.” In geveb, June 2019:
Benjamin, Tova. “Review of Tubercular Capital by Sunny Yudkoff.” In geveb (June 2019): Accessed Feb 23, 2024.


Tova Benjamin

Tova Benjamin is a PhD student in the History and Jewish Studies departments at NYU.