Strangers in Berlin by Rachel Seelig

Sunny S. Yudkoff

Rachel Seel­ig, Strangers in Berlin: Mod­ern Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture between East and West, 1919 – 1933 (Ann Arbor: Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Press, 2016), 240 pages, $50.00.

“I am presently in Berlin,” wrote the Yiddish poet Moyshe Kulbak in 1920. “Now I have arrived in EUROPE!” For Kulbak, as for many of his fellow Yiddish and Hebrew writers, getting to Weimar Berlin was the first stop on a European literary adventure. Intellectually speaking, arriving to Berlin ushered the Eastern European Jewish writer into an artistic atmosphere suffused with modernist energy. Practically speaking, the German capital offered writers the political freedom and economic opportunity to make art. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik regime had placed increasingly restrictive constraints on Hebrew and Yiddish publishing. At the same time, the staggering inflation of post-WWI Germany made foreign currency all the more valuable. In the early 1920s, Berlin was home to ten Hebrew publishing houses and, by 1924, the city was producing nearly a quarter of all Yiddish books worldwide.

It is precisely this alluring promise of the city’s creative possibilities that motivates Rachel Seelig’s monograph, Strangers in Berlin: Modern Jewish Literature Between East and West, 1919-1933 (University of Michigan Press, 2016). Yet, as the title suggests, what Seelig uncovers is not solely a harmonious history of intercultural collaborations. Instead, Berlin emerges as a fraught site of Jewish identity and literary politics. Perhaps not surprisingly, Moyshe Kulbak himself left Berlin only three years after he had arrived. The excitement of the intellectual atmosphere lost its luster after Kulbak discovered, to his surprise, that he was unable to make a living. He soon left Berlin and returned to Vilna.

Indeed, the story that Seelig does tell is one of constant movement and migration. With this, she joins a now active chorus of scholars, including Shachar Pinsker, Naomi Brenner, and Allison Schachter, who have sought to map the various networks of Jewish literary figures who crisscrossed Europe in the interwar period. What differentiates Seelig’s approach is that Strangers in Berlin examines how this peripatetic narrative is constructed with constant reference to Berlin. Specifically, Seelig engages Berlin as a “transit point” in modern Jewish literary history or, in Kafka’s words, as a “Zwischenstation”—an “in between station.” Berlin, according to Seelig, “was the threshold between center and periphery where chance encounters among strangers caused identities to be reexamined, reclaimed, and rebuilt” (6). Between WWI and WWII, the city was where Eastern and Western Europe came together; it was where German-Jewish, Yiddish, and Hebrew echoed and bounced off of one another; and it was where multilingual Jewish writers responded to each other’s political ideas and aesthetic “isms”—such as impressionism, expressionism, primitivism, and orientalism.

These encounters, always anchored in Berlin, are critical for the four poets whose work Seelig examines at length, including Ludwig Strauss, Moyshe Kulbak, Uri Zvi Greenberg, and Gertrud Kolmar. Working in German, Hebrew, or Yiddish—or, sometimes in two languages at once—these writers used their writing to pose “similar questions of linguistic affiliation, national belonging, and creative prowess” (12). They each, in turn, presented idiosyncratic visions of home, homeland, and, more often than not, homelessness.

Kulbak’s writing is a case in point. Seelig demonstrates this through her careful reading of his 1922 work, “A Youthful Rogue Am I . . .” (Ikh bin a bokher a hultay). Published while Kulbak was living in Berlin, the text thematizes the wanderlust of a poetic subject in exile. The poem’s first-person speaker sings loudly and proudly in Yiddish. Yet, in the final stanza, a farmer greets the speaker not in Yiddish but in Belorussian—the dominant language of Kulbak’s birthplace. The speaker then responds not in Belorussian but in gibberish. As Seelig shows, at stake in the modernist folk verse is a complex negotiation of place and language. At the same time as the speaker boasts of his freedom as a wanderer (“geyer”), he loses any ability to communicate effectively. For Seelig, this poem stands as one of many instances of reflective rootlessness in Kulbak’s oeuvre.

Most importantly for Seelig, this productive rootlessness was a mode conditioned by Kulbak’s stay in Berlin. Intervening in Kulbak scholarship, Seelig finds in the Yiddish poet’s relationship with Berlin a generative anomie that would subtend his entire oeuvre. She continues this line of analysis in her reading of Kulbak’s expressionist mock-epic poem, “Disner tshayld herold” (“Childe Harold of Dysna”). Begun while Kulbak was in Minsk in 1928, the poem builds on its Byronic predecessor in which an adventure-seeking poet leaves his hometown. Unlike Byron’s Harolde, however, Kulbak’s speaker does not find intellectual succor abroad. Rather, in Berlin, he finds a city in decline, a literary atmosphere where “expressionism treads on red feet” (ekspreyionizm shprayzt mit royte fis), and, with insouciant Kulbakian flair, “dada with its pants down” (dada mit aropgeloznte hoyzn). For Seelig, the importance of these lines is twofold. First, Kulbak’s words echo “the poetry of German expressionists like Georg Heym and Jakob von Hoddis, who treated Berlin as an object of simultaneous fascination and contempt” (97). The critique of Berlin, accordingly, only serves to link Kulbak to his German counterparts and to anchor him in a German-Yiddish literary discussion. Second, Kulbak’s poem demonstrates the continued pull of the city on the poet. Even long after he had left the city, he would continue to define his literary experimentation over and against his experiences in Berlin.

As the reading of Kulbak demonstrates, Strangers in Berlin also works to overcome a scholarly impasse that has defined much of the research into Jewish cultural life in interwar Germany. In general, these studies have been divided into two broad camps. On the one hand, German-Jewish cultural historians have traced how German Jews idealized or demeaned the stereotypical Ostjude—the impoverished, religious, Eastern European Jew. On the other, Yiddish or Hebrew literary scholars have offered accounts of how the figure of the Daytsh—the clean-shaven, German Jew—was alternately venerated or lampooned by the Eastern European Jewish writer. Seelig draws on these two approaches but takes her inquiry a step further, investigating “Jewish culture of the Weimar era as the product of a unique encounter between ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ Jews” (10-11). Simply put, this is a study in which German Jews look at the Eastern European and the Eastern European looks back. Seelig articulates a German-Hebrew-Yiddish complex in which the linguistic hierarchies of the early twentieth century do not result in a study of stereotype but rather in an account of manifold ambivalences and nuanced cross-filiations.

Seelig’s success in actualizing this methodological intervention is the result of her skills as a close-reader. Time and time again, she ushers her readers through complex and multilingual poetic operations with rigor, clarity, and energy. Seelig also has a talent for employing German and Hebrew technical poetic language without alienating her audience, as demonstrated in her analysis of Ludwig Strauss’s transformation of his German poem, “An die Bucht” (“To the Bay”) into the Hebrew text, “El ha-mifrats.” “An die Bucht,” a free-verse poem lacking internal rhyme or metrical rigidity, draws on the tropes of the German Romantic tradition to examine the speaker’s subjective relationship to nature. The driving poetic force of the text is its content and not its lyric fluidity. By contrast, the Hebrew poem morphs into a verse exercise of form and sound. Drawing on select poetic devices of medieval Hebrew verse, “El ha-Mifrats” mobilizes homonyms, end-rhymes, and the repetition of various syllables to produce a work driven by sonic playfulness. Its wordplays and musical flourishes stand against its German counterpart, identifying its predecessor as a text overdetermined by established cultural topoi.

In the analysis of the transformation of “To the Bay,” Seelig’s reading also focuses on the dislocative effects of the linguistic transfer between German and Hebrew. Written right before his emigration to Palestine, Strauss’s poem presents a mode of bilingual writing that seeks not to harmonize German and Hebrew but to distinguish the two systems. Joining scholars such as Maya Barzilai and Na’ama Rokem who have investigated the prickly parameters of the so-called “Hebrew-German conversation,” Seelig similarly seeks out moments of interlingual tensions and hierarchies. To that end, she also addresses accounts in which a Berlin sojourn resulted not in the Jewish writer’s embrace of multilingual experimentation but rather a retreat towards monolingual expression.

Seelig’s account of Uri Zvi Greenberg’s time in Berlin drives this point home most clearly. Born in Galicia, Greenberg began to make his name as a Yiddish literary upstart in Warsaw. In 1922, he published his concrete poem “Uri Zvi Before the Cross, INRI” (“Uri Tsvi farn tseylem, INRI”) which, accordingly, was written in the shape of a crucifix. Fearful of the reactions of the Polish Catholic authorities, Greenberg fled Warsaw for Berlin in search of a new, urban, literary home. Yet when he arrived, he did so using a counterfeit passport and, as an undocumented alien, would never feel fully settled in the city. While in Berlin, he also began to articulate the limits of Yiddish at the same time as he sought a new poetic voice, aggrandized and domineering—what Dan Miron has called his “pseudo-prophetic mode” (121). Seelig adds that Greenberg’s “pseudo-prophetic voice began to crystallize in Berlin as he negotiated the transition from Eastern Europe to Palestine and from Yiddish to Hebrew” (121). As a result, it was in Berlin, at a distance from his homeland and facing a condition of legal, emotional, and linguistic non-belonging, where declared himself to be a Zionist and where he ultimately decided to emigrate to Palestine.

The greatest challenge to the tightness of Seelig’s line of argumentation arrives only in the fourth chapter, where she turns her attention to the work of Gertrud Kolmar. Although briefly reclaimed by German feminist scholars in 1980s, Kolmar’s work remains understudied both among German and German-Jewish literary scholars—this despite the fact that her 1931 novel, Die jüdische Mutter (The Jewish Mother) features a female protagonist and covers such explicit topics as sexual violence, filicide, suicide, and the politics of queer identity. In Seelig’s study, Kolmar is the sole literary woman under investigation. She is also the only writer who was born and who would spend the majority of her life in Berlin. Moreover, she wrote exclusively in German, with no indication of any interest in Hebrew or Yiddish. For all intents and purposes, Kolmar breaks the mold in Seelig’s work. But, for Seelig, these differences serve only to highlight the thematic similarities that define Kolmar’s literary profile. As she argues, Kolmar’s texts enact and explore the politics of an internal literary migration. They examine what it means not to be a “stranger” new to Berlin or about to leave Berlin but always in Berlin, always in German, and always with the consciousness that a Jewish identity distinguishes an individual from her Christian neighbors. The reader eager to engage the playful multilingualism of Jewish literary Berlin may be disappointed with Kolmar’s presence in the study. However, as Seelig repeatedly shows, part of what made interwar Berlin a creative cauldron was the coexistence of a multiplicity of Jewish identities and allegiances. Kolmar’s presence in the text also reminds us of an additional stakes of Strangers in Berlin. For scholars of German literature, Seelig’s text introduces new names and new works into the canon of Berlin writing that will hopefully appear on German-Jewish syllabi in the near future.

Scholars and readers of German-Jewish, Yiddish, and Hebrew literature should also spend some time with Seelig’s fascinating if regrettably short epilogue. There, Seelig begins to think through the continuing legacy of Jewish literary culture of interwar Berlin by jumping ahead nearly a century to survey the contemporary multilingual Jewish literary scene of Berlin. She turns her attention to such cross-cultural textual events as Mikan ve’eylakh, a Berlin and Paris-based journal edited by Tal Hever-Chybowski that is devoted to publishing works of “Diasporic Hebrew.” She also points to the writing of the Mizrahi poet and journalist Mati Shemoelof as well as the folk-punk music of Daniel Kahn—a Michigan-born, Berlin-based, Yiddish-writing, socialist troubadour. In doing so, she argues that the cultural work of Hever-Chybowski, Shemoelof, Kahn, and others grow out of a long tradition of polyglot Jewish expression in Berlin. The political facts on the ground are certainly different, but, as Seelig demonstrates, the same questions of home, transnational belonging, and dislocation articulated nearly one hundred years earlier continue drive these artists’ work. This serves only to highlight the transhistorical questions of Jewish identity politics at the heart of this study. For scholars of Hebrew, Yiddish, and German literature, this tantalizing coda also only begs for further elaboration. Luckily, we need only wait for forthcoming volume, The German-Hebrew Dialogue: Studies of Encounter and Exchange (De Gruyter Press, 2017), edited by Rachel Seelig and Amir Eshel. This new work stands to extend the reach of Strangers in Berlin, marking the beginning of a new phase in the multilingual, mobile, and multinational complex of Jewish literature in the German capital.

Yudkoff, Sunny S. “Strangers in Berlin by Rachel Seelig.” In geveb, April 2017:
Yudkoff, Sunny S. “Strangers in Berlin by Rachel Seelig.” In geveb (April 2017): Accessed Jun 13, 2024.


Sunny S. Yudkoff

Sunny S. Yudkoff is Associate Professor of Yiddish Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.