Diaspora Nationalism, Yiddish Contradiction: a conversation with Max Sparber

Dade Lemanski

Last week my Google alert for Yiddish, which usually keeps me apprised of Yiddish conversation circles in Cleveland and Hasidic books for sale on Craigslist, informed me instead about a new Wikipedia page on Golus nationalism. I didn’t know the term but I had an intuitive sense about its meaning, and some surprise at the (re)emergence of the idea in 2017. Why now? 1 1 As it turns out, there’s been a lot of recent interest in the hundred-odd-year-old concept of Diaspora nationalism, from investigation to reclamation of the ideology. Artist Jenna Brager began publishing the Doykeit zine in 2012, the same year that scholar Simon Rabinovitch’s bookJews & Diaspora Nationalism: Writings on Jewish Peoplehood in Europe and the United States was released. But I’d argue also that the discussion of Diaspora nationalism has been continuous since its inception, traceable, for instance, to painter R.B. Kitaj’s First Diasporist Manifesto (1989), and to many acts of political and artistic resistance and imagination over the last hundred years. Who was adding Yiddish sociopolitical terminology to this powerful and powerfully flawed (much like nationalism itself!) open-source encyclopedia? I checked the edit history, and found a familiar name: Max Sparber. 2 2 Full disclosure: I also contributed, in a minor way, by fixing a typo; on the morning of March 9, the Yiddish translation and transliteration of goles nationalism read “גאָלעס נאַטסיאָנאַליסטן Golus natsionalistn after golus.” The contributor who added this (not Max!) must have meant natsionalizm, I was sure, and I fixed the phonetic spelling of goles too, changing it to גלות, though perhaps this typo was in fact an indicator of yet another realm of diasporism, spelling reform! Max writes a blog, Dress British Think Yiddish, that chronicles his attempt to teach himself Yiddish in the Midwest, and he wrote about the process for In geveb several months ago. I sent him an email, asking if we could chat. What followed was a thick, chewy conversation about resistance ideology, (in)visibility, assimilation, and the weight of political thought.

Diana Clarke: Max, I’m writing you on the evening of March 6, and the new version of Trump’s racist, xenophobic, anti-Muslim immigration ban has just been released. It feels like an especially difficult and necessary time to be talking about the idea of nationalism, and of goles. What made you want to revive goles nationalism in public discourse this week? How are you engaging with the term?

Max Sparper: The subject has been floating around in my head for a while, especially because of the visible rise of white nationalism just now. The day Trump was elected, it was very hard not to feel as though assimilation was a failed experiment; that no matter how much American Jews shed those elements that made them identifiably Jewish, and how much we duplicated the behavior of the non-Jewish majority, there would be a significant percentage of the population that still saw us as alien. That the old antisemitic canards can still easily take root.

From Wikipedia: Golus nationalism (Yiddish: גלות נאַציאָנאַליזם Golus natsionalizm after golus), or Diaspora Nationalism, is a national movement of the Jewish people that argued for furthering Jewish national and cultural life in the large Jewish centers throughout the world, while at the same time seeking recognition for a Jewish national identity from world powers.

This has been further confirmed by the uptick in antisemitism. The spate of bomb threats, in particular, focused on a largely secular institution, our Jewish Community Centers, rather than more overtly, visibly, or traditionally Jewish organizations. I suppose every generation has its moment when they wonder if there will ever be an end to antisemitism, or if there is a solution to it.

Zionism was proposed as a solution, and, whatever merits Zionism has, I don’t think anyone can argue it solved antisemitism. And, for me, it was a solution that rejected the goles, rejected diaspora, and rejected Diaspora languages, including Yiddish. Embedded in Zionism is the idea of shlilas ha’goles, the Negation of the Diaspora.

Well, the Diaspora didn’t go away, and I am a Diaspora Jew and the child of two millennia of Diaspora Jews, and so I struggle with the idea of living in a Diaspora that simultaneously strongly encourages assimilation and encourages a view of Jewish Nationalism that rejects my experience and the experience of my ancestors. At this moment, that is not working for me, and so I wanted to explore some other options.

DC: How did you get interested in goles nationalism? What about the idea spoke to you when you first encountered it?

MS: I don’t remember when I first learned about it, but it feels like it has been kicking around the back of my head for a long time. I’m always surprised at how obscure it is to the general population, since it was conceived by Nathan Birnbaum, 3 3 Birnbaum was certainly one of the key proponents of Diaspora nationalism, but not its sole originator; for more detail and history, Rabinovitch’s book Jews and Diaspora Nationalism is a good place to start. the same man who gave Zionism its name. But poor Nathan is pretty obscure to the average Jew, probably because Zionism found a following that goles nationalism never did.

I decided a few months ago to start adding articles to Wikipedia on Jewish—and especially Yiddish—subjects that were lacking. Since Birnbaum’s ideas of goles nationalism explicitly involved preserving Yiddish as a national language, and since there was no Wikipedia article on the subject, this seemed as good an excuse as any to research the subject. I don’t claim a comprehensive knowledge, but neither do I need one to start a Wikipedia article. It’s a collaborative site, and so it is likely that others will edit and add where they feel the subject needs it.

I found the subject appealing precisely because it was conceived as an alternative to Zionism, one that made the Diaspora experience primary and preserved Diaspora Jewish language and culture. If I am to remain in the Diaspora, which I intend to, I wanted to explore ideas about the subject that discouraged assimilation and encouraged Jews to see their Diaspora experience as worthwhile.

DC: Wikipedia marks the article on goles nationalism “an orphan, as no other articles link to it.” Which puts the entry itself into a kind of exile, or separation, from the rest of the knowledge on Wikipedia. How are you thinking about the links between knowledges, and the role of open-source information, in the fake news era?

MS: One of the things you have to do after you write a Wikipedia article is seed it throughout the site, so that it isn’t orphaned like this entry is; in fact, I have added a link from the Wikipedia page for Birnbaum, which previously did not even name goles nationalism, and will add more as they occur to me. Eventually, information becomes embedded throughout the site, and that’s important.

In fact, the reason I added this subject was because I think without an entry for it on Wikipedia, it was largely invisible to the web, and, by extension, to much of the world. Wikipedia has become one of the primary sources for knowledge in the online world. I think goles nationalism should be an important part of the conversation about Jewishness, and this was one way I knew I could help introduce it into the conversation.

DC: You’ve edited and written articles for Wikipedia before. Can you talk about that experience, and how it informs or intersects with your experience editing specifically Jewish/Yiddish/diasporic pages? If you’ve interacted with other Wikipedia users, what has that been like?

MS: I wrote a few entries many years ago, mostly about things I just generally was interested in or had a relationship with. I authored a page on Nudie Cohn, as an example, who created the distinctive decorative cowboy costumes worn by many country singers and singing cowboys. It typically has been something I have done and then walked away from. I actually forgot I wrote the page until maybe a year ago when I wanted to read up on Cohn and went to Wikipedia and suddenly realized I had written a lot of it.

It had been edited and expanded considerably in the intervening years, and I didn’t feel any sense of ownership over the page, so I was simply interested to see the way a group of people collaboratively developed an encyclopedia entry.

I’m a little more activist just now, in that I am deliberately creating pages to address areas in Yiddish that I think are overlooked. The first page I created was for Yiddish cabaret artist Pepi Litman, because Wikipedia tends to have a rather poor record around women’s biographies, 4 4 Every March since 2014, the organization Art + Feminism has hosted Wikipedia edit-a-thons to remedy the lack of representation of women among Wikipedia editors as well as in its content. Find a hack-a-thon happening near you this month here. and also since Litman performed in drag she can be seen as a precursor to drag kings, and it seemed a shame that this fact was little-known.

So I think I have more of a sense of these pages being important, more of a sense of protectiveness, rather than ownership. There is always the risk that some random editor will just decide your page isn’t important, or should be part of another page, and one day it will be gone. And this can often be pretty blinkered, such as the notorious case several years ago when a single editor decided to remove all women authors and place them in their own gendered category, leaving just male authors in the general, ungendered category, which sent a weird, sexist message. Who knows what somebody might consider important or unimportant in the world of Yiddish?

DC: Are you a golus nationalist? Why or why not?

I am not, because I am not a nationalist. I think nationalism’s track record has been abominable, and it seems to constantly insist on some sort of assimilation toward an invented, idealized notion of national identity -- Birnbaum really wanted a declaration that Yiddish was the Jewish language of the Diaspora, when it was just one of many, and so even here we find this desire to create something unified where there was instead a naturally occurring pluralism.

It may just be against my nature to rebel against that. I am an Irish-American adopted by a liberal Jewish family who came from a rather significant Hasidic line. My ancestors were Polish, Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Moldovan, and I am interested in those specific histories, rather than a generalized idea of Eastern European Judaism. I am also Minnesotan and feel strongly influenced by the local version of German and Scandinavian cultures that settled here.

I feel like I can be all these things at once without conflict, or, if there is conflict, it is an interesting and essential conflict. As I try to be more visibly Jewish, try to be less assimilated, it has mostly meant embracing all those things and finding ways to experience them and express them.

But golus nationalism appeals to me because I think it was attempting something similar, in that it was asking how Jews can maintain their identity in a non-Jewish world. I don’t have to agree with everything Birnbaum wrote to agree that Yiddish is important, Jewish culture is important, Jewish identity is important, and it is possible to retain that even when you are part of a larger community. That, in fact, those things are not in conflict with the larger community, but part of what makes that larger community stronger and more interesting.

And it also seems important to me because, just now, there are people who want to terrorize me because I am Jewish, to communicate that that Jewishness does not belong and is not welcome, and to hell with them.

Read Max’s blog post about putting Yiddish history on Wikipedia here.

Lemanski, Dade. “Diaspora Nationalism, Yiddish Contradiction: a conversation with Max Sparber.” In geveb, March 2017:
Lemanski, Dade. “Diaspora Nationalism, Yiddish Contradiction: a conversation with Max Sparber.” In geveb (March 2017): Accessed Apr 19, 2024.


Dade Lemanski

Dade Lemanski is a writer, scholar, and translator living in Pittsburgh.