Jun 06, 2018
The striking cover of the first issue of Milgroym, with two brightly-colored birds tasting the riches of the titular pomegranate, invites readers into the new Yiddish magazine. Only the title, with its stylized letters punctuated by red medallions, and the smaller Yiddish word heft (issue) at the bottom of the page reveal the text’s language. In fact, the first few pages of this Yiddish magazine are thoroughly multilingual: notices about the Rimon Press’s other publishing projects, with books in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, German and English; descriptions of the magazine in Yiddish, Hebrew and German; table of contents in Yiddish and German. Milgroym, these prefacing pages tell us, may be a Yiddish magazine, but it is situated in a multilingual context.
The Rimon Press’s multilingualism makes a great deal of sense given the circumstances of early twentieth century European Jewish culture. In the early 1920s, European Jews were not only overwhelmingly multilingual but they were also on the move, circulating between the East European centers of Jewish culture like Warsaw and Odessa, as well as Vienna, London, Tel Aviv, New York, Buenos Aires and more. Berlin, with its vibrant cultural scene, was a common stop for Jewish writers and artists. Some, like Dovid Bergelson and S.Y. Agnon, spent years in Germany; others, like Moyshe Kulbak and Chayim Nachman Bialik, passed through briefly before continuing on to the Soviet Union, United States or Palestine. The Rimon Press and its publishing projects, particularly the magazines Milgroym and Rimon capitalized on the geographic and linguistic dynamics of Jewish culture in Berlin, not to mention the financial advantages of Weimar Germany’s hyperinflation.
Established by historian Mark Wischnitzer and art historian Rachel Wischnitzer Bernstein, Milgroym and Rimon combined the work of German-trained scholars with Russian cultural models and Yiddish and Hebrew literary work. For example, German and German-Jewish scholars such as Julius Meier-Graefe, Franz Landsberger and E. L. Sukenik published essays in both magazines, on topics ranging such as impressionism (issue 1), medieval art (issue 2) and ancient synagogues (issue 3). As Russian émigrés, Mark Wischnitzer and Rachel Wischnitzer Bernstein brought a Russian intellectual tradition with them from St. Petersburg, with help from Leopold A. Sev, editor of the prominent Russian Jewish periodical Voskhod (later Novy Voskhod) and Alexandr E. Kogan, editor of the prestigious Russian arts and letters magazine Zhar-Ptitsa (The Firebird). 1 1 There are many similarities between Milgroym, Rimon and Zhar-Ptitsa, including the fact that Zhar-Ptitsa was published in Russian, but also provided German, French, and English editions. See Susanne Marten-Finnis, “‘A Beautiful Lie’ - Zhar-Ptitsa (The Firebird) - Sustaining Journalistic Activity and Showcasing Russia in 1920s Berlin,” in The Russian Jewish Diaspora and European Culture, 1917-1937, ed. Jörg Schulte, Olga Tabachnikova, and Peter Wagstaff (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 301–26; and Francesco Melfi, “A Rhetoric of Image and Word: The Magazine Milgroym/Rimon, 1922-1924 and the Jewish Search for Inclusivity” (PhD, Jewish Theological Seminary), 12-14.
The magazines, however, were published in Yiddish and Hebrew, not in German or Russian. Yiddish and Hebrew had a long history as the languages of East European Jewish life and culture. For generations, Hebrew had been the language of the synagogue and the study house, while Yiddish was the primary vernacular, the language of daily life. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, modern Yiddish and Hebrew literatures were increasingly competing with each other for status and readers. The traditional Hebrew-Yiddish bilingualism was increasingly contested from a variety of directions: the antagonism towards Yiddish in Zionist Palestine; the (temporary) embrace of Yiddish and repression of Hebrew in the new Soviet Union; the appeal of Polish, German and English in Poland, Germany and England, the United States and Canada. Jewish literary bilingualism, epitomized by Hebrew-Yiddish writers like S.Y. Abramovish and Y.L. Peretz, yielded to literary monolingualism driven by political polarization. Even with the growing tensions between the languages and their ideologues, virtually all European Hebrew readers could read Yiddish, given the deeply ingrained internal bilingualism of East European Jewish culture. But the reverse was not necessarily the case; Yiddish readers without strong traditional educations likely would not read a Hebrew periodical.
Why would the Rimon Press publish its lavish arts and letters magazines in Yiddish and Hebrew? The magazines themselves do not provide an explicit answer to that question, though their organization sheds light on this strange linguistic arrangement. Milgroym and Rimon each had their own distinct literature sections with poetry, prose and essays written in Yiddish and Hebrew, respectively. But they shared a single set of articles on art, theatre and music, many of which were written in German and translated into Yiddish and Hebrew. Jewish visual and performing arts, this organization suggests, transcend linguistic boundaries, while literature remains anchored in particular languages. In this respect, they are neither a single magazine nor two separate ones, but an intriguing hybrid of the two European Jewish languages during a time of linguistic schism.
The magazines’ self-presentation, interestingly enough, avoids the issue of language. Each issue of Milgroym and Rimon includes a prefacing page that explains the goals of the magazine. The text reads:
“The magazine is published bimonthly in the format of this issue, on fine art paper with a color cover. It is dedicated to art, music and theatre, particularly Jewish art of the past and present. 2 2 This is translated from Yiddish (Milgroym 1). Differences between this introductory statement in Hebrew and Yiddish are minor, though Yiddish uses the term yidishe kunst [Jewish or Yiddish art] and Hebrew uses omanut yisra’elit [Jewish or Israeli art]. All translations are mine. Each issue has approximately twenty-five pictures, some in color, and many black and white drawings. The literary section includes stories and poems, criticism and articles about literature, art and scholarship from the best writers.” (Milgroym 1)
Art, music, theater and the design of the magazine are foregrounded here. The literary section appears almost as an afterthought, appended to the artistic elements. Language is not mentioned at all, although the statement was provided in both Yiddish and Hebrew in both magazines. In Milgroym, the Yiddish statement is printed first, and the Hebrew version below it. In Rimon, the Hebrew statement is at the top of the page, with the Yiddish version underneath. Nothing on this page explains the magazines’ bilingualism. There is no editorial commentary or programmatic statement that reflects on the decision to publish simultaneously in Hebrew and Yiddish. But there is also no attempt to hide the dual publication.
A few years after the Rimon Press collapsed and the magazines folded, art editor Rachel Wischnitzer Bernstein explained the choice to publish magazines in both Yiddish and Hebrew in a brief article in Berlin’s German-Jewish periodical Soncino-Blätter: “Neither Rimon nor Milgroym are party or clique organs. The equality of both languages was intended to completely get rid of the language debate.” 3 3 Rachel Wischnitzer-Bernstein, “Eine Selbst-Anzeige,” Soncino-Blätter 1 (1925-1926), 95-96. Wischnitzer Bernstein explains that publishing bilingually represented an effort to distance this project from partisan politics and the politically-charged language debate. She seems to assume that choosing to publish in Yiddish and not in Hebrew, for example, would be perceived potentially as anti-Zionist or pro-diaspora nationalism. By publishing in both, she suggests, the magazines could dispense with questions of party and linguistic affiliations. Milgroym and Rimon reflect this fundamental disengagement with the political dimensions of language choice. Perhaps the best example of this linguistic disconnect is the work of Wischnitzer Bernstein herself; a frequent contributor to the art section, Wischnitzer Bernstein wrote all of her essays in German and had them translated into Hebrew and Yiddish. Still, it is hard to believe that a Jewishly engaged periodical could be as detached from the language question as Wischnitzer Bernstein’s comments suggest. In a polarized cultural field, the choice to sidestep a political debate is a political act as well. It is not surprising that both Yiddish and Hebrew critics harshly criticized the magazines for the lack of political engagement.
Years later, Wischnitzer Bernstein gave a different perspective on bilingual publishing in her memoirs. In an autobiographical essay, she recounts the establishment of the magazines and describes one of the first challenges facing the editors:
“The first question we had to face was the question of language. We realized that German, the language of Goethe, Schiller and Moses Mendelssohn was, after World War I, no longer the unifying cultural vehicle of the Jewish intelligentsia. We wanted to reach out to cultural groups in America and the growing Jewish community in Palestine. Yiddish and Hebrew seemed to be indicated. There were to be two companion magazines, each with a literary and an art section.” 4 4 Rachel Wischnitzer, “From My Archives,” Journal of Jewish Art 6 (1979), 7.
Writing in English, Wischnitzer Bernstein focuses on geography more than ideology. Still, her recollection of the editors’ decision demonstrates the changes underway in interwar Jewish culture. Though the Rimon Press was based in Berlin, she describes a considered rejection of German as the language of the Jewish Enlightenment and modern intellectual pursuits. Cultural outreach, particularly to Yiddish readers in North America and Hebrew readers in Palestine, prompts a pragmatic decision to publish in Yiddish and Hebrew. In contrast to her earlier statements, language is understood as a vehicle for the magazines’ cultural program rather than a political entanglement. Wischnitzer Bernstein does not explain why the editors see American and Palestinian Jewish readers as their primary target audience, given the booming market for Yiddish in interwar Poland. But it seems likely that there were both practical and ideological motivations driving that statement. The magazines, and Wischnitzer Bernstein in particular, sought to educate readers about modern and Jewish art and the symbiosis between the two, and American and Palestinian audiences were two growing communities that were judged to be more receptive audiences for that message. American, and to a lesser degree Palestinian Jewish readers, were also sources of much-needed foreign currency, which helped the press thrive in the midst of Germany’s hyperinflation in the early 1920s.
This unusual publishing decision manifests in a few different ways in the magazines themselves. As we have seen, the prefacing pages are highly multilingual, incorporating not only Yiddish and Hebrew but also elements in German and English, reflecting the wide geographic circulation of the magazines. The magazines’ chronicle of Jewish cultural news (issues 3-6) is also global in scope, noting art exhibitions in Berlin, New York, Stockholm and Jerusalem and new publications and other cultural news from New Jersey, Berlin, Paris, London and Warsaw. The art section relies heavily on translation, with many essays translated from German or Russian into Yiddish for Milgroym and Hebrew for Rimon. But it is in the literary section that the bilingual publication of the magazines is most complicated.
A bilingual survey of literary contributions to the six issues of Milgroym and Rimon shows unevenness in style and quality. The first issue of Milgroym, edited by Yiddish modernists Dovid Bergelson and Der Nister, has a decidedly modernist bent, with Dovid Hofshteyn’s avant-garde poem, “Dos lid fun mayn glaykhgilt” (Song of my indifference), Bergelson’s expressionist short story “Onheyb kislev 1919” (Beginning of Kislev 1919) and Der Nister’s symbolist “Afn grenits” (At the border). Rimon, by contrast, edited by historian Mark Wischnitzer and lexicographer Baruch Krupnik, is a stylistic hodgepodge, combining Ya’akov Steinberg’s realist story “Al chof ha-desna” (On the banks of the Desna) with a variety of Hebrew poems, from Yitzhak Katznelson’s vaguely romantic poem “Halakh-nafesh” (Mood) to Ya’akov Koplevitz’s short poem “Ba-miksam” (Enchanted). If Rimon’s literary section features a set of light literary texts with few contemporary connections, Milgroym offers more complex and darker literary impressions of interwar European Jewish life, indifferent, unmoored, and often violent.
In subsequent issues, however, the gap shrinks between the two magazines. Dovid Bergelson and Der Nister left Milgroym after the first issue, perhaps in reaction to highly critical reactions from Yiddish intellectuals in Poland and the Soviet Union. By the third issue, Moshe Kleinmann was listed as co-editor of the literary section, along with editor-in-chief Mark Wischnitzer, in both Milgroym and Rimon. While the magazines continue to draw most of their literary material from Yiddish and Hebrew writers, respectively, they become more similar in several respects: both literary sections demonstrate stylistic eclecticism, mixing realist, romantic and modernist pieces; they show a clear preference for poetry and prose sketches rather than longer short stories; and they publish work primarily from writers living in Europe, Palestine and the United States. This shift away from the modernist centers of Yiddish culture in Poland and the Soviet Union in the 1920s is pronounced and telling. As the magazines’ editors seem to avoid the politics – linguistic and otherwise – of the time, they also veer away from the literary avant-garde in Yiddish and in Hebrew. There are exceptions, of course, which we can see in the poems of A.N. Stencl (Milgroym 6) and Uri Zvi Greenberg (Rimon 6). But under Kleinmann and Wischnitzer’s editorial guidance, both Yiddish and Hebrew literary sections tend towards older styles and texts and stylized representations of the past rather than modernist or experimental texts. Ultimately, the magazines succeed in skirting the politics of interwar Jewish culture, but in the process, sacrifice much of the complexity and innovation of interwar Yiddish and Hebrew literatures.
What do we gain from reading Milgroym and Rimon together, as twin publications? On a basic level, this bilingual publication testifies to the richness of Jewish culture – in Yiddish, Hebrew and other languages – that emanated from Berlin during the heady days of the early 1920s. In these magazines, Wischnitzer Bernstein and the other editors proposed that Jewish art could transcend linguistic, political and other divisions in early twentieth century Jewish culture. Crafting a shared artistic tradition, the magazines argued implicitly that both Yiddish and Hebrew could be the languages of Jewish art. But in practice, the magazines’ bilingualism pulls the periodicals in different directions, exposing sites of cultural convergence and divergence. Both magazines could accommodate, via translation, a wide range of essays on Jewish art. The literary sections are each distinct, but aside from a few notable literary pieces (Yoysef Opotoshu’s sketches and Leyb Kvitko’s poems in Milgroym; poetry by Avigdor Ha-me’iri and Uri Zvi Greenberg and a short story by S. Y. Agnon in Rimon), they are both largely forgettable. The editors publish the magazines in both Yiddish and Hebrew to sidestep the politics of modern Jewish culture, but in the process, lose much of the richness, innovation and experimentation in Jewish-language literature of the time.