Soviet Ambivalence and Yiddish Continuities at “Hidden in Plain Sight: Yiddish in the Socialist Bloc and its Transnationality”

Julie Sharff

This past November, I found myself Zooming into the POLIN Jewish Museum in Warsaw for the GEOP Interdisciplinary Research Workshop “Hidden in Plain Sight: Yiddish in the Socialist Bloc and its Transnationality.” This workshop, including its two public concert lectures, was a testament to the new frontiers the Yiddish language and Yiddish scholarship have traversed during the pandemic. “Hidden in Plain Sight” stood its ground against a cacophony of political turmoil, intervening in the current state of transnational Yiddish studies as well as Holocaust Studies. The conference was bookended by klezmer music, enacting a resistance to narratives of totalizing destruction.

Organizers Miriam Schulz (University of Toronto) and Alexander Walther (Schiller-Universität Jena) modeled a clear mission: engaging fearlessly with the evolving field of Soviet Yiddish, colored by the momentous legacy of the late David Shneer as an early pioneer who researched Yiddish vivacity in the Soviet political landscape. Shneer originally planned on participating in the conference. The participants and organizers captured his felt absence by memorializing and considering his life’s work, from his scholarship to his musical talents. In its multilingualism and multivocality, this workshop on Cold War Yiddish was an anti-eulogy that spoke to afterlives instead of endings.

The first night opened with a public concert lecture. The memory of Shneer in part guided the choice to include klezmer so prominently, as he had originally planned on giving performances himself. Shneer’s husband, Gregg Drinkwater (University of Colorado Boulder), spoke to the legacy and importance of Shneer’s work in enabling a conference both musically driven and insistent on Yiddish cultural vibrancy. The opening night saw a performance by Jalda Rebling, the daughter of Lin Jaldati, accompanied by musicians Tobias Morgenstern and Daniel Welting. Jaldati lived and performed in the German Democratic Republic after surviving the Holocaust. Recordings of Jaldati’s own performances played between Rebling’s live performances and historicizing interludes, intimately linking past to present through performance, a theme revisited throughout the workshop. In the Q and A, the musicians spoke about recent Polish border troubles as they Zoomed in from Jena, Germany, an unexpected reminder of the ongoing displacement of refugees and its resonances with Yiddish histories.

A striking moment from this concert was a recording of Lin Jaldati singing Es brent (It burns), a song about the destruction of a shtetl and its inhabitants. One could imagine Yiddish-speaking listeners in the GDR mourning through Jaldati’s performance, inhabiting a space of impossible return. Rebling’s lively performance recalled violence, but also fostered in listeners a present resilience. In other words, Yiddish gains some of its strengths in the present by building upon its strong resonance with the past. The power of Rebling’s performance, interwoven with her mother’s voice, evoked hundreds of years of Eastern European Jewish life. At the same time, Rebling spoke to her position as a Yiddish performer in the GDR as it transformed. Listening to her performance prompted me to ask: How do Cold War Yiddishlands reinvent Jewishness on their own terms? How do they move forward while maintaining creative continuities?

The workshop itself took place over the following days. I had the privilege of hearing from both seasoned and up-and-coming scholars as they interpreted the sites and sounds of Yiddish in its transnational contexts. The panel topics included memory, performance, transnationalism, and Yiddish in socialist countries. Because of the workshop’s focus on the Socialist Bloc, the contexts and languages that each scholar brought with them created a conversation that would otherwise be impossible. While English was the lingua franca of the workshop, Yiddish was the unifying force that allowed scholars on Romanian Yiddish literature and culture, such as Corina Petrescu (University of Mississippi) and Binyamin Hunyadi (Hebrew University), to speak to the work of scholars such as Kamil Kijek (University of Wroclaw), who interrogates Yiddish in post-war Poland.

The most significant thread connecting the concert lectures and papers was the continuing affective and political importance of Yiddish as Jews found ways to adapt to their new and at times volatile surroundings. Jan Schwartz (Lund University), whose paper discussed Chava Rosenfarb, and Rachelle Grossman (Harvard University), who wrote about Yiddish print culture, both asked how we can track the movement and connectivity of Yiddish across borders through print production. Miriam Schulz’s paper inquired into how Yiddish socialist politics in socialist countries enabled political solidarity with non-Jews, particularly those seeking a decolonial future. Additionally, Jeffrey Shandler (Rutgers University) utilized his term postvernacular Yiddish to interrogate the symbolic importance and unifying effects of Yiddish speech by members of the USSR sponsored Jewish Anti-fascist Committee (JAC). However, the other papers presented spurred me to wonder if postvernacularity similarly pushes against a narrative of fracture and death.

In conversation, the conference papers asked attendees to understand Yiddishland as transnational. The papers presented pushed against a notion that Jewish memory, and therefore Yiddish in Eastern Europe, is distinct from Soviet memory. Rather, through the workshop, I was presented with ways to interrogate how Yiddish and Jewishness persisted, or to borrow from the workshop title, hid in plain sight. Diego Rotman (Hebrew University) provided a creative alternative for these questions through puppetry and through a meta-performance. As he performed a puppet of himself and ventriloquized the history of a puppeteer from the Socialist Bloc, he embodied historical knowledge and blurred boundaries. Indeed, borders become both necessary and insufficient in understanding the embodied nature of Yiddish in the Socialist Bloc. Alexander Walther’s paper explored the importance of translation from Yiddish into German for maintaining Yiddish presence, even if a covert one, in the GDR after the Shoah through projects of Jewish self-definition. Walther’s paper intervened in scholarship on German Jewish memory politics by connecting pre-Holocaust Yiddish to GDR projects to preserve historical Jewishness.

Rather than a brittle and haggard language of victims, these papers presented a vision of Yiddish and its surviving speakers embracing new and powerful transformations. This is a crucial intervention into scholarship on Cold War era Yiddish. The rich dialogue resulting from individual participants’ wide-ranging backgrounds and language abilities made it clear that because of the wide varieties of languages spoken in the Socialist Bloc, scholarship necessitates collaboration. Even access to certain archival materials needs to be collaborative, especially as some archives are less accessible than others due to the former and current political climates of the countries where they are situated. Some histories remain buried under lock and key, while others see the light of day. With the rediscovery of material comes the need for more research. The workshop organizers plan to issue an anthology including some of the scholarship presented during the workshop as well as an appendix with Yiddish sources. I hope that this forthcoming anthology will ignite excitement to rethink Cold War Yiddish.

The workshop title, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” aptly unified these papers, which grappled with the tensions of Socialist universalism and Jewish particularism. The work of signaling Communist allegiance, such as the mission of the JAC, enabled particularity to hide well in plain sight. The papers in this conference zeroed in on the “sites” of Yiddish. In the papers, there was an implicit sense of doikayt, hereness, while decentralizing conversations that favor the terms exile (gulus) and ingathering (geulah). Instead, the presenters focused on a present-ness or doikayt in the Socialist Bloc, and even more importantly in Yiddishland, which, they suggested, formed around Yiddish speakers wherever they found themselves. The emphasis on doikayt offers yet another resonance with David Shneer’s work. His co-authored monograph with Caryn Aviv, New Jews: The End of Jewish Diaspora, resists a dichotomy conflating exile and diaspora in opposition to ingathering, geulah. Instead, Shneer and Aviv make a case for a paradigm of rootedness in the reality of the multiple places globally that Jews call home. In this workshop, scholars made evident that the Socialist Bloc, too, counters dominant narratives of assimilation and extinction.

The concluding concert lecture was an exciting world premiere entitled “Fighting with Music: Yiddish Songs of World War II from Central Asia and Chuvashia” by Anna Shternshis (University of Toronto) with Psoy Korolenko, her collaborator from their Grammy-nominated album Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II. Shternshis masterfully guided the audience through her archival findings that led to discovering each song performed. In between Shternshis’ contextualization and historicizing background of each song, we witnessed pre-recorded world-class performances led by Korolenko. The day ended with a Q and A that explored the implications of discovering songs that could laugh in the face of personal losses, and how the songs’ embrace of the songwriters’ origins constituted political resistance. This reminder of Jewish refugees carrying these songs with them, and the mobility of Yiddish more broadly, evoked the contemporary crisis at the Polish border, and now the current war in Ukraine. In many ways, it is the role of the Yiddish scholar to resist the demands of nationalism and show that Yiddish has a home wherever its speakers live.

To close, I want to revisit Shneer’s legacy. His 2004 monograph, Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture: 1918–1930, ends with the word “ambivalently.” This closing captures the simultaneous hope and devastation of Jewish culture through Yiddish language activism. The story he tells in this book ends, as he explains, before it grows wholly bleak—but his later work does enter the dark and tumultuous terrain of the War and Post-War periods. Despite the ambivalence Shneer presented in 2004, the spirit of his work evokes a liveliness and even hope on the topic of Soviet Yiddish by making space for ambivalence in the field of Yiddish studies broadly. I left the workshop space with my own ambivalence. There was deserved creativity and energy in the papers put forward by the workshop participants. Nevertheless, the execution of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in 1952 and the eventual end of the public place of Yiddish in Soviet culture haunts the presenters’ research. However, the participants moved beyond a narrative of Yiddish death. This conference showed that Yiddish, in fact, never disappeared but transformed itself, remaining in politics, in culture, and everyday life through words of active resistance and memorialization.

Sharff, Julie. “Soviet Ambivalence and Yiddish Continuities at “Hidden in Plain Sight: Yiddish in the Socialist Bloc and its Transnationality”.” In geveb, March 2022:
Sharff, Julie. “Soviet Ambivalence and Yiddish Continuities at “Hidden in Plain Sight: Yiddish in the Socialist Bloc and its Transnationality”.” In geveb (March 2022): Accessed May 23, 2024.


Julie Sharff

Julie Sharff is a PhD student in the Department for the Study of Religion and the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.