Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution


Between 1917 and 1921, as revolution convulsed Russia, Jewish intellectuals and writers across the crumbling empire threw themselves into the pursuit of a “Jewish renaissance.” At the heart of their program lay a radically new vision of Jewish culture predicated not on religion but on art and secular individuality, national in scope yet cosmopolitan in content, framed by a fierce devotion to Hebrew or Yiddish yet obsessed with importing and participating in the shared culture of Europe and the world. These ...

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Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution

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Between 1917 and 1921, as revolution convulsed Russia, Jewish intellectuals and writers across the crumbling empire threw themselves into the pursuit of a “Jewish renaissance.” At the heart of their program lay a radically new vision of Jewish culture predicated not on religion but on art and secular individuality, national in scope yet cosmopolitan in content, framed by a fierce devotion to Hebrew or Yiddish yet obsessed with importing and participating in the shared culture of Europe and the world. These cultural warriors sought to recast themselves and other Jews not only as a modern nation but as a nation of moderns.

Kenneth Moss offers the first comprehensive look at this fascinating moment in Jewish and Russian history. He examines what these numerous would-be cultural revolutionaries, such as El Lissitzky and Haim Nahman Bialik, meant by a new Jewish culture, and details their fierce disagreements but also their shared assumptions about what culture was and why it was so important. In close readings of Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian texts, he traces how they sought to realize their ideals in practice as writers, artists, and thinkers in the burgeoning cultural centers of Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa. And he reveals what happened to them and their ideals as the Bolsheviks consolidated their hold over cultural life.

Here is a brilliant, revisionist argument about the nature of cultural nationalism, the relationship between nationalism and socialism as ideological systems, and culture itself, the axis around which the encounter between Jews and European modernity has pivoted over the past century.

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Editorial Reviews

Samuel D. Kassow
A truly outstanding book. Kenneth Moss shows that Jewish writers, poets, and artists, building on new views of art already in place long before the Russian Revolution, argued that creativity was its own end and followed its own rules. They could best regenerate the nation and serve the people by producing great art and a high culture that would break out of the stifling boundaries of Jewish parochial concerns. This book will rank as a landmark study in the history of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe.
Ruth R. Wisse
In a book that will be indispensable to readers of modern Jewish literature, culture, and history, Moss traces how Jewish writers and intellectuals formulated the conceptual and practical basis for a national Jewish culture that would be independent of the political circumstances that fueled its emergence. Since this Jewish renaissance was necessarily affected by events in Russia and Ukraine, the book is also a valuable guide to the surrounding pressures of civil war, Revolution, and counter-Revolution. I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Olga Litvak
Moss recovers a singularly complex moment in modern Jewish history in a meticulously documented and beautifully written work. Tapping a treasury of sources in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian, he offers a sensitive and acutely intelligent reading of the Jewish cultural scene during the heady years between February 1917 and the Bolshevik triumph. Indispensable for all students of Russia and its Jews, this engaging study is an inspired example of new scholarship devoted to the varieties of the Russian-Jewish encounter.
Tony Michels
A penetrating examination of modern Jewish culture during the watershed years 1917 to 1919. Lucid, theoretically sophisticated, and extensively researched, this book investigates the efforts of intellectuals to mobilize popular support for the creation of new, high cultures in Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish. In the process, Moss offers a thought-provoking reinterpretation of nationalism and its relationship to culture.
The Tablet - Adam Kirsch
Jewish history in the 20th century is full of might-have-beens, most of them too sorrowful to bear thinking about. The brief cultural moment that Kenneth B. Moss resurrects in Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution is one of the least known and most fascinating of those aborted futures: a two-year period when writers, artists, and activists in Russia and Ukraine believed they were midwiving the birth of a new Jewish culture. Drawing on little-known sources in Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish, Moss brilliantly anatomizes the institutions and ideas that flourished in that tumultuous time, before the window of history slammed shut and the European Jewish future took a much different turn...[Moss] is the rare kind of scholar who can both uncover obscure foreign-language sources and also effectively bring ideas to life. In fact, what comes across most clearly in Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution is the intellectual idealism of the "culturists." As Moss repeatedly demonstrates, they always placed art above politics; even the most ardent Zionists and socialists refused to make culture simply a vehicle for their causes. This makes the Hebraists and Yiddishists of 1917 to 1919 practically unique among nationalist intelligentsias, who have usually seen literature as a means of making the nation, rather than an art of individual expression.
Forward - Marci Shore
Brilliant...[Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution] is both an intellectual history and a sociology of intersecting cultural projects...The culturists' most poignant paradox lay in their relationship to culture itself. These people were, Moss shows, at once deeply politically engaged and passionately committed to the sovereign value of art. "Culture" as an end unto itself was connected powerfully with selfhood; and the culturists opposed a collective Jewish identity that would subsume the individual. Nonetheless, the culturists were also nationalists. They were nationalists who believed that the Jewish nation could be (re)constructed only by autonomous, creative, self--realizing individuals committing to the project of their own free will. Art, they believed, must not be instrumentalized--for only when culture was insulated from politics could it serve national purposes...The depth of knowledge, the sensitivity to both poetic and political language, and the penetrating readings of primary texts are all quite extraordinary. Moss does a remarkable job of respecting the complexity of his protagonists' motives. He recollects not only the answers to the questions the culturists' posed and the results of their efforts, but also the questions and the efforts themselves. He shares with his protagonists an opposition to a reductionist understanding of culture. And with an impressively nonpartisan detachment, he insists on the need to understand the tensions and contradictions inherent in this culture--building project--without willing them away for reasons ideological, political or philosophical.
Jewish Book World
This outstanding book examines the remarkable Jewish cultural renaissance that blossomed in Yiddish and Hebrew during the Russian Revolution and Civil War between 1917 and 1921...This book is a fundamental work on modern secular Jewish culture in Soviet Russia.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674035102
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/30/2009
  • Pages: 408
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Kenneth B. Moss is Felix Posen Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish History, The Johns Hopkins University.
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Table of Contents

  • Note on Transliteration and Translation

  • Introduction

  1. The Time for Words Has Passed

  2. The Constitution of Culture

  3. Unfettering Hebrew and Yiddish Culture

  4. To Make Our Masses Intellectual

  5. The Liberation of the Jewish Individual

  6. The Imperatives of Revolution

  7. Making Jewish Culture Bolshevik

  • Conclusion

  • Notes

  • Acknowledgments

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