The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture


The rise of Yiddish culture was not a smooth social process but one that was highly contested and debated by the Jewish intelligentsia. Contempt for Yiddish as a jargon or corrupted German was as old as the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) movement. What was new at the turn of the 20th century was the emergence of a pro-Yiddish intelligentsia, which embraced the language, its literature, and its culture as values.

Yiddishism was predicated on certain Jewish nationalist and populist ideas: the Jews needed to preserve their linguistic distinctiveness as part of their struggle for national survival in the diaspora. On the other hand, the linguistic chasm that had separated the Jewish intelligentsia from the Jewish masses needed to be eliminated. The intelligentsia needed to draw near to the masses and learn from the latter’s accumulated wisdom, as embodied in their language and folklore. The common core of Yiddishism was embraced by a large part of the Jewish intelligentsia from 1905 on: Bundists, non-Bundist socialists, socialist Zionists, liberal diaspora Nationalists, and even a few general Zionists.

Whether the rise of Yiddish signaled a radical shift in the content and direction of Jewish culture was a subject of debate among Yiddishists. For Chaim Zhitlovsky, the rise of Yiddish and anticipated decline of Hebrew marked a shift from a religious-dominated culture to a thoroughly secular and European one. Language would be the glue of Jewish group cohesiveness, but not content. Modern Yiddish culture did not need to have particularly Jewish content, any more than French culture needed to be uniquely French, let alone Catholic, in its content. But for I.L. Peretz, it was imperative that the new Yiddish culture inherit the riches of the old, Jewish religious culture, from the Bible through Hasidic thought, which had been created primarily in Hebrew, and that modern Yiddish culture perpetuate its spirit. For Peretz, Yiddish could only legitimately claim to be a Jewish national language once all great Jewish cultural treasures, such as the Bible and Midrash, would be available in it. Modern Yiddish culture arose in tension between the positions of Zhitlovsky and Peretz.

The tension is best illustrated in the curricula and textbooks of modern Yiddish schools. While it is commonly assumed that Yiddish schools were staunchly secularist, much traditional Jewish content was integrated into Yiddish schools under new, transformed rubrics. Bible could be recast as ancient Jewish history, Midrash and Agadah could be considered folk literature, the holidays and their rituals were national customs, Hasidic tales were folklore. Even the Vilna Gaon, an ascetic and elitist and an arch opponent of Hasidism, could be appropriated by some Yiddishists as a folk hero. Furthermore, Yiddish literature could itself be used as a source to teach children about Sabbath and holidays. Thus the break between traditional Judaism and secular Yiddish nationalism was far from total and was often less dramatic in practice than in theory.


Zhitlovsky (born in Vitebsk in 1865, died in Canada in 1943) was the father of the culturally radical version of Yiddishism. Zhitlovsky affirmed Jewish nationality while supporting its total separation from Jewish religion. Religion could no longer serve, in the modern era, as the binding force that United Jewish people in the diaspora, because it flew in the face of modern science, philosophy, and morality. On the other hand, the Jewish people could not rely on territorial concentration and political sovereignty as binding national forces, at least for the foreseeable future. It was therefore imperative that language, specifically Yiddish, serve as the basis for national unity.

The task of Jewish nation building, according to Zhitlovsky, was to create a comprehensive modern culture in Yiddish, so the Jewish people could satisfy all of its intellectual and cultural needs in its own tongue. Zhitlovsky looked forward to the creation of Yiddish-language universities and himself composed a two-volume history of world philosophy, as well as translations of works by Friedrich Nietzsche, in Yiddish. For Zhitlovsky, the rise of Yiddish, and its displacement of Hebrew, symbolized a cultural revolution taking place in Jewry—the end of the era of religious Judaism and the dawn of the era of free, secular Jewish culture.

David Fishman is professor of Jewish History at The Jewish Theological Seminary. This excerpt from The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture (University of Pittsburgh, 2005) is reprinted with permission from the publisher.