- Book Review Index
Jewish Bialystok and its Diaspora, by Rebecca Kobrin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. 375 pp. $24.95.
Rebecca Kobrin’s impressive study will be welcomed by a number of reading communities. Students of modern Jewish history, especially those focused on American and East European Jewish experiences, will find that the narrative illuminates important aspects of their own studies, while those engaged in Diaspora or transnational research projects will be challenged by the arguments of this monograph.
Kobrin traces the growth of Bialystok Jewish life over the course of the nineteenth century: she establishes the character of the local Jewish community with attention to important communally organized self-help projects and acquaints readers with the diverse cultural and political movements that sprouted within the community. She highlights the critical role that the textile industry played in the economic growth and development of Jewish Bialystok. Numbering about 48,000 by the turn of the twentieth century, the Jews made up approximately 75 percent of the local population, and came to see the city as intrinsically their own. In Kobrin’s judgment, this sense of possession shaped the identity of the émigrés to the point that they looked to Bialystok rather than to the Russian Empire or East Europe as the old home. She describes how Bialystok émigrés created a new Diaspora Jewish identity, that of Bialystokers in dispersion, a provocative twist on the historic theme of Exile and Return in the Jewish experience. In fact, unlike so many non-Jewish immigrants who came to the United States in the 1880–1924 period, Bialystokers in dispersion never gave serious thought to returning to their mother-city. Yet they identified themselves as her children and as the proud bearers of a noble heritage whose legacy they sought to perpetuate and even expand.
Kobrin examines the manner in which Bialystok émigrés established themselves as a distinctive community in New York, Buenos Aires, Melbourne, and Palestine, seeking each other out and creating local organizations that defined them by place of origin and established them as a distinctive entity within the larger Jewish émigré community. They created community centers, old-age homes, and newspapers, all of which reinforced their identities as Bialystokers connected to other Bialystokers, locally as well as transnationally. And, while forging this Diaspora persona, they did not forget or abandon Bialystok. The city continued to attract their interests and their concern, especially so after World War I when it had to meet the challenges of economic recovery and integration into the new Polish republic. Against all expectations, this sense of community was transmitted from the generation of immigrants to future generations born in the new Diaspora as the commitment to perpetuate the institutions associated with the name Bialystok continued well into the second half of the twentieth century.
Kobrin’s principal Diaspora Bialystoker is David Sohn (1890–1967), who for nearly half a century represented the public voice of the American Bialystok Diaspora as editor of Der Bialystoker Stimme and the director of the Bialystoker Center in New York. Sohn’s energetic promotion of the brand, Bialystok, through his writing and his organizational efforts, linked many of the initiatives introduced and analyzed in these pages. His commitment to this community was unflagging through Depression, War, occupation, and ultimately destruction. What is so interesting about Sohn, which really typifies the entire phenomenon, is the depth of commitment to a location by individuals whose connections to it were historically rather shallow, a concept that Kobrin acknowledges explicitly (p. 68).
Jewish Bialystok was itself a product of Jewish migration in search of economic opportunity in the Tsarist Empire; no more than two thousand Jews lived there at the time of its incorporation into the Empire in the aftermath of the Polish Partitions. Hence, the Jewish emigrants who made up the Bialystok Diaspora in the twentieth century were at best third-generation Bialystokers. Thus, for most immigrants, the Bialystok heritage that Sohn and others strove to perpetuate belonged more to the realm of an “imagined community” than to a deeply entrenched historic reality.
In addressing this issue, Kobrin’s analysis underscores the psychological aspects of immigration and the need to establish status as well as identity in the new setting. She concludes that the invoked heritage of social welfare and philanthropy became the core of the Bialystok legacy. Sohn and the other leaders of the New York community of emigrants appealed to Bialystokers to follow in the footsteps of their mother city by creating and maintaining the Bialystok Center, an impressive edifice on New York’s East Broadway (pictured on p. 87) which would not only care for the elderly, but whose reality enhanced the prestige of Bialystok within the larger émigré community and clearly distinguished it from other East European Jewish immigrant societies. The Bialystok Center and its many attendant organizational offshoots were central to the formation of the Diaspora identity. Thereafter the need to maintain the Center generated one fund-raising scheme after another, all in the name of Bialystok pride. By the early 1930s, Diaspora Bialystok, especially the New York Center, had eclipsed the mother city both in total population and in status, so much so that it rather than the mother city became the hub of the worldwide “Bialystok Empire.” In addition, the efforts of Diaspora Bialystok to assist mother Bialystok contributed sigificantly to the enhancement of immigrant self-esteem and identity as recounted here in the story of émigré Morris Sunshine’s return visit to Bialystok in 1921 (pp. 149–152).
Moving beyond the Bialystok experience, Kobrin concludes the study with a reflection on the East European Jewish migration and the manner in which it challenges traditional formulations of Jewish identity in Diaspora settings. She places her work within the emerging literature on migration and transnational studies and indicates how this Jewish experience relates to the key themes found in that literature. Of greater importance to students of Jewish life, her work reminds us that as much as Jewish liturgy and ritual highlight and accentuate Jewish longing for the promised land, Jewish history offers us accounts of more recent exiles, some forced—Spain—others self-generated—Poland and Russia—but all contributing to the shaping of diverse Jewish identities with recollections of Diaspora homelands that were fondly remembered and even lamented. Rebecca Kobrin is to be commended for her stimulating and thought-provoking study.
University of Pittsburgh