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Jewish People, Yiddish Nation: Noah Prylucki and the Folkists in Poland, by Kalman Weiser. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. 389 pp. $59.95.
Although the history of modern Jewish politics and culture in east and central Europe has grown robustly in recent decades, fueled by the opening of long-closed archives and the discovery of new ones, there is still much work to be done. Attitudes in the academy that favor well-established themes and personalities have persisted, often at the expense of exploring less familiar individuals, movements and ideas, regardless of their importance in the years before the Shoah.
Happily, books like Kalman Weiser’s meticulously researched Jewish People, Yiddish Nation: Noah Prylucki and the Folkists in Poland continue to break new ground in Jewish history, broadening and deepening our understanding even of well-known subjects including Zionism itself. In this study of a man now largely forgotten but once labeled “the most popular Jew in Poland,” Weiser shows exactly why such books are needed: because without them, we are left with a profoundly incomplete understanding of the European Jewish world. As much as modern Jewish history is still a story of its conspicuous victors—the Herzls, Bialiks and Ben Gurions—it is a mark of maturity and disciplinary self-confidence that Jewish historians are making space for the Noah Pryluckis who, even if fated to be lost in the tragedy of the Jewish twentieth century in Europe, have no less an important story to tell.
Weiser’s book, part biography of Noah Prylucki, part detailed history of Yiddish Folkism, the Yiddish-language Diaspora nationalist movement he was seminal in creating, fills a major lacuna in the history of non-Zionist Jewish nationalism and Yiddish studies. Active from the last years of the Tsarist empire, most importantly at the helm of the Warsaw Yiddish daily Der Moment, Prylucki was a central personality in the evolution of a Yiddish-language Jewish publish sphere. He took up the mantel of his father, Tsevi Prylucki, himself the publisher of the first Yiddish daily in Warsaw, Der Veg, where Noah found his voice as a critic and essayist. Through Der Veg, Prylucki used his intimate familiarity with the small cadre of professional Yiddish writers in Warsaw to create a salon that became a powerful center of modern Jewish politics and culture.
As his thinking developed, Prylucki came to favor a robust national Diaspora culture for the Jews of the Russian Empire based on Yiddish. In founding Der Moment with his father and others from among the Warsaw Yiddish literati, he created a showcase for the sophisticated cultural and national movement he hoped to foster. Like his contemporaries Hayyim Zhitlovsky, Nathan Birnbaum, H. D. Nomberg and others, he aided in efforts, such as the 1908 Czernowitz Yiddish Language conference, to raise the status of Yiddish as a national Jewish language, a rival to Hebrew they believed capable of better representing the cultural aspirations of central and east European Jews.
The apex of Prylucki’s ideas came in the interwar period with the formation of the Jewish People’s Party (Yiddishe Folksparty), a secular, non-Zionist, Yiddish-advocating Jewish nationalist political movement. Under its auspices, Prylucki was elected as the one of only two Folksparty delegatesto the Polish Sejm (parliament). While his impact on the politics of interwar Poland was hampered by his party’s dysfunction, Prylucki made a name for himself as an uncompromising defender of Polish Jewry in the increasingly hostile antisemitic environment of Polish electoral politics. Leaving politics after his party’s final collapse, Prylucki turned to his long-held interest in Yiddish philology under the auspices of YIVO, the new, dynamic center for the advanced study of Jewish history and culture. In a final, strange twist of fate, when Vilna was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 Prylucki was appointed by the briefly pro-Yiddish Soviets to be both the chair of Yiddish philology at YIVO and the first professor of Yiddish at the University of Vilna. This position could have been, at a different time and place, as celebrated as Salo Baron’s appointment to the faculty of Columbia University just a few years before. But for Prylucki, the Nazi invasion a year later insured only that he was forced to watch, and assist in, the erasure of his life’s work as he was marched daily from a Gestapo cell to sort through materials plundered from Jewish communities until, inevitably, he had served his purpose and was executed.
Weiser’s deep knowledge of the sources of the Yiddish Folkist movement and his sensitivity to the nuances of Yiddish and Hebrew cultural politics alone make this book a valuable contribution. That he also brings order to a remarkable amount of print and archival material, and offers richly detailed accounts of the background against which Prylucki and his colleagues operated makes the book an outstanding reference. At times, the momentum of the book is slowed by details that may have been more judiciously edited, and Weiser’s more technical analyses of Yiddish linguistics is at times awkward within the framework of a biography/history. But as Weiser’s argument progresses, the casual reader’s challenge becomes the specialist’s boon. His fluent and enthusiastic rendering of Prylucki and his milieu are highlighted by his loving reconstructions of their strenuous efforts, against incredible odds, to build a vibrant modern Yiddish culture in the salons, meetings, periodicals, literary debates, interwar national politics and the academy.
In the end, it is Weiser’s contribution to a nascent new attitude towards Jewish history that questions the received wisdom of who is “important” and who not that resonates most strongly. As Prylucki’s contemporary Freud observed, while it is essential to understand the center – the treasured narratives whose obvious force cast broad shadows – it is only at the periphery that revolutions occur in how we think about the world, an idea with particular power for historians. And so much more is this the case for Jews, a people who, like Prylucki and his Folkists, have been required again and again to reshape their peripheral place against the backdrop of an often hostile center.