- Book Review Index
Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution, by Kenneth B. Moss. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. 384 pp. $39.95.
Kenneth Moss has written an erudite and fascinating account of how the collapse of the Romanov dynasty and the establishment of Bolshevik rule in the Russian Empire provided a brief window of opportunity for the Jewish intelligentsia (culturists in Moss’s terminology) to renovate Jewish culture. Between 1917 and 1921 Jewish writers and intellectuals in Ukraine and Russia, in the midst of war, social turmoil, and economic collapse, sought to carve out a Jewish niche in the world of modern culture. Along with mobilizing for political campaigns committed to liberalism, socialism, autonomism, and Zionism, the Jewish intelligentsia dedicated itself to the reconstruction of Jewish culture that would be rooted in secularism, individualism, and cosmopolitanism, and yet would represent the national aspirations of Jewish society by expressing Jewish culture in one of two languages, Hebrew and Yiddish. According to Moss, the culturists were “cultural nationalists” intent on creating a modern Jewish nation that was not necessarily defined “by some essential Jewishness.” They drew upon pre-World War I ideological and aesthetic trends and “dreamed of a Hebrew-or Yiddish-language culture characterized by universality of theme and individuality of expression” (p. 5). While many culturists were politically engaged and committed to a variety of political agendas and parties, they insisted that organized politics and culture belong to separate and autonomous realms of endeavor.
Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution explores the meaning of modernity and nationalism for East European Jewry, the largest Jewish community in the world at the beginning of the twentieth century. Unlike the Jewish intelligentsia in the rest of Europe and the Ottoman Empire, who embraced the emancipatory bargain of acculturation and integration predicated on the attenuation of Jewish identity on both a collective and individual basis, Jewish culturists in the Russian Empire, conditioned by political circumstances specific to Eastern Europe, redoubled efforts to find a path to modernity devoted to the development of a particularly Jewish culture and identity that drew sustenance from prevailing aesthetic, intellectual, and artistic trends in non-Jewish society.
The bulk of the book focuses on the ways Jewish writers and intellectuals—many prominent and undoubtedly known to informed readers and others whose ideas and activities are getting their first airing in English due to Moss’s mastery of materials written in Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew—conceived the new Jewish culture they believed the Russian Revolution made possible. The final two chapters explore how Jewish culturists adjusted to the demands of the revolution in both Russia and Ukraine, with many of them deciding to throw their lot in with the Bolshevik cause that seemed to promise the flourishing of a renovated Jewish culture and society. Moss argues convincingly that many aspects of Jewish culture that took shape under the imperative of Stalinism had already grown roots during the initial years of the revolution as the Kremlin tried to impose its organizational and ideological will on Jewish culturists, some of whom shared the excitement, allure, and hegemonic values of communism. The culturists’ insistence on the separation of politics and artistic endeavor began to collapse well before the velikii perelom (the Great Turn) and the cultural revolution of the late 1920s and early 1930s, thereby paving the way for the bolshevization of Jewish culture.
Moss’s research is impressive as are his lucid and cogent analyses of the literary outpourings of the culturists he examines. Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution vividly conveys the efflorescence of Jewish intellectual and cultural life during the first quarter of the twentieth century and underscores the unbridled hopes and aspirations unleashed by the collapse of the autocracy. Moss offers astute observations on a range of subjects—nationalism, socialism, modernity, and culture—that make the book not only an obvious choice for specialists in East European Jewry but also a recommended read for a broad and diverse readership.