Kay Schweigmann-Greve. Chaim Zhitlowsky: Philosoph, Sozialrevolutionär und Theoretiker einer säkularen nationaljüdischen Identität. Hannover: Wehrhahn, 2012. 470 pp. EUR 39.80 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-86525-268-5.
Reviewed by Brian Horowitz (Tulane University)
Published on H-Judaic (December, 2013)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Radicalism Engenders Jewish Nationalism
One day Chaim Zhitlowsky (1865-1943) will have his moment in the scholarly sun. Zhitlowsky was a major theorist of European radicalism, Jewish nationalism, secular universalism, and the Yiddish language. Today he symbolizes Jewish transnationalism. His travels in Russia, Western Europe, and North America helped shape his eclecticism. Additionally, his idea of joining socialism and Jewish nationalism reflects a Diaspora orientation that is often attractive to those Jews who seek a secular mission for the Jewish people outside of Israel.
Based on Kay Schweigmann-Greve’s 2011 University of Potsdam dissertation, Chaim Zhitlowsky: Philosoph, Sozialrevolutionär und Theoretiker einer säkularen nationaljüdischen Identität provides a meticulous and detailed study of Zhitlowsky’s intellectual development, giving nearly a day-by-day account that allows one to follow the evolution of Zhitlowsky’s thinking from Haskalah to Marxism, from Marxism to eclecticism and eventually Diaspora nationalism. Since the book does not lend itself to a summary of individual chapters, I will highlight essential elements of the work’s biographical narrative. The most interesting aspect of this biography at least for me is the way that Zhitlowsky’s ideas emerged from the intellectual whirlwind characteristic of Jewish Russia in the 1880s and ’90s.
Zhitlowsky grew up in Vitebsk in the Pale of Settlement and his life’s journey took him to Bern for a university education--Russian universities at the time were closed to all but a few Jews. He later visited and then moved to the United States. However, in each of his central locations--Vitebsk, Bern, St. Petersburg, and New York City--his thought grew more mature, more complex, and more interesting. What is surprising to me is how his world was so naturally cosmopolitan. Everywhere he went, he found Yiddish speakers and fell easily into existing groups of Russian émigrés and parallel Jewish organizations. In addition, debates over Marxism, revolution, worker rights, and progress seem to continue unbroken independently of whether Zhitlowsky was in Europe or America.
As a young man, Zhitlowsky was inspired by the revolutionary literature of Western Europeans, like Karl Marx, Karl Kautsky, and Ferdinand Lassalle, and of Russian radicals, including Georgii Plekhanov and Petr Lavrov. While abroad in the 1880s and ’90s, Zhitlowsky became an irascible critic of doctrinaire Marxism and the idea of inevitable economic progress and social change. In contrast, he emphasized the role of the “creative individual” as a powerful agent in the historical process.
On the national question, he was by no means certain that the victory of the proletariat class would resolve all marks of ethnic, religious, and cultural difference. Following Johann Gottfried Herder, Zhitlowsky argued that Jews should retain their differences since they compose a part of the unity of all mankind. He also maintained that religion was a private matter. What marked Jews apart, therefore, was primarily, but not exclusively culture, their way of life, and particularly their language. But Zhitlowsky was also a committed “diasporist.” Ultimately he favored cosmopolitanism and the ultimate brotherhood of all peoples.
This mixture of national specificity and harmonious cosmopolitanism led Zhitlowsky to valorize Yiddish as a marker of distinction and achievement. Not surprisingly, he was involved in the Yiddish Language Conference in Chernovits in 1908, in which Yiddish gained recognition as “an official language” of the Jewish people. It should be said that Zhitlowsky placed unrealistically high hopes in the Jewish cultural revolution. As he said in a talk in the last years of his life: “The creation of a new progressive, secular culture sphere in Yiddish which will unite the folk masses with the creative spirits of our people is a tremendous revolution in our life. Nothing like it ever occurred in the cultural history of our people. The development of this new cultural sphere depends upon the historical destiny of our people and the historical destiny of our people depends to a large extend upon the revolution in our cultural life, on the new cultural sphere in Yiddish.”
Before World War I, Zhitlowsky moved to the United States, where he continued writing for socialist Yiddish newspapers in New York, while publishing his memoirs and earlier philosophical treaties. In the late 1930s, however, he became known to a wider audience thanks to his book, Hitler or Stalin? (1938), in which he argued that Jews should support Communist Russia because, unlike Germany, it was not rabidly antisemitic. Furthermore, he approved of the Birobidzan project and similar attempts to promote Jewish national autonomy. In his defense, one should note that in the 1920s, Soviet officials nourished Yiddish language through the construction of cultural institutions, schools, academic institutes, and a separate Yiddish theater. Nonetheless, Zhitlowsky’s sympathy for the USSR left him open to extensive criticism.
The organizing principle of this volume is Zhitlowsky’s intellectual development over time. The major flaw is that the volume openly calls itself and reads like a “Dissertationsschrift.” The book is heavy with facts, while interpretation takes a secondary role.
Is this Zhitlowsky’s moment for intellectual and biographical resurrection? I am not sure. There have been many fine works on Zhitlowsky in America in recent years by the late Jonathan Frankel, Emanuel Goldsmith, Tony Michels, and David Weinberg. Despite his eclecticism, Zhitlowsky still has not come into his own as a central figure in modern Jewish history. But if this is not the moment, it surely is not too far off thanks to the praiseworthy efforts by Schweigmann-Greve.
. Quoted in Emanuel S. Goldsmith, Modern Yiddish Culture: The Story of the Yiddish Language Movement (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), 255.
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