When Yiddish Poetry Flourished in the Cafés of Weimar Berlin

Feb. 25 2022

In the 1920s, Berlin became home to some of the most creative poets, novelists, and critics writing in Yiddish. Mostly natives of Poland and Russia who had come to Germany following the upheavals of World War I and the Russian Revolution, these authors lived in close proximity to—but apart from—an equally vibrant German-language Jewish culture. Madeleine Cohen reviews two recent books about this particular milieu, alongside a new translation of one of its “masterpieces,” the poet and novelist Moyshe Kulbak’s Childe Harold of Dysna. About the last, she writes:

Originally written between 1928 and 1933 and informed by Kulbak’s 1921–23 stint in Berlin [before he settled in Soviet Russia], this long poem in seven parts, totaling 62 stanzas, envelops the reader in the firsthand experience of the young Ostjude, [as German Jews called their less-acculturated, Yiddish-speaking East European coreligionists], in the cosmopolitan capital of Europe, experiencing all its pleasures and suffering the subsequent hangovers.

As the title suggests, Kulbak’s poem refers to Lord Byron’s [Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage] as well as [the 19th-century German Jewish poet] Heinrich Heine’s Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen in its frame of a fully modern pilgrimage to discover the heart of Europe and to partake of all the wonders that Weimar Berlin had to offer. However, in this case, our young hero is Shmulik Pipeman, son of a tailor from the small provincial Jewish city of Dysna—or maybe Shklov, or Lohojsk, or Kulbak’s own hometown of Smorgon, which are all mentioned, suggesting Pipeman could be any young Jew aspiring to come west to Europe. Kulbak’s signature mixture of irony and empathy captures both the wonder and the superficiality of young Pipeman’s experiences, an effect heightened by Kulbak’s skillful control of poetic form.

In these final stanzas, Pipeman becomes a socialist, and it is clear the author himself is processing [what he sees as] the failures of capitalism and Berlin’s descent into fascism from his Soviet vantage point.

In 1937, at the height of the Soviet purges, Kulbak was murdered by Stalin’s henchmen.

Read more at Los Angeles Review of Books

More about: Moyshe Kulbak, Poetry, USSR, Weimar Republic, Yiddish literature


When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount