How Jews Writing in Yiddish, Hebrew, and German Discovered Their “Primitive” Brethren

February 16, 2023 | Jeffrey A. Grossman
About the author:

To many scholars, it makes little sense to see the works of the various Jewish poets and novelists living in different countries, shaped by different influences, and writing in different languages as comprising a single category of “Jewish literature.” Taking a contrary view, Samuel Spinner argues in a recent book that, in the first half of the 20th century, Jewish writers plying their craft in German, Hebrew, and Yiddish can be fruitfully viewed as a single group, subject to similar trends. His book focuses on their engagement with the European aesthetic tendency called “primitivism”—best known from the paintings of Paul Gauguin—which in Jewish terms meant a literary and artistic interest in the folkways and lives of the unacculturated Jews of Eastern Europe. Jeffrey A. Grossman writes:

The figures Spinner treats include well-known writers—I.L. Peretz, S. Ansky, Alfred Döblin, Franz Kafka, Else Lasker-Schüler (who also produced painterly illustrations and performance art), Uri Zvi Grinberg, and Der Nister—as well as the photographer Moyshe Vorobeichic, probably less well known to most students of literature. In an epilogue, Spinner concludes with a fascinating treatment of the Berlin-based writer Egon Erwin Kisch, who, born in Prague into an affluent German-speaking Jewish family, was known especially for his gritty, socially critical reportages and for his sympathetic travelogues about the Soviet Union up to the early 1930s, and whose late “primitivist” writing stems from his exile in Mexico in the 1940s.

Spinner finds in Jewish primitivism a literary mode that transcends political ideologies or programs. Hence, one can identify primitivist strains in works by politically progressive writers like Döblin, Kisch, and Else Lasker-Schüler, as well as the work of a radical right-wing poet like Uri Zvi Grinberg.

Spinner begins his conclusion with a series of recent quotations from the New York Times and other news media, celebrating the ostensible “magic” of Borough Park and the “costumes” of the Ḥasidim, citing as well as Michael Chabon’s overrated novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, all described as “Chagallism warmed over, sometimes with a seasoning of postmodernism,” and all of which might suggest that the notion of “primitive Jews” is still alive: “but,” Spinner adds, “the self-aware, critical posture of modernism is gone. Jewish primitivism has receded to bland exoticism.”

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