How Yiddish Children’s Literature Flourished in the Early Days of the Soviet Union—Only to Have Its Creative Spirit Crushed

Dec. 18 2019

After the overthrow of the tsars in 1917, Eastern Europe witnessed a brief efflorescence of children’s literature in Yiddish, some of it composed by first-rate poets and illustrated by first-rate artists. Even after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, they didn’t interfere with and sometimes even encouraged this new genre. But, by the 1930s, all that changed. Rokhl Kafrissen writes:

The high point of this revolution within a revolution was the appearance of a Yiddish-Aramaic setting of the Passover song Ḥad Gadya (“Only a Kid”) with illustrations by the great [artist] El Lissitzky. In this [version], Lissitzky marries cubo-futuristic graphics with traditional Jewish imagery, creating an “artist’s revolutionary manifesto that epitomized his vision of how the Jewish past and future could be linked,” as [the scholar and bibliographer] Lyudmila Sholokhova said. . . . The final image of God slaying the Angel of Death leaves nothing to the imagination: out of the eye of God emerges a hand wielding a sword; the eye is outlined in red, while the angel wears an imperial crown.

Lissitzky’s Ḥad Gadya was published in 1919 in Kiev. . . . As Sholokhova points out, children’s literature during this early period was not yet overdetermined by political dictates, as it would come to be in the 1930s. Traditional Jewish imagery was deployed in a positive light. Progress—scientific, technological, and political—was glorified, but not yet tied to the visual vocabulary of later Soviet propaganda (hammers and sickles, pioneers, Lenin, and so on).

Kafrissen contrasts this style to that in some of the work produced by Shloyme Davidman for American Yiddish Communist schools in the 1930s:

Davidman’s most popular book was a 1937 collection of stories . . . called Bongelo no. 25 (“Bungalow Number 25”). Young notes that—exemplifying the more didactic, ideological tone of Yiddish literature in the 1930s—one of the typical Bongelo stories is about a boy named Mori, who mocks his fellow students at the Talmud Torah he attends. Then the narrator of the story interjects, just in case we didn’t get the message: “There are Jews who believe that in the sky there sits a God who controls the world. But we already know there is no God in heaven. We must overthrow the bad people, the capitalists, who now rule us, as they did in the Soviet Union.” . . .

Davidman’s decades of [earlier] work as a pedagogue and cultural activist, [however, are], happily, far more interesting than the unbearable cringe of Bongelo no. 25.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Children's books, Jewish art, Soviet Jewry, Soviet Union, 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