For digital natives, studying classic English and American literature in college is about as attractive as mowing the lawn. When authorities require it, digital natives will do it as a chore: They find a command of humanistic knowledge irrelevant to their sense of self. They see no compelling reason to know the difference between George Eliot and T. S. Eliot. This has effectively sidelined college English departments—although it’s not much of a loss, since their relentless emphasis on body studies and white guilt left those departments hollow shells of what they were a half-century ago.
If the story of English departments is one of gradual and (at this point) irreversible decline, the story of Jewish studies departments is the opposite. Jewish studies has exploded and pulled vibrant young researchers and smart students into its orbit. This is, in large measure, due to the sharp increase in diverse secular subjects of inquiry in a field once largely devoted to the parsing of religious texts. While the obsessive pursuit of the latest “isms” hollowed out English departments, their cautious integration rejuvenated Jewish studies. It helps that, for energetic and deracinated fourth-generation Americans, post-Soviet Russia was, and continues to be, an enticing area of research and enterprise.
The opening of Russian archives and the introduction of superbly trained literary scholars from Russia to American Jewish studies departments have produced a slew of books that bring 18th- and 19th-century Eastern Europe to life, in all its madness and oppressive stink. The problematic but thrilling The Golden Age Shtetl and the unnerving and crucial collection of documents in Everyday Jewish Life in Imperial Russia are part of this tidal wave. Earlier works by Benjamin Nathans, David Assaf, Immanuel Etkes, Gershon Hundert, Harriet Murav, Shaul Stampfer, and others have already exposed readers to the realities of Jewish life in Russian society, the fiery discontent of young Hasidim, the inner dynamics of Hasidic courts, the social infrastructure of Polish towns, the struggle of Jews in the lion’s den of Russian literature, and the intricacies of the Lithuanian Talmud academies that once trained the Jewish intellectual elite.
Before immersing oneself in the new scholarship about Jews in Russia and Poland, it is worth taking a quick look at the expanse of the intellectual graveyard of Eastern Europe—that is, at the hundreds of tightly argued 19th-century Hebrew works printed in places like Warsaw, Vilna, Lyck, Lemberg, Shklov, Dubno, Zholkiev, Slavuta, Zhitomir, Berdichev, and Odessa currently offered for a pittance on eBay, frequently by dealers linked to Hasidic communities. The Hebrew outpouring makes one’s head spin, and the great 19th-century centers of German intellect—Göttingen, Jena, Weimar, Leipzig, and Berlin—begin to look like sparsely populated sandboxes. These Hebrew books, from reprintings of Maimonides’ 12th-century Guide for the Perplexed to Nachman Krochmal’s Guide for the Perplexed of the Time (1851), used to dominate Jewish studies. With the help of the newly accessible Russian documents, and the cultural dispensation to study ordinary people, new scholarly works are resurrecting those Jews who once constituted the readership of these orphaned Hebrew books, many of them dumped by the libraries of venerable institutions, such as Boston’s Hebrew College, into the cardboard boxes of dealers. Like so many ghosts, the real Eastern-European Jews are stepping out from behind the Hebrew tomes, demanding recognition of the lives they led and killing (one would hope) Broadway’s fantasy of the singing Fiddler.
In Jewish studies, the Shtetl Reality Show is now playing, and nowhere more so than in the documents assembled in Everyday Jewish Life in Imperial Russia. The collection is prefaced by a superb short history of Russia’s relationship to the Jews it acquired with the three partitions of Poland between 1772 and 1795. It also touches on the two major revisions in Russian-Jewish historiography: the reevaluation of Czar Nicholas I (1796-1855), long the Jew-hating villain in the story, as “pre-reform” and earnestly intent on integrating the Jews into the Russian empire (if only they agreed to give up the Talmud, their language, and their sidelocks) and the reassessment of his successor Alexander II (1818-1881), long cherished as a reform-minded liberator of serfs and Jews, but now outed as a “cautious conservative, driven only by military defeat [in the Crimean War] to admit the need for reform.”