Register for the Online Lecture Series The Romance and Tragedy of Soviet Yiddish Culture

With Professor David Shneer

Register by February 20 for access to four lectures.

In 1919 the new Soviet state named Yiddish the “official language” of Soviet Jewry. To this day, Yiddish remains one of the state languages of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region of Russia. In the intervening years, Soviet Jews produced some of the most avant-garde, creative forms of Jewish culture anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, the Soviet state that had empowered them ended up destroying them and their culture, person by person, institution by institution.

Join David Shneer, professor of Jewish studies at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust, for an in-depth study of both the romance and the tragedy of Soviet Yiddish culture.

Register now and receive eight weeks of access to:

  • four online, downloadable lectures by David Shneer.
  • a bibliography of important works on Soviet Yiddish history and culture.
  • an online forum where you can discuss the lectures with other viewers.

The Details:

  • Register by February 20.
  • Receive access to online, downloadable lectures for eight weeks from date of purchase.
  • Cost of lecture series: $75.
  • Discount for Yiddish Book Center Members: Members should enter the code "MEMBER" at checkout to receive a 10 percent discount. (Join or renew your membership now to take advantage of the member discount.)
  • After purchase (usually within ten to fifteen minutes), you’ll be sent an email with login information. (If you don't see this email in your inbox, please make sure to check your spam/junk folder.)

Technical requirements: Videos and other course materials can be viewed on computers and mobile devices. Material can be downloaded to computers only. The Yiddish Book Center's online learning system supports all major modern internet browsers on desktop and mobile. We recommend that you use Internet Explorer 11.0, Firefox 39.0, Google Chrome, or Safari on iOS devices. JavaScript and cookies must be enabled, and the latest version of Adobe Flash.

The Lectures:

Lecture 1 - The Early Years of Soviet Yiddish Culture (1919-1930)
In 1919, the same year that the Soviet state named Yiddish the official language of Soviet Jews, Semyon Mikhoels, who became a quasi-commissar of Soviet Yiddish culture, described the Soviet Yiddish theater in messianic terms as a “miracle” emerging out of the chaos of revolution. In this first session, we will examine Soviet Jewish culture-makers, who had been developing their craft in the heat of war and revolution, and created an avant-garde Yiddish culture to which much of the Jewish and non-Jewish world looked for inspiration. 

Lecture 2 - Stalinism and Yiddish Culture (1930-1941)
The 1930s were, by some measures, the heyday of Soviet Yiddish culture. In the early 1930s, there were more Yiddish newspapers, journals, theater productions, and schools than there had been in the first decade of Soviet rule. It was also under Stalin that Soviet Jews received a piece of land designated as the “Jewish autonomous region.” At the same time, 1930s Soviet Yiddish literature moved away from radical, avant-garde poetry and towards long realist novels, and theater went from radical egalitarianism to the production of classical Shakespeare…in Yiddish. In this session, we will study the contradictions of Stalinist Yiddish culture.

Lecture 3 - Yiddish During and After the War (1941-1953)
World War II, which for the Soviet Union began in earnest with the German invasion in June 1941, brought Nazi genocide to the Communist state. It was one of the few places in the world in which Jews were both victims of the Holocaust and liberators fighting with an Allied army. Soviet Yiddish culture both mobilized for the war and served as the repository of some of the earliest testimony about the Holocaust. During and increasingly after the war, the Stalinist state began a crackdown on “cosmopolitanism,” a proxy for the ubiquity of Jews in important positions of Soviet culture. Together, we will study the many faces of wartime Soviet Yiddish culture and the postwar destruction of many of those institutions that had helped mobilize the Soviet Jewish population.

Lecture 4 - From Heymland to a Non-Jewish Jewish Autonomous Region (1953-present)
The secret Soviet trials for treason of important members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee reveal Soviet Yiddish cultural activists’ resistance to and complicity with the Stalinist state. No matter what each defendant said, on August 12, 1952, often referred to as the “Night of the Murdered Poets,” 13 of them were shot to death in a Stalinist prison. But with Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev’s rise to power and the “Thaw” in cultural relations, Soviet Yiddish culture saw a revival, even though the percentage of Soviet Jews who named Yiddish as their native language had dropped to 18% in the 1959 census. The journal Sovetish Heymland served as the Yiddish-speaking community’s institution until the fall of the Soviet Union. In the twenty-five years since the fall, Soviet Yiddish culture has gone global, as many of those activists now hold important positions in universities across the world, and as Yiddish plays an increasingly ambivalent role at home—at once nostalgic, kitschy, haunting, and radical. And to this day, the Jewish Autonomous Region, Birobidzhan, has maintained Yiddish as an official language, even as its Jewish population has dwindled to near zero.

Recommended Readings:

We recommend two books as an entrée into the subject of Soviet Jewish history and culture: Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture by David Shneer and The Zelmenyaners by Moyshe Kulbak. Purchase them together, and you'll get a 10% discount on the price of the books. All proceeds go toward making the Center’s educational and cultural programs possible. A bibliography of additional suggested reading is available once you register for the lecture series. 

Lecturer Bio:

David Shneer is the Louis P. Singer Endowed Chair in Jewish History at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is editor-in-chief of the interdisciplinary journal East European Jewish Affairs, and serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Jewish Identities, the Association for Jewish Studies’ magazine Perspectives, and the academic publication series Borderlines. Shneer also co-founded Jewish Mosaic, the first national Jewish LGBT organization, which merged with Keshet in 2010. His newest book Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust – an in-depth look at the lives and works of Soviet Jewish World War II military photographers – was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and the winner of the 2013 Association for Jewish Studies Jordan Schnitzer Prize. His previous books include Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture, finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, and Queer Jews, finalist for the Lambda Literary award. Shneer lectures internationally on 20th century European, Russian, and Jewish history and culture, and works frequently as a consultant for non-profit and academic organizations. 


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