Edited By Lucyna Aleksandrowicz-Pędich and Jacek Partyka
Kiev Jews in the Early Twentieth Century: National Identity and Culture
Exploring the question raised by Moshe Rosman in his book How Jewish is Jewish History? I will analyze in my article how Jewish was Jewish culture in Kiev before World War I. I will show that Rosman’s claim that “Jews lived in intimate interaction with surrounding cultures to the point where they may be considered to be embedded in them” (82) works only for the Russified Jewish elite in Kiev.
Wealthy Jews in Kiev educated their children in Russian schools and universities or European universities, so they were quite embedded in Russian and European cultures. However, poor Jews, who made up the majority of the Kiev Jewish population, were completely immersed in Yiddish culture. They could not afford to study in gymnasiums and universities, not just because of the high tuition but also because of the percentage quota for Jewish students in the Russian Empire. Many poor Jews in Kiev barely spoke Russian and did not know any Ukrainian at all. So they could not be embedded in the surrounding cultures; instead they had their own Yiddish culture. Kiev Jewish writers and poets understood this quite well and published in Yiddish to reach the largest number of Jewish readers.
Often the cultural views of Kievan Jews were influenced by various ideologies. Many Jewish socialists and populists became strong adherents of Yiddish culture as the culture of the “toiling masses”, while Zionists considered Yiddish a dialect of German, a “jargon”, and believed that Jewish culture...
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