The Russian Museum of Ethnography and The Russian American Foundation are co-presenting a new exhibition with the YIVO Institute: The Jews of Tsarist Russia, opening reception at The YIVO Institute on June 4, 2012. The exhibition will present for the first time in the United States scarcely known and unique pages of the photographic record of Jewish life in Tsarist Russia from the collections of the Russian Museum of Ethnography in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Jews of Tsarist Russia features 40 photographs from the seminal ethnographic exhibition held in Moscow in 1867 which introduced viewers to the diversity of Jewish life in the Russian empire. Most of the photographs in this new exhibition are portraits from the Mogilev, Vitebsk, Vilno, and Kamenetz-Podolsk provinces, the cities of Vilno and Berdichev, as well as Armenia and Crimea. It also includes unique and symbolic portraits of Mountain Jews and Jews of Bukhara.
One of the highlights of this exhibition is a series of photographs taken during the famous An-sky expedition of 1912-1914. Semion Akimovich An-sky (real name – Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport, 1863-1920) was the prominent Jewish ethnographer and writer who inspired, organized, and directed ethnographic expeditions into the Pale of Settlement under the auspices of the St. Petersburg Jewish Historical and Ethnographical Society. The expedition visited Kiev, Podolia, and Volyn provinces and carried out detailed research on traditional Ashkenazi life, focusing on oral folklore, music, arts and crafts, beliefs and religious practices, occupations, and "shtetl" architecture. These expeditions were of groundbreaking significance for the modern ethnography of East European Jewry. The photographs in The Jews of Tsarist Russia give viewers a rare glance into the world of old Russian Jewish culture. The Jews of Tsarist Russia is sponsored by the Russian Museum of Ethnography, the Russian American Foundation, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and the Russian Ministry of Culture under the auspices of the Russian Heritage Festival ®.
With the arrival of Yiddish speaking masses from Eastern Europe in the last decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Yiddish press evolved from a few small papers into a massive journalistic institution. Nearly all these Yiddish newspapers leaned to the left. Of the two mainstream dailies – Der Forverts (The Jewish Daily Forward, established in 1897), upheld socialism, the Jewish labor movement, and a mild version of anti-Zionism, while Der Tog (The Day, started in 1914), was non-partisan, liberal, and supporter of Zionism. Both would become very powerful voices in the Jewish immigrant community.
The move further leftward in the Yiddish press coincided with the arrival of new immigrants radicalized by the 1905 uprising in Russia and the pogroms that followed in its wake and the subsequent Russian Revolution of 1917, which led directly to the founding of the New York Communist daily Di Morgn Freiheit in 1922 and its monthly magazine Der Hammer. The paper attracted many young Yiddish writers “naturally inclined towards the left and seeking acceptance for fiction and verse more experimental than Abraham Cahan tolerated in the Forward,” as Irwing Howe wrote in “World of our Fathers.” Progressive writers and artists viewed Der Forverts with an utter contempt, regarding it both as a lowbrow rag, as well as a traitor to the left-wing cause. Though never rivaling the Der Forverts in circulation, which quickly became the most circulated Yiddish paper in the world, Di Freiheit had the most dedicated audience and was widely regarded as essential reading for those committed to the Soviet Union and the Communist ideology. It piously followed the Comintern’s diktats and remained loyal to the Kremlin when conflict arose between Jewish and the Communist party interests. With the incendiary language and ferocious anti-Zionism, in addition to the insulting cartoons enthusiastically contributed by such talented artists as William Gropper, Zuni Maud, and Yosel Cutler, they antagonized many in the Jewish community.
On the periphery of the mainstream there were other ideologically driven, radical and sectarian magazines, proselytizing for their brand, such as ICOR, later Nailebn, which seized upon a scheme of settling Jews in the Soviet republic of Birobidzhan and fought Zionism with messianic fervor as an expression of the bourgeois and chauvinist tendencies of the Jewish nationalism.
The Communist press adopted the view that Yiddish language and a total dedication to radical causes are the only acceptable expressions of Jewish national identity and used Yiddish in order to indoctrinate and disseminate Soviet propaganda. As Ruth Wisse writes in Drowning in the Red Sea: “Revolutionary Yiddishism turned out in practice to mean an adversarial relationship to America as well as to Zionism, a self-ghettoization in the name of a broader internationalism, and commitment to a culture of self-deception. Indeed, within fifteen years, no one was more eager to expunge this chapter from American Jewish history than those who had written it.” Thus the Yiddish press became not only the chronicler of Jewish history, but also the main forum for the Jewish ideological wars of the first half of the 20th century, which, sadly, still continue into the 21st.
Michael Chabon's best-selling novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union imagined European Jewish refugees colonizing Alaska as a Yiddish-speaking homeland in the 1930s. In fact, the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization, with its organ Afn Shvel, attempted that and much more.
The League for Yiddish/Afn Shvel magazine, in conjunction with the YIVO Institute, opened a special exhibit in honor of several important anniversaries relating to this history: the 70th year of publication for the all-Yiddish Afn Shvel; the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization, Afn Shvel's first publisher, and the 30th anniversary of Afn Shvel's current publisher, the League for Yiddish.
For over 30 years, the Freeland League worked to create a mass Jewish settlement outside the Land of Israel in order to rescue Jews and Jewish culture from Europe. Its most notable projects include attempts to establish settlements in Australia, Tasmania, Suriname, and yes, Alaska. Over time the Freeland League gave up all territorial goals but the organizational devotion to the Yiddish language and culture continued, and even strengthened. Finally, in 1979, the Freeland League dissolved itself and legally changed its name to the "League for Yiddish."
The YIVO exhibit devoted to these three intertwined Yiddish organizations is curated by Krysia Fisher.