Skip to Main Content

Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

[BOOKSHELF]

A Renaissance Amid Revolution

bookThe years between 1917 and 1921, when Russia was crumbling in revolution, turned out to be a heady time for Jewish intellectuals and writers across the Russian empire. They enjoyed a period of cultural freedom that they hadn't known before—an opportunity to express themselves in art, in political and organizational life, and with their own language.

Kenneth B. Moss explores this chapter in Jewish history with Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2009)—a work that earned him the 2010 Sami Rohr Prize
for Jewish Literature. Administered under the auspices of the Jewish Book Council, the Rohr prize is hailed as a "transformative" award for emerging writers who have demonstrated "a fresh vision and evidence of future potential," according to the Jewish Book Council.

Moss, associate professor of history and the new director of the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Program in Jewish Studies at Hopkins, split the $125,000 first-prize honors with his former Stanford classmate Sarah Abrevaya Stein, author of Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce.

Moss' book unveils a rich Jewish culture amid revolution—a "Jewish renaissance" that was not based on religion but on the exaltation of art and the pursuit of secular individuality. In fact, by the late 19th century, "large groups of people had rejected Jewish religion while at the same time embracing Jewish nationalism—the idea that Jews constituted a nation with distinct need and goals," he notes.

One of these goals, to which Moss devotes his book, was the idea of a "Jewish cultural renaissance," wherein Jews would create a new kind of Jewish culture modeled on—and in dialogue with—the other cultures of the post-renaissance West. The glue holding this vision of cultural renaissance together was a passionate devotion to Hebrew or Yiddish. For the artists and intellectuals involved, Moss explains, "Language was the critical piece of what makes a distinct culture."

In the book, Moss explores the cultural visions of such diverse would-be cultural revolutionaries as the avant-garde artist El Lissitzky and the Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik, focusing on their strong philosophical differences but also their shared ideals of what defines a culture.

Their ultimate goal, according to Moss? To redefine themselves and other Jews "not only as a modern nation but a nation
of moderns."

Moss' study ends in 1921, when the Jewish cultural renaissance in Russia was effectively snuffed out by massive anti-Jewish violence and by the consolidation of Bolshevik control over cultural life. But the brief period examined in the book allows us a better understanding of how Jewish culture has—and has not—evolved since then, says Moss. On the one hand, the sort of cultural ideal that flourished in Eastern Europe has not left much mark on the Jewish community of the United States.

In the U.S. today, he says, there is a sense among some Jewish leaders that Jewish culture is disappearing. "It's hard to get people engaging intensely in Jewish life because American life is more attractive and accessible," says Moss. "Becoming American…Jews did it very well—but they gave up the language."

Rather, Moss argues, it is in Israel, which defines itself as a Jewish nation-state, where one can find a Hebrew-language culture animated by the idea of cultural renaissance pursued in 1917 by Eastern European Jews, as well as the sharp debates that accompanied it.


More Faculty Books

Gandhi's Spinning Wheel and the Making of India
Routledge, 2010
By Rebecca M. Brown
Visiting Associate Professor, Political Science
This book looks at the politics of spinning, both as a visual symbol and as a symbolic practice. It traces the genealogy of spinning from its early colonial manifestations to its appropriation by the anti-colonial movement. This complex of visual imagery and performative ritual had the potential to overcome labor, gender, and religious divisions and thereby produce an accessible and effective symbol for the Gandhian anti-colonial movement, according to Brown.

Angelo Poliziano's Lamia
BRILL, 2010
By Christopher S. Celenza
Professor, German and Romance Languages and Literatures
With this work, Celenza presents the first English translation of an important Renaissance Latin text: Angelo Poliziano's Lamia, an opening to a 1492 course at the University of Florence that amounts to a rethinking of the mission and nature of philosophy.

A World of Becoming
Duke University Press, forthcoming in December 2010
By William E. Connolly
Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science

In A World of Becoming, Connolly outlines a political philosophy suited to a world whose powers of creative evolution include and exceed the human estate. This is a world composed of multiple, interacting systems—including those of climate change, biological evolution, economic practices, and geological formations. Such open systems, set on different temporal registers of stability and instability, periodically resonate together to secrete profound, unpredictable changes.

The Moment of Caravaggio
Princeton University Press, 2010
By Michael Fried
J. R. Herbert Boone Chair in the Humanities
In his first extended consideration of the Italian Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573-1610), Fried offers a transformative account of the artist's revolutionary achievement. The Moment of Caravaggio is based on the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts delivered at the National Gallery of Art.

Cuba and the Fall: Christian Text and Queer Narrative in the Fiction of Jose Lezama Lima and Reinaldo Arenas
University of Virginia Press, 2010
By Eduardo González
Professor, German and Romance Languages and Literatures
Drawing on the plots and characters in the works of José Lezama Lima and Reinaldo Arenas, González develops both a story line and a moral tale—revolving around the Christian belief in the fall from grace and the possibility of redemption—that bring the writers into a unique and revealing interaction with one another.

Ocean State
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010
By Jean McGarry
Professor, Writing Seminars
The stories of Ocean State roll over the reader like a wave. Family pleasures, marriage, the essential moments and mysteries of a seemingly ordinary world all break into magical territory. Before we can brace ourselves, McGarry puts the reader in life's rough seas with what The New York Times has called a "deft, comic, and devastatingly precise" hand.

Ethical Life in South Asia
Indiana University Press, 2010
By Anand Pandian
Assistant Professor, Anthropology
Breaking from prevailing conceptions of ethics and morality as matters of moral rule or principle, this volume calls attention to ethical life in South Asia—the moral dispositions at work in lived experience, and the embodied practices of ethical engagement through which such dispositions may be cultivated and shared. Taking up themes such as the transmission of tradition, ethical engagements with modernity, ethical practices of the self, and moral relations between self and others, this volume puts South Asian traditions of ethical life into conversation with the Aristotelian, Christian, and liberal traditions that have been so consequential for ethical life in the West.

—Compiled by Nancy Gregoire