Breaking Away

Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917

by Jonathan Frankel
Cambridge University Press, 686 pp., $49.50

This enormous and awesomely priced book is a portrait of that phase of modern Jewish life in which its major secular creeds—nationalism, socialism, and numerous mixtures of the two—were first articulated. Jonathan Frankel, professor of history at the Hebrew University, belongs to a generation of young Jewish scholars who, in reaction against the ideological contentiousness of earlier writers, try to abide by the disciplines of modern historiography. The consequent gains in balance and precision are large; so too are the losses in vivacity and feeling. Frankel has written a very distinguished work of scholarship but not quite the great book it could and should have been.

His major concern is with the role of the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia “as a new leadership stratum within the Jewish people.” To bring out the full historical novelty in the rise of this intelligentsia, Frankel would have to have broadened his narrative scope in order to portray the astonishing changes that occurred in Eastern European Jewish life. The very idea of an intelligentsia is secular. It signifies, in the Jewish context, the breakup of an organic religious community that was separated, or separated itself, from the course of Western history. But if skimpy with genesis, Frankel is keen in description:

One political subculture came into being [during the 1880s] in Vilna, Minsk, Belostok, the East End of London, and the Lower East Side of New York. Its lingua franca was Yiddish; its economic base, the clothing industry and the sweat shop; its politics, the running dispute and constant interaction between socialist internationalism and Jewish nationalism; its organizational expression, the Yiddish press, the public meeting, the trade union, the ideologically committed party….

For the Jewish intelligentsia of this period, the difficulties of working within the new Jewish political milieu were “to a great extent qualitatively different from those facing the Russian intelligentsia.” The more the secular Jewish ideologues and parties tried to establish their “Jewishness” as a culture apart from, if also still dependent on, traditional religious beliefs and symbols, the clearer it became that this “Jewishness” kept growing increasingly vague and slippery. There was a brief, richly creative period of perhaps four or five decades in which secular Jewishness, bounded by language and literature, managed to work out its own sense of identity; but even in Eastern Europe and, of course, most visibly in the United States, it came to subsist on nostalgia and to define itself through a series of exclusions. The Jewish intelligentsia could never find a point of balance or rest between its traditions and its politics—or, for that matter, between its newly willed nationalism and its newly discovered universalist yearnings.

Frankel starts his narrative with two crucial ancestors, Moses Hess, the nineteenth-century German thinker, and Aron Liberman, an obscure radical activist from Eastern Europe. Oscillating between an internationalism and a nationalism that were equally without firm grounding, Hess largely anticipated the experience of later generations of Jewish intellectuals. While eager to join with such contemporaries as Marx in …

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