The Capital of Yiddishland?

Kalman Weiser

York University, Toronto

For Yiddishists in interwar Poland, the Yiddish language was an all encompassing, global cultural system, one which was centred in Eastern Europe but which possessed America as its largest colony. But where lay the capital of Yiddishland? For many Yiddishist intellectuals, above all philologists, the title of “most Yiddish city” belonged to the relatively small and contested multiethnic city of Vilna, outside the Polish ethnic heartland.

For others, “Polish” Warsaw – much larger and home to a linguistically and culturally more diverse Jewish population as well as the metropolis of the Yiddish press and theatre – was the more fitting locale to be crowned the capital of Yiddish culture. Accordingly, they rejected what they considered the cultural hegemony imposed by a self-appointed elite centred around the YIVO and rejected its “Litvish” norms.

The Yiddish press in interwar Poland regularly took the pulse of Yiddish language and culture throughout the Yiddish empire, especially in Warsaw and Vilna. Depictions by intellectuals and cultural activists engaged in a common enterprise – the creation of a secular, national culture in Yiddish – reflect the dynamic relationship between the rival cultural capitals, as well as the relative strengths and weaknesses of each city. What more, however, do partisan perceptions and images created in the press reveal about the hopes and fears of Yiddishists for the future of Yiddish in the light of evolving cultural and political currents?

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