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YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture
Scholarship for the Yiddish Nation


  • Date Published: September 2017
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781316634837

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About the Authors
  • This book is the first history of YIVO, the original center for Yiddish scholarship. Founded by a group of Eastern European intellectuals after World War I, YIVO became both the apex of secular Yiddish culture and the premier institution of Diaspora Nationalism, which fought for Jewish rights throughout the world at a time of rising anti-Semitism. From its headquarters in Vilna, Lithuania, YIVO tried to balance scholarly objectivity with its commitment to the Jewish masses. Using newly recovered documents that were believed destroyed by Hitler and Stalin, Cecile Esther Kuznitz tells for the first time the compelling story of how these scholars built a world-renowned institution despite dire poverty and anti-Semitism. She raises new questions about the relationship between Jewish cultural and political work, and analyzes how nationalism arises outside of state power.

    • Uses archival material recovered from Lithuania in the 1990s and unseen for more than fifty years
    • Traces YIVO's work across the globe, from Europe and the United States to South America and Palestine
    • Tells for the first time the history of the world's most important institution of modern Jewish scholarship
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'Vilna was the capital of Yiddishland and the YIVO was its crown jewel. This excellent study by Cecile Esther Kuznitz shows how scholars and community activists in interwar Poland overcame daunting challenges to turn the YIVO into a great pillar of Jewish secular culture and scholarship. It is an inspiring and important story.' Samuel D. Kassow, Trinity College, USA

    'This rich account of the achievements and travails of Yiddish scholarship at its height compels us to rethink Eastern European Jewish culture as a whole. Kuznitz shows us that secular Yiddishism, for all its limits, could also provoke tremendous popular enthusiasm. With her matchless knowledge of the old-new Jewish Vilna in which YIVO took root, she shows us the signal importance of place in Jewish diasporism. And her deep understanding of Polish Jewry's hopes and woes alike renders her account of YIVO's struggles to square scholarly integrity with the imperatives of nationalism, socialism, and popular obligation not only thought-provoking, but genuinely moving.' Kenneth B. Moss, The Johns Hopkins University

    'This long-awaited book by Cecile Esther Kuznitz fills an important piece in the puzzle of the history of modern Jewish scholarship. We now have a full and rich account of the rise, fall, and rise of YIVO, the great center of Yiddish research. Kuznitz makes use of a wide array of sources, including previously inaccessible archives, to trace the intriguing personalities, trying material conditions, and key achievements of YIVO. Above all, she illumines with a commendable mix of empathy and precision YIVO's pendulous swing between the Scylla of political partisanship and the Charybdis of the ivory tower.' David N. Myers, University of California, Los Angeles

    'One of Eastern European Jewry's most important pre-Holocaust institutions has finally found its historian. Cecile Esther Kuznitz comes neither to bury nor to praise YIVO, but rather to tell its story in all its complexity and tragedy. In this fine scholarly and readable work, she brings to life the personalities and politics that animated YIVO's lofty ambitions: to investigate and at the same time to create the Yiddish-speaking Jewish nation.' David Rechter, University of Oxford

    'This is the story, never told at length before, of YIVO, one of the most significant institutions of Jewish (Yiddish) culture … This scholarly work offers a detailed history.' The Canadian Jewish News

    'Before [Kuznitz's] work there was no comprehensive scholarly biography of this institution in its historical, cultural-historical and political context … This richly detailed and informative book can be used reliably by anyone working on East European Jewish history, Yiddish culture and its transmission.' Translated from Jiddistik Mitteilungen

    'Built upon years of meticulous research and written in precise, clear prose, Kuznitz's book is a lively work of scholarship about … scholars. She judiciously weighs the YIVO's many accomplishments against its enormous challenges and makes major contributions to Jewish intellectual history, Yiddish cultural history, and … to the history of Jewish archives and libraries. Her outstanding book would surely have made the YIVO founders, zamlers, and many adherents in the Yiddish nation and beyond, proud.' Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, Association of Jewish Libraries News

    'Reading [this book], for the first time one understands in its entirety how the world of YIVO was created and the institute's immeasurable value for an entire generation of Jews in Eastern Europe … Kuznitz succeeds not only in reconstructing many small pieces of the mosaic of the institute's history, but … in composing a complete picture of YIVO's broad impact … [she] has succeeded magnificently in reconstructing a part of this destroyed world and bringing it back into public awareness … This book's most important contribution is in reminding us of the great vision of diaspora nationalism and its cultural and political relevance for East European Jewry's path to modernity.' Elisabeth Gallas, translated from Medaon

    '… a cogent and beautifully researched account of [YIVO's] beginnings between the World Wars: the act of collecting that was at its core, and the intellectual commitment to reframing Jewish culture that nourished the vision of its founders.' Forward (

    '[Kuznitz's] analysis is astute, and her judgments solid and thoughtful. She deserves kudos for having written an exemplary academic study … It is likely to remain indispensable to scholars interested in Yiddish studies, and, more generally, in the development of Jewish studies, for a long time to come.' East European Jewish Affairs

    '[I]nvaluable and engaging … YIVO and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of Yiddishism, the cultural politics of eastern European Jewry, and the development of language-centric nationalism in general.' Journal of Jewish Languages

    'In this superbly written book, Cecile Esther Kuznitz not only shows how Yiddish scholars created a home for their work and for Diaspora Nationalists but also [pays] homage to them, even as she critically examines their work.' The Russian Review

    'Cecile Esther Kuznitz has accomplished a remarkable work of research that reconstructs, through rigorous and thorough analysis of a considerable body of sources … the outstanding figures marking this great intellectual adventure and their major accomplishments, stimulated by an unwavering passion, but also by the sad feeling of the fragility of Jewish destiny and the obsession to safeguard a menaced culture at the edge of a precipice … a learned work, rich in unpublished documents and agreeable to read …' Translated from Revue des études juives

    'This book offers a meticulous examination of the birth of YIVO, the Yiddisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (Yiddish Scientific Institute), and its life in Europe before the Holocaust. The author has made a thorough study of correspondence between the Institute's founders and supporters, men mostly unknown to modern Yiddishists, as well as relevant periodicals … The book is exhaustive in its explication of YIVO's life in Europe, bringing all the facts together with notes, a bibliography, and an index … Highly recommended for academic and Yiddish-oriented collections.' Beth Dwoskin, Association of Jewish Libraries News

    'Kuznitz's lucid study demonstrates the importance of YIVO as the first institution ever dedicated to researching the language, history, and culture of the Jews in Eastern Europe and in the countries of their immigration. Her meticulous analysis of YIVO's surviving institutional records carefully reconstructs the institute's ambitious emancipatory project of freeing the Yiddish language from its allegedly inferior status as a 'jargon' and bestowing it a respectable place among the European national languages.' Laura Jockusch, The American Historical Review

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    Product details

    • Date Published: September 2017
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781316634837
    • length: 323 pages
    • dimensions: 230 x 155 x 20 mm
    • weight: 0.52kg
    • contains: 16 b/w illus.
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. 'Language raised to the level of a political factor': Yiddish scholarship
    2. 'The idea of the institute is already ripe': the founding and first stages of YIVO, 1924–5
    3. 'From the folk, for the folk, with the folk': academic work, 1925–32
    4. 'The capital of Yiddishland': the geography of Jewish culture, 1925–33
    5. 'To forge intellectual weapons for our people!': scholarship in times of crisis, 1931–9
    Epilogue: from Vilna to New York

  • Author

    Cecile Esther Kuznitz, Bard College, New York
    Cecile Esther Kuznitz is an Associate Professor of History and the Director of Jewish Studies at Bard College, New York. A magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University, she received her Ph.D. from Stanford University, California. Her articles have been published in The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (2008), The Encyclopaedia Judaica (2007), The Worlds of S. An-sky (2006), The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies (2002) and Yiddish Language and Culture: Then and Now (1998). She previously taught at Georgetown University, Washington DC and has held fellowships at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

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