Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

Insiders and Outsiders

Dilemmas of East European Jewry
Editors: Richard I. Cohen, Jonathan Frankel & Stefani Hoffman

This collection of essays breaks new ground in its interdisciplinary study of the way Jews redefined their identity in the changing societies of modern eastern Europe. Sensitively treating the drama of east European Jewry from cultural and political vantage points, prominent scholars provide fresh insights into the complex issues facing the Jewish world. The multifaceted essays in this volume reflect the influence of the pioneering work of the historian Ezra Mendelsohn.

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Insiders and Outsiders: Dilemmas of East European Jewry examines problems of Jewish cultural and political orientations, associations, and self-identification within a broad framework. The contributors approach the predicament of east European Jews in various settings: some focus primarily on the Jews' inner development and outlook, while others discuss how elements of the majority society viewed their presence. Scholars of history, art history, and literature display originality and insight in illuminating the nuances and intricacies of the Jewish ‘outsider’.

Following an overview by the distinguished intellectual historian of German Jewry Steven Aschheim, who offers some comprehensive thoughts on the insider/outsider dilemma in modern times and its relevance to eastern Europe, the discussion evolves around three major themes: the cultural conundrum; modes of acculturation, assimilation, and identity; and the minority’s inclusion in or exclusion from the political agendas of certain east European societies. It concludes with a focus on two remarkable cities―Czernowitz and Vilnius―where the Jewish minority has often been conceived as being no less ‘inside’ than other groups.

Contributors to the ‘cultural conundrum’ section deal with artists and writers from Romania and Poland who have gained wide public and critical attention over the years, including Reuven Rubin, Itzik Manger, Avot Yeshurun, and Mihail Sebastian. Other essays discuss the work of a group of writers from Poland, including Henryk Grynberg, Wilhelm Dichter, Joanna Olczak-Ronikier, Krzysztof Teodor Toeplitz, and Michal Glowinski, who reflected intensively on their experiences as Jews in the Second World War and tried to integrate these experiences into their often fractured identities. The complex personal evolution of these figures shows the multi-layered influences on their creativity and imagination, while underscoring the dilemmas they faced to find points of meeting between their Jewish background and their national identity.

The section on modes of acculturation, assimilation, and identity offers detailed analyses of the ways in which multi-ethnic and multi-national situations demand that the ‘outsider’, consciously or unconsciously, develop inner strategies to fashion a specific identity. Surveying such vibrant areas as Czechoslovakia and Poland between the two world wars and the city of Lwów in the late nineteenth century, three essays present some of the choices Jews made in order to deal with the changing political and cultural context. Their meditations on  belonging and not-belonging―on the constitution of identity and its fluidity, and on the formation, breakdown, and reconfiguration of physical, mental, social, and geographical borders―acquire a special relevance and urgency in these settings.

How did Jews as ‘outsiders’ configure their political allegiance in eastern Europe? How prominent were they in the radical elements of the communist movement in Russia? What tactics did they employ to safeguard their future in such societies and what means did they employ to galvanize the ‘Jewish street’? These are some of the questions raised in the section on society and politics, which delves into such problematic terrain as ‘Jewish informers’, the ‘non-Jewish Jew’, and ‘Jewish politics’.

The concluding essays examine the tensions, paradoxes, and ironies of the phenomenon of the Jewish outsider in Czernowitz and Vilnius, two cities where, indeed, Jews were often construed to be the true ‘insiders’.


About the author

Richard I. Cohen holds the Paulette and Claude Kelman Chair in French Jewry Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has recently edited and introduced Raymond-Raoul Lambert's Diary of a Witness, 1940–1943: The Ordeal of French Jews during the Holocaust; Image and Sound: Art, Music and History (in Hebrew);and, with Jeremy Cohen, co-edited The Jewish Contribution to Civilization: Reassessing an Idea (published by the Littman Library).

Jonathan Frankel was Professor Emeritus in the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies and the Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917 marked a turning point in modern Jewish historiography and was awarded a number of prestigious prizes. He is the author of The Damascus Affair: ‘Ritual Murder’, Politics, and the Jews in 1840, and the editor of many books, including several volumes of Studies in Contemporary Jewry. He has also published numerous works on modern Jewish politics, with an emphasis on the emergence of Jewish nationalism, the history of the Jews in tsarist and Soviet Russia, and Jewish historiography. An edition of his essays will be published shortly.

Stefani Hoffman is the former director of the Mayrock Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is currently involved in freelance research, editing, and translation on topics related to Russian Jewish history and society. She is co-editor, with Ezra Mendelsohn, of The Revolution of 1905 and Russia’s Jews and, with Yitzhak Brudny and Jonathan Frankel, of Restructuring Post-Communist Russia.


Steven E. Aschheim, Karen Auerbach, Richard I. Cohen, Jonathan Frankel, Stefani Hoffman, Zvi Jagendorf, Hillel J. Kieval, Rachel Manekin, Amitai Mendelsohn, Joanna B. Michlic, Antony Polonsky, David Rechter, Scott Ury, Leon Volovici, Ruth R. Wisse, Mordechai Zalkin

Contributor information

Steven E. Aschheim, Vigevani Chair of European Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; director of the Franz Rosenzweig Research Centre for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History
Karen Auerbach, Applied Research Scholar, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC
Richard I. Cohen, Paulette and Claude Kelman Chair in French Jewry Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Jonathan Frankel, late Saveli and Tamara Grinberg Professor Emeritus, Department of Russian and Slavic Studies and the Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Stefani Hoffman, former director of the Mayrock Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Research, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Zvi Jagendorf, Professor Emeritus of English and Theatre, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Hillel J. Kieval, Gloria M. Goldstein Professor of Jewish History and Thought, and Chair of the Department of History, Washington University, St Louis
Rachel Manekin, assistant professor of Jewish history, University of Maryland
Amitai Mendelsohn, curator of Israeli art, Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Joanna B. Michlic, Director, Project on Families, Children, and the Holocaust, Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Brandeis University
Antony Polonsky, Albert Abramson Professor of Holocaust Studies, Brandeis University and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum
David Rechter, University Research Lecturer in Oriental Studies, University of Oxford; Research Fellow in Modern Jewish History, St Antony’s College, Oxford
Scott Ury, postdoctoral fellow, Department of Jewish History, Tel Aviv University
Leon Volovici, formerly head of research and board member, Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Ruth R. Wisse, Harvard College Professor, Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature, and Professor of Comparative Literature, Harvard University
Mordechai Zalkin, associate professor, Department of Jewish History, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev



Note on Transliteration

Reflections on Insiders and Outsiders: A General Introduction
Steven E. Aschheim

1 The Project of Jewish Culture and its Boundaries---Insiders and Outsiders
Richard I. Cohen
2 Gott fun Avrohom: Itzik Manger and Avot Yeshurun Look Homewards
Zvi Jagendorf
3 Agony and Resurrection: The Figure of Jesus in the Work of Reuven Rubin
Amitai Mendelsohn
4 Mihail Sebastian: A Jewish Writer and his (Antisemitic) Master
Leon Volovici
5 Insiders/Outsiders: Poles and Jews in Recent Polish Jewish Fiction and Autobiography
Karen Auerbach and Antony Polonsky

6 Negotiating Czechoslovakia: The Challenges of Jewish Citizenship in a Multiethnic Nation-State
Hillel J. Kieval
7 The Debate over Assimilation in Late Nineteenth-Century Lwów
Rachel Manekin
8 The Culture of Ethno-Nationalism and the Identity of Jews in Inter-War Poland: Some Responses to ‘the Aces of Purebred Race’
Joanna B. Michlic

9 Urban Society, Popular Culture, Participatory Politics: On the Culture of Modern Jewish Politics in Congress Poland
Scott Ury
10 The ‘Non-Jewish Jews’ Revisited: Solzhenitsyn and the Issue of National Guilt
Jonathan Frankel
11 The Jewish Informer as Extortionist and Idealist
Ruth R. Wisse

12 A Jewish El Dorado? Myth and Politics in Habsburg Czernowitz
David Rechter
13 Wilno/Vilnius/Vilne: Whose City Is It Anyway?
Mordechai Zalkin

Notes on Contributors



'This volume, thanks to the high quality and diversity of its offerings, is clearly a major contribution to east European Jewish studies and to the larger fields of Jewish history and cultural studies.'
Natan Meir, H-Judaic

'Intellectual provocations and controversial and new interpretations are very important, especially if they come together with solid scholarship. This is the case of the book under review, which is a must read for everybody interested in the assimilation of east European Jews.'
Piotr Wróbel, H-Judaic

'All authors present well-grounded conclusions with regard to the specific problems they analyse and suggest that by using a methodological approach like that of "outsiders" and "insiders" it is possible to widen the scope of research on identity change and provide a fresh look at conflcts possibly based on individual choices, their contexts, and consequences. Thus, the articles in this book, each in their way, convincingly prove the viability and multi-functionality of this methodological apprach in research on modern east European Jewish culture and history.'
Jurgita Siauciunaite-Verbickiene, Judaica