Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

“Any Minute Now the World’s Overflowing Its Border”: Anarchist Modernism and Yiddish Literature


“Any Minute Now the World’s Overflowing Its Border”: Anarchist Modernism and Yiddish Literature examines the intertwined worlds of Yiddish modernist writing and anarchist politics and culture. Bringing together original historical research on the radical press and close readings of Yiddish avant-garde poetry by Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Peretz Markish, Yankev Glatshteyn, and others, I show that the development of anarchist modernism was both a transnational literary trend and a complex worldview. My research draws from hitherto unread material in international archives to document the world of the Yiddish anarchist press and assess the scope of its literary influence. The dissertation’s theoretical framework is informed by diaspora studies, gender studies, and translation theory, to which I introduce anarchist diasporism as a new term. Originating in ancient Greek, anarchism refers to a constellation of anti-statist and anti-capitalist aspirations: imagining and working towards a world without borders, an ethics of consensus, bodily autonomy, and escape from the temporal strictures of wage labor. Anarchist diasporism describes the anti-statism of stateless peoples based upon their specific relationship to time and territory, and links the theoretical insights of diaspora studies with the historical study of anarchism. Rather than producing an aspiration to statehood, immigration and deportation often informed a rejection of nationalism and a reconsideration of the meaning of diaspora. The scope of this dissertation includes writers who personally identified as anarchists, such as Anna Margolin, Yosef Luden, and Alexander Harkavy; and those like Soviet anti-Fascist poet Peretz Markish, who absorbed anarchist thought and aesthetics and were celebrated by anarchist readerships.

Chapter One, “Genealogies of Stateless Anti-Statism,” documents how Yiddish anarchists claimed Jewish genealogies and interpreted diaspora. Historicizing this anti-teleological worldview provides a foundation for studying anarchist diasporism in Yiddish poetry, through such literary practices as bending time and imagining history before, after and beyond the state—imaginative gestures already present in Jewish anarchist theory. I translate and examine histories by Saul Yanovsky, Rabbi Yankev Meir Zalkind, Yosef Luden, and Yosef Cohen—each of whom edited a Yiddish anarchist newspaper—and the anarcha-feminism of Dr. Katherina Yevzerov and Emma Goldman. Zalkind and Luden most deeply engage with Torah and Talmud (Zalkind’s translations made talmudic labor law accessible for workers); Yanovsky and Cohen draw from the vagaries of Jewish history; and Yevzerov and Goldman confront patriarchal power.

The second chapter, “‘Language is Migrant’: The Multilingual Language Politics of Alexander Harkavy, Emma Goldman, and the Anarchist Press,” examines a few case studies of language politics in Jewish anarchism—a movement which, unlike Bundism and Zionism, did not articulate a single ideology of language. Renowned for his contributions to the field of linguistics, Alexander Harkavy also developed a philosophy of language evolution informed by his anarchist worldview. I examine the language politics of two legal cases: Emma Goldman’s trial for lecturing bilingually on birth control, and the Supreme Court free speech case Jacob Abrams vs United States, which deported the editors of Frayhayt for their seditious bilingual broadsides. I discuss the close relationship between two English-language journals, A. Berkman and Goldman’s Mother Earth and Margaret Anderson’s Little Review.

Chapter Three, “The Anarchism of Time: Comparative Temporalities in Yiddish and English Sacco-Vanzetti Poems,” examines the presence and persistence of anarcho-syndicalism in Yiddish poetry. Beginning with the Proletarian (Svetshop) poets Morris Rosenfeld and Yosef Bovshover, I discuss the role of the anarchist press in the development of immigrant social worlds. I examine the poetics and political valences of temporality in svetshop poetry, particularly their utopian futurities and critique of capitalist time. Two archetypal elements of Proletarian poetry—alternative temporality and imagery of garment workers’ tools—were reinvented by Modernist poets in their responses to the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. Through repetition and kaleidoscopic montage, the poetic structures of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern and Yankev Glatshteyn embody alternative temporalities beyond the linear and punitive temporality of the state.

Chapter Four, “With An Undone Shirt (Mit a tseshpilyet hemd): Anarchist Temporality and Embodiment in Peretz Markish’s Poema Der fertsikyeriker man,” analyzes Markish’s brash early work and selections from his hitherto-untranslated masterpiece Der fertsikyeriker man (The Man of Forty), a book-length poema that was rescued hours before his arrest by the Soviet Secret Police and smuggled out of Russia. I examine how anarchist themes circulated through his work, including revolutionary temporality, antimilitarism, visions of nature without borders, and representations of the autonomous body. Despite the Soviet Union’s brutal surveillance and persecution of Yiddish writers, Markish defiantly used the Jewishly-marked vocabulary which Soviet language reform campaigns had attempted to purge. I consider anarchist responses to Markish’s poetry in the contemporaneous newspaper Arbeter Fraynd (Worker’s Friend), which claimed him “as much our comrade as our poet.”

The Coda points to possible future dialogues with other fields (such as postcolonial and decolonial thought, Diaspora Studies, and Comparative Literature) and connections to contemporary diasporic movements building democracy without the state.

This dissertation contributes to our understanding of the multiplicities of Jewish diasporic thought and expands the body of world Modernist literature available in translation.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View