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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Here and Now: The Modernist Poetics of Do'ikayt

  • Author(s): Cohen, Madeleine Atkins
  • Advisor(s): Kronfeld, Chana
  • et al.

This dissertation explores the connections between Ashkenazi Jewish relationships to place and revolutionary politics in Central and Eastern Europe in modernist Yiddish literature in the first half of the twentieth century. I investigate the Yiddish concept of “do’ikayt” (“hereness”), which is used to describe practices of political organizing and cultural activism among Yiddishists and Jewish socialists especially during the interwar period. Do’ikayt meant an investment in the long history of Jews in the territories of Europe, an investment in Ashkenazi culture, in Yiddish, and in the possibility of continued Jewish life in places like Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus in the aftermath of World War One and the revolutions in the Russian Empire. I argue that there is a strong trend of do’ikayt in Yiddish literature of this period, which entails representation of “lived Jewish space,” local history, culture, and language, as well as a political commitment to the improvement of Jewish and non-Jewish life in those spaces, often aligned with revolutionary socialist politics. Through close readings of works by Izi Kharik and Moyshe Kulbak, I further argue that it is not only (or not even especially) in realist or naturalist genres of literature that we find this poetics of do’ikayt, but rather in works of modernist literature. Formal experimentation, and an aesthetics of abstraction and fragmentation, especially, become these authors’ modes for representing the tensions between building connections to history and culture, on the one hand, and the drive for revolutionary change on the other. Chapter One explores the concept of “do’ikayt” in political and historical contexts. I discuss works by Chaim Zhitlowsky and Sh. An-sky as examples of political do’ikayt in the contexts of early socialist and territorialist politics, and I read An-sky’s novella In shtrom as an early example of the trend of literary do’ikayt. The second chapter focuses on Izi Kharik’s poema (a long form narrative poem), “Minsker Blotes” (“Minsk Mud”), about the experiences of the pre-revolutionary period and the revolutionary period in a poor Jewish neighborhood of Minsk. I include a complete translation of “Minsk Mud” in the appendix to the dissertation, the first time the poema has been translated into English. In the third chapter I explore Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia as a framework for these modernist representations of place and use it to read the poetics of do’ikayt in Moyshe Kulbak’s novel, Zelmenyaner (The Zelmenyaners), about a large multi-generational Jewish family living through Sovietization in Minsk in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In the final chapter I begin to investigate what a modernist poetics of do’ikayt might look like outside of Yiddish literature, taking the example of Alfred Döblin’s writings about Berlin and his travels in Poland.

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