Studying the Soviet Shtetl

Yalen_pic_Katz_Center_Spring_2015 (002)Dr. Deborah Yalen, the speaker for this year’s Annual Babi Yar Remembrance Ceremony, gives us an insight into her research motivations, the obstacles she faces, and what she thinks is the most important take away from her work.

1. What is your primary area of study?

I am working on three different projects that explore Jewish scholarship and scholarly institutions in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and early 1930s, when the state funded Jewish research written from a Marxist perspective. In particular, I study shtetl forshung – shtetl scholarship – as well as state-funded ethnographic research on Jews. At the moment, I am collaborating with Russian colleagues at the Center “Petersburg Judaica” at the European University in St. Petersburg on an English-language volume about a special Jewish Section that was created in 1937 at the State Museum of Ethnography in Leningrad. This Jewish Section organized an ambitious exhibit entitled “The Jews of Tsarist Russia and the USSR” that remained open to the public until the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941.

2. What prompted you to do research on this subject?

My interest in Russian and Soviet history goes back to high school. After college, I became
fascinated by the work of the writer and folklorist Sh. An-sky, leader of the famed ethnographic expedition into the Pale of Jewish Settlement in 1912, and author of the influential play The Dybbuk. Long before I started graduate work, I attended a screening of the Polish film adaptation of The Dybbuk, which was introduced by the literary scholar David Roskies. An-sky was forced to flee Soviet Russia because of his political views, and at the time that I started graduate school, it was widely assumed that An-sky’s work could not be continued in the new ideological climate of Bolshevism. I became interested in exploring underlying continuities in the Jewish ethnographic tradition in the Soviet period. This led me in unexpected directions, to a host of Jewish scholarly endeavors that were funded by the Soviet state during the interwar years.

3. What is the most surprising thing you have come across in your research?

Growing up, I internalized a Cold War-era view that Jewish life in the Soviet Union was exclusively a story of victimization and repression. It was not until I began graduate-level research and started studying Yiddish that I came to appreciate the incredible richness of Soviet Jewish interwar culture. One aspect that especially surprised me early on is how impassioned debates were about the shtetl in the early Soviet period: would it cease to exist in the Soviet Union, or would it take on a new identity? Some high-level Jewish Communists were remarkably attached to the idea of salvaging and reinventing the shtetl.

Woodcut engraving of a shtetl landscape by the Soviet Jewish artist Solomon Yudovin

Woodcut engraving of a shtetl landscape by the Soviet Jewish artist Solomon Yudovin

4. What do you find most difficult about researching the interwar period?

Like everything else at this time, Jewish scholarly publications had to reflect the Party line. It would be easy to dismiss these materials as mere propaganda, and their authors as stooges of the Soviet regime. It requires a lot of digging and juxtaposing of materials to build a complex picture of what Jewish scholars were trying to accomplish. Access to material can be a challenge. Some archival materials were destroyed or scattered to the winds during the chaos of World War II.

5. How would you say your work differs from other researchers in this field?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, path-breaking scholarship has been produced in the area of Soviet Jewish cultural and literary history. My research is a little different in that it deals more with Yiddish-language social scientific scholarship – sociology, ethnography, demography. This material is not as aesthetically compelling as literature and poetry, but it has an important cultural history of its own.

6. If someone learned only one thing from you about this subject, what would you want it to be and why?

I would have to answer this question with reference to my previous non-academic work experience, back when I served as an Immigrant Services Coordinator for former Soviet Jews in New York City. The prevailing attitude then was that former Soviet Jews had to be acculturated to a “normative” American form of Jewish identity. My research over the years reinforces an instinctive feeling that I had at the time – that on the contrary, it is we, American Jews, who have much to learn about Soviet Jewish culture and experience.

7. What is your favorite Jewish food?

That’s a tough call. I guess my fondest culinary memories are of my mother’s homemade chicken soup and kugel.

If you are interested in attending the Babi Yar Memorial and listening to Dr. Yalen discuss more of her research, you can register for the event here

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