Sunday, January 1, 2012


Happy New Year!

My new goal for this blog in 2012: to read about cities where communities of assimilated or secular Jews have lived. Each city is different; sometimes a newly founded community took an unexpected direction. Sometimes new ideas would emerge in a long-established community.

A few preliminary examples: Odessa was founded at the end of the 19th century. From the start it was a very culturally and socially open place, where Jews and many others found economic and educational opportunities. This “New Russia” on the Black Sea always contrasted to Old Russia where Jews were severely restricted in every way. The Odessa Jews became successful and increasingly assimilated, though they kept a Jewish identity for the most part. Despite several pogroms in the 1800s, Jews towards the end of the  century were sure that persecution and antisemitism would soon end. I’ve been reading some very interesting books about this community, and will have much more to report.

Vitebsk and Vilna, in contrast, were traditional cities in the heart of the repressive Pale of Settlement. Despite the limitations, Vitebsk was the original home of several innovative 20th century artists. And Vilna, famous for its religious center, was also the site of the founding of YIVO, which continues today in New York as an outstanding secular Jewish institution. Again, I’m aware of some interesting studies of these communities and their progeny, and hope to explore them.

Venice, in 1515, invented the Ghetto so that they could admit Jews without actually living alongside them. The Venetian Ghetto became a lively place with a strong life of its own, especially famous for Purim parties and as a halfway stop for secret Jews escaping from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. I've read quite a bit, and hope to review some of the more amusing anecdotes about this community.

Berlin allowed virtually no Jews in the 18th century (Moses Mendelssohn needed a special exception to live there). However, when the situation opened up a bit, Berlin became a center of secular Jewish culture and was home to a number of interesting writers and thinkers. This fascinating era lasted from around 1800 until the Nazis solved the “problem.” German Jewish intellectual circles in Berlin are fascinating to read about, and I also have a reading list for this.

So my plan is that I’m going to learn more about these cities and I hope many others, thus exploring a different approach to the almanach of birthday celebrations that I’ve done so far. I still have a few more birthdays each month, as well as these new avenues for reading and writing.

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