Call for Articles Special Issue Germanica - Germanica: Yiddish presence and requalification of urban spaces

Germanica n°67/2020

Yiddish presence and requalification of urban spaces

Call for papers

In his recent book A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture (New York University Press 2018), Shachar Pinsker emphasises the prominent role that cafés played in the emergence and development of Jewish modernity, both in Yiddish and Hebrew-language literature and culture. He takes the reader on a "Silk Road" leading from one European capital to the next, sometimes even to America and Palestine, a veritable interconnected network used by a myriad of artists eager to measure themselves against the urban monstrosity. In this way, Pinsker turns the coffee house into an emblematic site of modernity, even to a point of metonymy of urban space at the beginning of the 20th century. Seen from a distance, the coffee house forms a transnational phenomenon, but if one reduces the perspective to a narrower viewpoint, this typical element of urban space functions as a "Thirdspace", Pinsker using here the term coined by the representative of cultural geography Edward S. Soja. Thus, considering the coffee house as a thirdspace amounts to “emphasizing the interplay between subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined” and to “understanding the café in the way it is located at and mediates between the real and the imaginary, the public and the private, elitist culture and mass consumption”, thereby the boundaries “between Jew and Gentile, migrant and ‘native’, idleness and productivity, masculine and feminine” must be constantly renegotiated (p. 9-10).

The subject of this Yiddish issue of Germanica is urban modernity at the beginning of the 20th century. This will be explored on the basis of this notion of thirdspace as a space newly invested, here singularly by representatives of the Yiddish-speaking Jewish minority - a space that is both lived empirically as real territory and the object of imaginary representations but which, in this operation, becomes more than the sum of the two. Indeed, it seems to us an effective tool for probing and scrutinizing the multicultural urban environments that sheltered Yiddish-speaking writers and made their uprooting a fertile experience.

In contrast to the to a certain extent closed-off space of the shtetl, from which many came, the metropolis offered these Yiddish-speaking immigrants, newcomers and exiled persons the opportunity to use existing places (theatres and concert halls, lending libraries, department stores, public baths, local medical facilities...) or places being born before their eyes (cinemas, leisure and entertainment facilities...), to appropriate them and in so doing, perhaps, modify their essence or influence their functioning. Very often, because of their affordable prices, these places were easily accessible, potentially social and suitable for personal exchanges (which brings to the mind the concept of the "Third Place" introduced by the American sociologist Ray Oldenburg).

This volume is in line with a series of studies that in recent years have attempted to nuance or reverse the often too rigid conceptions underlying the description of relations in multicultural cities and between artists and intellectuals (see for instance: Rachel Seelig, Strangers in Berlin: Modern Jewish Literature between East and West, 1919-1933, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2016). By abandoning antithetical couples and polarizations, most studies conclude that categories such as participation and involvement are preferable to the idea of influence and that forms of hybridity (Homi Bhabha) rather than assimilation prevail.

This issue aims to provide a kaleidoscopic description of the way in which the Yiddish-speaking minority negotiates with the dominant culture its participation in modernity and how it shapes its coexistence with the former: Apart from the coffee houses, what are the places and sites that offer the possibility of participating in the vibrant urban life and in which the voice of the minority - even as a dissenting voice - can be expressed? While the dilemmas of modern Jewish cultural identity are well known, the question remains open as to what form they take in each of these different places. To what extent and from what point of view does Yiddish literature report on the existence of libraries, concert halls and cinemas, department stores with their tempting windows and fashion shows, swimming pools, Luna Parks, stadiums, hairdressing salons - in other words, of all these places that invite one to overcome binary logics and to coexist?

Furthermore, one could ask whether the big city is the only environment that allows such a requalification of space and whether third spaces in metropolises where a Yiddish enclave could flourish as in Berlin in the 1920s can be compared to those in large cities where density of Jewish networks was so strong that Yiddish everyday life could be lived there undisturbed?

The field of this study is Yiddish literature without excluding other vectors and media. The following questions or topics can be treated among others:

  • The leisure and consumer society, insofar as it produces so-called “thirdspace”
  • Comparative studies (one metropolis in comparison with another; comparative studies of German/Yiddish literature)
  • Studies from the gender perspective: the coffee house undoubtedly appears to be a typically male place; what about pensions, public health facilities, etc.?
  • Reversed polarities: Jewish sites and places as a thirdspace (e.g. cantor concerts)
  • Textuality as privileged expression of hybridity
  • Translation as a room for negotiation

Contributions in French or German, from 35,000 to 40,000 characters (including spaces), are expected by August 31 at the latest, with a view to publication in December 2020. Articles in Yiddish, Polish or English are also welcome. Due to the necessary translation into French, please note the shortened deadline of July 31st.

Please send your contribution proposals (provisional title and description of about ten lines as well as a short biography) to Marie Schumacher-Brunhes (