Nancy Sinkoff, Rutgers University, will present a lecture to the SEE NEXT Working group organized by Marina Mogilner.
Secularization as both process and project constituted a central component in the Jewish encounter with modernity. Beginning in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, the all-encompassing world of traditional Ashkenazic Jewish culture was confronted with the intellectual demands of the European Enlightenment to distinguish between natural law based on reason and ceremonial law based on religious tradition and with the political goals of the centralizing European state to treat Jews as national subjects (and, exceptionally, in France, as citizens) who were to practice Judaism as a religion. Among East European Jews, secularization accompanied industrialization and proletarianization and by the end of the nineteenth century ideologues emerged who articulated a distinctly Jewish secular worldview that migrated, transnationally, with East European Jews from the 1880s forward wherever they settled, i.e., North and South America, S. Africa, Ottoman Palestine, and western Europe.
My paper takes as a given that the Ashkenazi Jewish encounter with western modernity was both a typological (or phenomenological) encounter and a historically and regionally specific one. Western Ashkenazi Jews living in France, for example, experienced the “secular” demands of the modernizing French state long before eastern Ashkenazi Jews living in Habsburg Galicia or in the Russian “Pale of Settlement.” This paper explores a fertile exchange between one of the towering figures of twentieth-century Jewish life, Gershom G. Scholem (hailing from western Ashkenazi Jewish circles and living in Palestine/Israel), and a well-known popular historian of the Holocaust, Lucy S. Dawidowicz (hailing from eastern Ashkenazic Jewish circles and living in New York City) regarding the claims of secularism and mysticism on Nathan Birnbaum (hailing from fin-de-siècle Vienna and finishing his days in the Second Polish Republic), a significant figure of late nineteenth- and early twentieth European Jewish nationalism. This exchange raises the question of the possibility or lack thereof of a completely secular Jewish modernity, a project suited—if at all—only to Jewish civilization in the European context.
Nancy Sinkoff is a cultural-intellectual historian of early modern and modern East European Jewry who is particularly fascinated with the question of how diasporic Jews understood politics. Her work focuses on both the European heartland (Poland) and on transnational settlements—in particular the United States—and examines how East European Jews and their descendants understood themselves as they encountered the political, economic, social, geographic, and religious transformations of modernity. Her first book, Out of the Shtetl: Making Jews Modern in the Polish Borderlands (2004), explores the first encounter of East European Jews with modernity in the period of Poland’s partitions and the spread of the European Enlightenment to the East. She is currently at work on a biography of Lucy S. Dawidowicz, an American-born historian of East European Jewry who was raised in a Polish-Jewish immigrant family and as a youth traveled to Vilna, Poland immediately before the outbreak of World War II.
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