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Jul 2001 Journal

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Death of a culture

THE WANDERING JEWS, Joseph Roth, Granta, 2001.

This haunting and thought-provoking picture of Jewish life in Europe and America focuses on the vanished Yiddish-speaking Jewry of Eastern Europe. Written in the 1920s, with the powerful preface to the 1937 edition appearing as an afterword, this edition appears in Michael Hoffman's accomplished translation with tasteful illustrations.

Roth ponders the ‘Jewish problem’ that exercised Jewish thinkers from the dawn of the Enlightenment. Acknowledging that the ghetto poverty of the mass of ‘Eastern Jews’ is unacceptable, he remains unimpressed by the so-called emancipated

’Western Jews’ with their assimilated ways and condescending attitude towards the Ostjuden, and unconvinced that the answer lies with Jewish nationalism, whether in Palestine or in the autonomous colonies emerging in the wake of the Russian revolution.

In his wanderings among the communities of Jews in Eastern Europe, the vibrancy of shtetl life stands out. This is manifest in the celebration of festivals, weddings and even funerals, with a vast cast of characters including cantors, clowns, wonder rabbis and manual workers, the latter endowed with “an almost non-Jewish physical strength.” Indeed Roth intimates that many Eastern Jews are descendants of Slav converts.

The Jews who managed to establish themselves in France, despite the difficulties of language, also endear themselves to Roth, who spent his happiest years in Paris. Roth's belief that antisemitism flourishes less readily in an atmosphere of liveliness and fun is worth considering. Even in the Prater in Vienna, he contends, antisemitism disappears, only to reappear in the grim streets of the surrounding Second District. Despite an undercurrent of antisemitism, therefore, Jews in France enjoy a level of religious and cultural self-expression denied them almost everywhere else in Western Europe.

Roth's cautious optimism in 1926 about the new Soviet Union, where antisemitism was officially banned, completely vanished by 1937. In his preface of that year, his prognosis of the increasingly desperate situation of Europe's Jewry is that it can only get worse. His tragic suicide two years later may have been an indication that he foresaw the catastrophe to come. Fortunately, he left The Wandering Jews, a valuable testimony of a world so brutally destroyed.


Emma Klein

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