The Introduction surveys the languages, media, and politics of Jewish primitivism and defines it in relation to modernist primitivism more broadly. Jewish primitivism redirected toward the self the dominant European primitivism that valorized racial and ethnic difference. Further, while typical European primitivism figured European aesthetics and society as challenged by the savage other, the identification of Jewish with primitive identity placed primitive aesthetics in the heart of Europe. Jewish primitivism spanned Yiddish, German, and Hebrew, and extended from central to eastern Europe; it expressed a powerful critique of the aesthetics as well as the politics of Jewish cultural nationalism. The necessity of social and cultural inclusion in Europe is questioned in Jewish primitivism even as the project is premised on that very inclusion. This account of Jewish primitivism reorients the scholarly perspective that views the place of primitivism in discourses on power, race, and colonialism strictly in terms of alterity.
Chapter 1 shows how an incipient Jewish literary modernism based on the aesthetics of romantic nationalism was challenged by the emergence of avant-garde primitivist critique. The folklore-inspired Jewish literature of the turn of the twentieth century was influential culturally and politically, in its contribution to the formation of a modern Jewish literary canon. But it also prompted a backlash by members of the avant-garde who cast the Herderian folklorism of the neo-Romantics as mere "stylization" and called for the aesthetic, but not its subject matter, to be discarded. This critique opened the door to a Jewish primitivism that sought to push beyond neo-Romantic aesthetics while remaining ambivalent about its ethno-nationalist politics.
Chapter 2 analyzes Jewish primitivism in the works of the Yiddish writer S. An-sky and the German-Jewish writers Alfred Döblin and Joseph Roth. While European primitivism generally suppressed the subjectivity of the "primitive" in order to objectify it, Jewish primitivism paradoxically both suppressed and revealed the potential for equality between the civilized writer and the savage Jew, blurring the border between observer and observed. Jewish primitivism was thus a "plausible" primitivism, which manifested in literary projects that contained two contradictory but equally necessary parts: on the one hand, a range of belletristic genres presented an idealized vision of Jewish primitivity; on the other hand, travelogues foregrounded the reality of European Jewish life. Together, suspended in mutual opposition, these genres expressed Jewish primitivism.
Chapter 3 presents Franz Kafka as a Jewish primitivist. This runs counter to the prevailing view that sees Kafka apart from broader trends in European Jewish literature. Kafka's works connect the contradictions of Jewish primitivism to his ambivalence about his Jewish identity. This perspective casts a new light on several of Kafka's core texts, including "Before the Law" and "A Report to an Academy." Kafka's presumed avoidance of introducing Jewishness into his aesthetics is actually a manifestation of the instability and critique of authenticity at the heart of Jewish primitivism.
Chapter 4 explores the politics of Jewish primitivism, which ranged from the bohemian Left to the radical Right. This political breadth is evident in the poetic relationship between the German poet Else Lasker-Schüler and the Yiddish and Hebrew poet Uri Zvi Grinberg, the former ambivalent about Zionism, the latter a proponent of Zionism's most radical wing. The idea of an originary Jewish identity rooted in an ancient but unspecified East was central to Lasker-Schüler's poetry and visual art. Emerging from this landscape was her "Society of Savage Jews," a utopian community of writers and artists that existed only in her writings and artwork; Grinberg borrowed this trope and used it for very different ends—his savage Jews were Zionist pioneers, creating a nation-state.
The avant-garde short stories of the Yiddish writer Der Nister were a form of primitivist literary abstraction, fracturing the narrator-ego into a kaleidoscopic and disorienting landscape, thereby destabilizing the privileged subject at the center of the Western literary tradition. The primitivist aesthetic theory of Carl Einstein clarifies Der Nister's own innovative solution to the problem of abstraction—as a visual and spatial phenomenon—in literature. Einstein noted that primitivist abstraction was in principle achievable in literature but in practice absent. Der Nister's familiarity with Yiddish folklore gave him a resource for the creation of a literary abstraction motivated by both literature and the visual principles familiar from modernist painting. His primitivism resulted in a revolutionary aesthetics that fused Jewish sources with the universalist claims of his politics.
Ein Ghetto im Osten: Wilna (A ghetto in the East – Vilna) is a 1931 photobook by the Bauhaus-trained photographer Moyshe Vorobeichic (better known for his book Paris, under the name Moï Ver). His Vilna book is a striking example of Jewish primitivism, which offers an alternative to the dominant form of Jewish visual art in the period, dismissed as sentimental "Chagallism" by Henryk Berlewi. Deploying a form of what James Clifford has called "ethnographic surrealism," Vorobeichic portrayed subjects usually depicted sentimentally with the techniques (including montage and distorted perspective) of avant-garde photography. Vorobeichic's skepticism toward notions of primitive authenticity diverged strikingly from the mainstream of Jewish art in the period. Vorobeichic's photobook critiques the trope of the primitive Jew and the idea of authenticity while valorizing the humanity of his subjects.
The Conclusion considers the meaning of Jewish primitivism in light of the catastrophic destruction of Jewish life in Europe during the First World War and its decimation in the Holocaust. Through a reading of two short texts by the Czech-German-Jewish journalist Egon Erwin Kisch, I show how Kisch exposes the limits of Jewish primitivism as a constructive critical force, compromised by capitalism, by extremist political ideologies, and by violent death. In these stories – one about a search for the Golem of Prague, the other about a search for "Indian Jews" in Mexico – Kisch's primitivism catalyzes a sense of solidarity with the presumed primitive. It is a solidarity born of the common experience of violence and traumatic loss, but it generates a melancholic humanism that was the end of an aesthetic that, after the Holocaust, no longer had the same meaning.