Jewish Primitivism
Samuel J. Spinner




“Looked at precisely, it was something like a savage African tribe,” commented Franz Kafka after visiting a Hasidic Jewish gathering in Prague in 1915.1 The statement is startling. Kafka seems at first to disparage Jews by combining a flatly racist estimation of Africans with a condescending attitude toward Jewish migrants from eastern Europe. But we also know that Kafka actually viewed Hasidim in an admiring light. He participated in what Gershom Scholem would later call a “cult of Eastern Jews” that lay at the heart of a contemporary cultural renaissance among German-speaking Jews.2 This positive valuation of eastern European Jews and their language, Yiddish, led Kafka, for example, to declare that “Yiddish is everything” and is something one can “feel the true unity of.”3 In this light, the tribal “savagery” Kafka saw in these Yiddish-speaking Jews, with their superstitions, circle dances, and repetitive chanting, presented an exciting repudiation of the hollowed-out, Westernized Judaism that Kafka identified with his father.4 This is Jewish primitivism; in fact, this is primitivism across European modernism: a critique of modernity activated by the positive evaluation of a purportedly premodern society. Primitivist critique typically takes an object that is distinctly “other”—and definitively not European. Hence the people generally enlisted, whether by force or by fantasy, to play the role of primitives are defined as everything Europeans are supposedly not: dark-skinned, illiterate, uncivilized, superstitious, prelogical.5 Jewish primitivism—by Jews, of Jews—should therefore have been impossible: European Jews were often stereotyped—by themselves and others—as too modern, too urban, too political, too literate. And even if Hasidic and other eastern European Jews superficially resembled more distant so-called primitives, why would European Jews valorize as vital and free a people actually among the most vulnerable in Europe? After all, neither Jews nor so-called primitive peoples had a place as equals in modern, civilized Europe, and Jewish primitivists were certainly not arguing for the exclusion or subjugation of Jews. On the contrary—Jewish primitivism was a product of the effort to create and consolidate identity and nationhood through Jewish culture.6 European modernity depended, however, on the creation of ineradicable difference—between the Jew and the Christian, between the Volk and everyone else, between the civilized and the primitive. In imagining European Jews as primitive savages, European Jewish writers and artists used Jewish primitivism to undermine the idea of ineradicable difference by blurring the border between savage and civilized. Jews turned the ethnographic lens on themselves not so much to salvage or study the premodern vestiges of their own culture,7 and certainly not to denigrate themselves, but instead to critique the distinction, so starkly drawn in modern ethnography and aesthetic primitivism, between subject and object.

Jewish primitivism exposed the fixed poles of identity holding in place Europe’s political and aesthetic regimes. Only in this inherently destabilizing manner could the impossible situation of European Jews be analyzed and reimagined. The result was a discourse that recognized its own impossibility: a powerful critique of the necessity of Jewish inclusion that began from the premise of inclusion. This meant that it was a broader critique, too—of European modernity and its claims regarding collective identity and individual subjectivity. It was also a critique of the aesthetics that emerged from the binary construction of identity in European ethnographic modernity. In other words, Jewish primitivism generated an aesthetic paradox by interrogating the vulnerability of the Jewish subject—the literary and visual conflation of subject and object. This aesthetic paradox was a pointed critique of continental European modernist primitivism.

Jewish primitivism is found in an idiosyncratic array of works of art and literature. Else Lasker-Schüler, the German-Jewish poet and artist, introduced herself and signed her correspondence as Prince Jussuf, chief of the “Bund der wilden Juden,” the Society of Savage Jews. These fearless warriors featured in her poetry, prose, and visual art, narrowing the gaps between genres and media and bridging the chasm between art and life. Although Lasker-Schüler was a bohemian and famously claimed to be “unpolitical,”8 her fantasy of unfettered primitivity revealed that the politics of Jewish primitivism were not only emancipatory; they could also be about domination, as in the Hebrew and Yiddish poetry of Lasker-Schüler’s onetime friend Uri Zvi Grinberg. While Prince Jussuf wore a dagger in his belt inscribed with the word “veʾahavta”—and thou shalt love—Grinberg’s radical right-wing Zionism sharpened the sword of the “Society of Savage Jews,” turning it into a poetic vision for the settlement of Palestine.

Despite its immediate communal and political resonance, Jewish primitivism was also always about the self—the Jewish self, the European self, the human self. In 1914, Kafka asked in his diary, “What do I have in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself; I should stand quietly in a corner, happy that I can breathe.”9 Here he rejects the premise of an exoticizing, ethnographic gaze and turns the lens on himself. Relative to the distance he feels from himself, the primitiveness of the Hasidim he would later compare to Africans is beside the point. Kafka understands that true difference can lie much closer to home. Asking what he has in common with himself does not mean that he no longer seeks commonality with Jews, with Hasidim, or, indeed, with African tribesmen; it shows, rather, that in relation to a primitive other, Kafka becomes other himself. Kafka’s primitivism and his radical self-alienation exist in relation to one another, oscillating continuously between looking outward and looking inward.10

Another example of Jewish primitivism brings Kafka’s two elements together: when the leading Yiddish literary critic Bal Makhshoves described his encounter with the Jews of Warsaw, he remarked that he felt “like someone from a foreign people with a more elevated culture. . . . I studied them like Aztecs; but they were close to me, like children from one father.”11 Bal Makhshoves turned what may seem like an ordinary instance of exoticizing objectification into something more intimate and more complicated.12 He pushed the object of his commentary as far as exoticism would allow but then undercut the chasm of difference with a claim of similitude. But not just a claim: he himself was a Jew from Warsaw. Here we see a recalibration of primitivism’s distancing effect: the “other” is not placed across an unbridgeable civilizational chasm but is a sibling. Rather than turning the alienation onto himself, as Kafka does, Bal Makhshoves emphasizes a kinship and closeness that complicate—without renouncing—his own primitivism.

In the examples of Lasker-Schüler and Grinberg, we see that Jewish primitivism shared a purpose with primitivism more broadly: it was a search for vitality and immediacy. In the examples from Kafka and Bal Makhshoves, we see clearly the primary distinction of Jewish primitivism and why it is that all of the above examples may seem so strange and self-contradictory. Unlike European primitivism more broadly, which sought to replace the European subject with the primitive object, Jewish primitivism was the struggle to be both at once—European and foreign, subject and object, savage and civilized.

While Jewish primitivism’s currency was determined by its social relevance, it was above all, as Ben Etherington argues regarding all primitivism, an aesthetic project.13 The connection between the two aspects emerges in a 1910 speech by Y. L. Peretz, the dominant figure of turn-of-the-century Yiddish literature in eastern Europe: “Two paths lie before us, one path to Europe where Jewish form will be destroyed, the second path back.”14 By Jewish form, Peretz meant specifically, recognizably Jewish art and literature. But where was back? His answer: the “Bible” (bibl); “Hasidic” (khsidish); “folklorism” (folkstimlekhkeyt). Forward and backward were not the only directions Peretz used to orient his thinking on art; he also went up and down: “Art is a staircase, and the ground floor is the primitive of the folk.”15 Peretz’s compass of Jewish art pointed back (to the folk) and down (to the primitive): the cardinal points of primitivism. Bible, Hasidic, folklorism—translation flattens the strangeness of this trio in the original Yiddish, particularly the middle word, Hasidic. Bibl is a European Christian word; the Yiddish word is toyre, from the Hebrew torah. Folkstimlekhkeyt is another strange word, derived from an eighteenth-century German neologism and meaning something like “folkishness”; why not simply say “folklore”?16 Khsidish is the strangest of all—it is an adjective, nominalized not grammatically but by the force of Peretz’s literary vision. But what is the noun this adjective replaces? “Hasidic” . . . what? These odd and ambiguous words, chosen over more typical and grammatical alternatives, betray the ambiguity of Peretz’s aesthetic project, which had a direction—back or down—but no destination, a process without a fixed method or goal.

The lack of fixity was shared across the various versions of Jewish primitivism. It allowed for ideological flexibility: it could be assimilationist or Zionist, revolutionary or reactionary. It allowed for linguistic flexibility: written in German, ostensibly the language of modern civilized Jews; in Yiddish, ostensibly the primitive language of benighted, backward Jews; and in Hebrew, a language creating a present between a biblical past and a still-to-be-determined future. And it allowed for aesthetic flexibility: neo-Romantic and modernist; literary, graphic, and photographic; based on models of orality and visuality; realist and abstract.17

On the varied map of Jewish primitivism I will draw in the coming chapters, two landmarks are unmistakable. First, by turning primitivism on its head and reversing its direction toward the self, Jewish primitivism recalibrated one of modernism’s central elements. This was so destabilizing and so counterintuitive that it has been excluded from the story usually told about primitivism.18 A new assessment of the place and function of primitivism in general within European modernism is called for.19 The second major contribution of Jewish primitivism was its radical challenge to the central cultural project of European Jewish modernity. Romantic nationalism—the effort to create a Jewish Volk—has been seen as the basis of modern Jewish culture. In this view, Jewish culture was meant to reflect the Jewish Volksgeist and to substantiate the social and political claims of a Jewish nation in the modern, European sense. But Jewish primitivism, which emerged from the Herderian aesthetics of the Jewish cultural project, issued a profound challenge to this project. It did so because its object—European Jews—did not fit the model of a Volk promoted by Romantic nationalism and the associated discipline of folklore studies.20


1. Brod, Franz Kafka, 188. All translations are my own except where otherwise noted. In some instances, I have slightly modified others’ translations as needed.

2. Scholem described how many of his cohort felt drawn to the Ostjuden and that among the Zionists this feeling became “a cult of Eastern Jews.” Scholem, From Berlin to Jerusalem, 44.

3. Kafka, “An Introductory Talk on the Yiddish Language,” 263–66.

4. Kafka, Letter to the Father / Brief an den Vater.

5. The last was an ethnographic term invented by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl; see Lévy-Bruhl, Primitive Mentality.

6. Moss, Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution; Gottesman, Defining the Yiddish Nation. There were also, of course, negative portrayals of Jews as primitive and uncivilized, including by other Jews. See Aschheim, Brothers and Strangers; Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred.

7. This is a central component of primitivism according to Ben Etherington. More broadly, salvage was a major motivating factor for ethnography in the period. See Etherington, Literary Primitivism; Gruber, “Ethnographic Salvage and the Shaping of Anthropology”; Clifford, “The ‘Others.’

8. Qtd. in Bauschinger, Else Lasker-Schüler, 400.

9. Kafka, Tagebücher, 622.

10. Jonathan Boyarin calls this aspect of Kafka’s works “minor ethnography.” See Boyarin, “The Other Within and the Other Without.”

11. Bal Makhshoves, “Bal Makhshoves vegn zikh aleyn,” 35.

12. A more typical response is that of the Russian-Jewish composer Joel Engel, who participated in S. An-sky’s ethnographic expedition among eastern European Jews in 1912 and found, according to James Loeffler, that “the closer he came to the shtetl, the more Engel sensed his own distance—linguistic, cultural, even spiritual—from the folk itself.” Loeffler, The Most Musical Nation, 91–92.

13. According to Etherington, however, primitivism is an aesthetic project and not a set of assumptions about or representations of identity. As will become clear, I argue that Jewish primitivism is both. Etherington, Literary Primitivism, 9.

14. “Es lign far undz tsvey vegn. Eyn veg keyn Eyrope, vu di yidishe form darf farnikhtet vern, der tsveyter veg tsurik.” Peretz, “Vegn der yidisher literatur,” 381.

15. Peretz, “Gedanken in der velt arayn,” 152.

16. Folklore would itself have been a neologism, of course. On the various terms in Yiddish, see Erlich, “Vos iz taytsh folkstimlekh?”; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Di folkloristik.”

17. This flexibility was related to that of Jewish ethnography, as Andreas Kilcher and Gabriella Safran have shown. They write that Jewish ethnography creates a paradox “by constantly posing the question of what it means to be Jewish, offering transnational and transcultural responses, positing the ethnographer as now on one side, now on the other side of the border between subject and object, Jewish and non-Jewish, exotic and familiar.” By contrast, I argue that Jewish primitivism pushes the ethnographic situation further, positing not an either/or scenario in which the Jew is now on one side and now on the other but one in which the Jew inhabits both positions. Kilcher and Safran, introduction to Writing Jewish Culture, 10.

18. The disciplines and areas into which Jewish primitivism falls—art history, comparative literature, modernism studies—have also only seldom admitted Jewish topics into their purview. The reasons for this are presumably many and dispiriting.

19. Why it has not been included is less a question about primitivism than one about its scholarly reception; I will speculate about this below. A reassessment of primitivism along similar lines is undertaken by Ben Etherington in Literary Primitivism.

20. And Jewish primitivism set askew the goals and consequences of primitivism because European Jews also did not fit the model of primitiveness set by ethnography. According to anthropologist Thomas Hauschild, the history of anthropology and folklore studies reveals the disciplinary gap into which the study of Jews fell. Hauschild, “Christians, Jews, and the Other in German Anthropology,” 748.