The Arty Semite

Café Culture in Weimar Berlin

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
www.zlb.de
The terrace at the Romanisches Café, circa 1925.

In the 1920s, Yiddish was more than just a lingua franca for East European Jewish émigrés; it was also a language of high culture, as demonstrated by a brilliant new book, “Yiddish in Weimar Berlin: At the Crossroads of Diaspora Politics and Culture” (Legenda Books), edited by New York University Yiddish scholar Gennady Estraikh and University of Michigan professor Mikhail Krutikov.

“Yiddish in Weimar Berlin” describes street scenes in the ironically named “Jewish Switzerland,” a slum northeast of Alexanderplatz, which housed arrivals from Poland. Though poverty-stricken, the area boasted theatrical performances by the touring Vilna Troupe, while Yiddish writers clustered at the Romanisches Café, nicknamed the Rakhmonisches (Pity) Café by its regulars to evoke its “poor food and run-down interior.”

Catty jokes as well as sardonic puns were rampant among the writers at the café; Isaac Bashevis Singer once reportedly claimed that if Sholem Asch ever “wrote in a grammatically correct Yiddish, his artistic breath would evaporate.” Hersh Dovid Nomberg, a tubercular Yiddish author and disciple of I. L. Peretz, said that the Romanisches Café was an ideal sanatorium, since the air was so “filled with tobacco smoke that not a single [tuberculosis] bacillus can survive here.”

In addition to smart remarks, “Yiddish in Weimar Berlin” also examines overlooked poems by Berlin’s Yiddish writers, such as Moyshe Kulbak’s “Raysn” (“Byelorussia”), a piece of versified bubbe worship that features a grandmother of “supernatural fertility…comparable to a chicken laying eggs.”

Another chapter of “Yiddish in Weimar Berlin” explores how in 1921, Abraham Cahan decided that Berlin was “in a sense, the most significant city in the world” for Jews, and recruited staff for a large Forverts bureau there. Jacob Lestschinsky, a Ukrainian-born scholar of Jewish sociology and demography was hired as the bureau chief.

Though Lestschinsky would be repeatedly arrested for his courageous reporting on Berlin’s anti-Semitic pogroms, his accurate reports were discounted by fellow Jews like Alfred Döblin and Asch, who diagnosed Lestschinsky’s articles as an East European journalist’s overreactions, adding: “Germany is not Ukraine!”

By 1933, the Berlin Forverts bureau was dissolved by exile or deportation. Yet throughout the war, the Forverts had a subscriber in Berlin, Johannes Pohl, a Judaica specialist at the Prussian State Library whose knowledge helped the Nazis loot Jewish libraries throughout German-occupied Europe.

Listen to the “Yiddish Foxtrot,” recorded in Berlin circa 1930:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Weimar Republic, Vilna Troupe, Sholem Asch, Romanisches Café, Legenda Books, Mikhail Krutikov, Moyshe Kulbak, Jacob Lestschinsky, Isaac Bashevis Singer, I. L. Peretz, Hersh Dovid Nomberg, Gennady Estraikh, Berlin, Alfred Döblin. Johannes Pohl, Abraham Cahan, Yiddish, Yiddish Literature

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.