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Cover of Jewish Primitivism by Samuel J. Spinner
Jewish Primitivism
Samuel J. Spinner

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July 2021
272 pages.
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Hardcover ISBN: 9781503628274
Ebook ISBN: 9781503628281

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Co-Winner of the 2022 Germanic Languages and Literatures - Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize, sponsored by the Modern Language Association (MLA).

Around the beginning of the twentieth century, Jewish writers and artists across Europe began depicting fellow Jews as savages or "primitive" tribesmen. Primitivism—the European appreciation of and fascination with so-called "primitive," non-Western peoples who were also subjugated and denigrated—was a powerful artistic critique of the modern world and was adopted by Jewish writers and artists to explore the urgent questions surrounding their own identity and status in Europe as insiders and outsiders. Jewish primitivism found expression in a variety of forms in Yiddish, Hebrew, and German literature, photography, and graphic art, including in the work of figures such as Franz Kafka, Y.L. Peretz, S. An-sky, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Else Lasker-Schüler, and Moï Ver.

In Jewish Primitivism, Samuel J. Spinner argues that these and other Jewish modernists developed a distinct primitivist aesthetic that, by locating the savage present within Europe, challenged the idea of the threatening savage other from outside Europe on which much primitivism relied: in Jewish primitivism, the savage is already there. This book offers a new assessment of modern Jewish art and literature and shows how Jewish primitivism troubles the boundary between observer and observed, cultured and "primitive," colonizer and colonized.

About the author

Samuel J. Spinner is Assistant Professor and holds the Zelda and Myer Tandetnik Professorship in Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Johns Hopkins University.

"In this revelatory book, Samuel J. Spinner uncovers the paradoxical primitivist yearnings motivating a generation of Jewish visual artists and writers in Yiddish, German, and Hebrew. What happens when Jewish artists and writers see other Jews as the 'savage' other, as though Picasso's African masks had been carved by his own cousins?"

—Gabriella Safran, Stanford University

"Jewish Primitivism demonstrates that we cannot understand modern Jewish literature without looking at visual culture. In Samuel J. Spinner's engaging account, looking becomes both a methodological intervention and a narrative focal point. Rejecting parochial analysis, he shows that Jewish primitivism encompasses myriad versions of Jewish modernism and enables a rich analysis of its significance."

—Na'ama Rokem, University of Chicago

"Jewish Primitivism makes a compelling and truly fresh argument for placing the phenomenon of modernist primitivism practiced by Jewish writers and artists at the center of our attempts to understand the paradoxical position of Jews and Jewish art in 20th-century Europe, and consequently the crises of nation and nationalism—for Jews and non-Jews—that underwrite the upheavals and cataclysms of the period."

—Madeleine Cohen, Los Angeles Review of Books

"One of the many strengths of Jewish Primitivism is that it raises a diverse set of considerations. Spinner's illuminating study is essential reading for those interested in modernist primitivism, in Yiddish and German Jewish literatures, in the encounter of German Jews with east European Jews, and in Jewish modernism in general."

—Ido Ben Harush, H-Judaic

"This work is provocative in a good way.... [Jewish Primitivism] includes important discussions of sexism in the Jewish primitivism movement and of how the artists—both Jews and non-Jews—engaged with Orientalism. Recommended."

—R. Shapiro, CHOICE

"Spinner offers a very compelling—and often moving—account of this aesthetic mode, a study whose value the extensiveness of this review is meant to convey."

—Jeffrey A. Grossman, In Geveb

"Samuel Spinner's lucidly written new book,Jewish Primitivism, is an exciting new addition to a growing body of scholarship that has aimed to deprovincialize Eastern European Jewish literature through the lens of European literary modernism."

—Allison Schacther, Hebrew Studies

"Boldly taking on a loaded and fraught category of cultural and literary analysis, Samuel J. Spinner's Jewish Primitivism offers an entirely new model of conducting multilingual comparative analysis.Spinner opens multiple meanings of primitivism: it formed and informed elitist and classist distinctions of the civilized and the uncivilized and found extension in institutions, practices, ideologies of orientalism, and conceptual correlates of exoticism. Spinner also reinvigorates critical scrutiny of primitivism as a concept to tell a hitherto untold story of Jewish modernism, within and beyond the fault lines and permutations of the trilingualism of Hebrew, Yiddish, and German. He undoes and reassembles the central underpinnings of Jewish identities through language, literature, and lived culture. Jewish Primitivism is a model of print cultural studies that acknowledges the coexistence of the written and spoken, of print and oral, of classic and folk."

—selection committee for the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for Studies in the Germanic Languages and Literatures