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Samuel Spinner is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Germanic Languages at Columbia University, and received his BA from the Johns Hopkins University. His dissertation examines the conjunction of ethnographic and museological practices with the literary strategies of German and Yiddish texts about Jews in the modern period. In addition to his work on modern and contemporary literature, he maintains an interest in early modern Jewish culture, and has translated an edition of an Old Yiddish ethical text–Meynekes Rivke, forthcoming from JPS.
The Museum of the Jews: Literature and Ethnography in Germany and Eastern Europe
This dissertation attempts to reconstruct the history of Jewish ethnography and folklore studies in Germany, in order to locate Jewish anthropology within the broader historiography of anthropology, and also to uncover the links between the discipline in Germany and Eastern Europe. The wager of my enterprise is that an ethnographically informed discourse has spanned the caesurae of the 20th century – both the First World War, as well as the Holocaust – and has transcended linguistic and national boundaries, finding expression in works of German-language and Yiddish literature, which form the primary subject of this study, as well as in other European traditions.
This allows an explication of several important trends in German-Jewish literature. Paying special attention to the so-called Cult of the Ostjuden from the turn of the twentieth century through the First World War, I seek to explain this cultural and literary phenomenon by extracting it from the unavoidable and de-historicized logic of the ‘German-Jewish self-image’, instead placing it within a broader terrain of popular and literary ethnography in German-speaking lands, and comparing it with parallel tendencies in Yiddish literature.
I thus attempt to demonstrate a trans-European effort at fashioning Jewish identity, in which the German strain was not unique or independent, but rather was one component of a complex series of negotiations of identity, spanning central and east European Jewry, and shadowing the networks of influence traced by Jewish ethnography.