Dr. David E. Fishman is professor of Jewish History at The Jewish Theological Seminary, specializing in the history and culture of Jews in Eastern Europe. He directs Project Judaica, JTS's program of instruction and research in the former Soviet Union, based in Moscow.
How did you become interested in East European Jewry?
Growing up in the Bronx, most of the adults I knew (from shul, from the block and neighborhood, my parents' friends) were Jewish immigrants who came to this country before the war or after the Holocaust, and who spoke English with thick accents. The tailor who fixed my bar-mitzvah suite and the candy-store man who gave me a milkshake on Fridays were both Jews from Eastern Europe. To top it off, my parents sent me to a Yiddish supplementary school that met five afternoons a week, where I studied Yiddish literature in the original and humash in Yiddish translation. Finally, my grandparents, especially my grandmothers from Ostropol (Ukraine) and Bonyhad (Hungary) played a big part in my childhood. So I guess you can say I feel like an expatriate of East European Jewry. All I needed to do to become a scholar in the field was to learn systematically, and acquire discipline and method (oh, and also the Russian language), because the passion and involvement were always there.
What JTS courses do you teach, and what is your approach? How do students react to the material?
I begin many of my courses by telling students that Eastern Europe was the center of the Jewish world for 400 years prior to the Holocaust, in terms of the number of Jews and creativity in the spheres of Jewish religion and culture. Once that thought sinks in, I add that just as a person who lived a long, rich, and fruitful life shouldn't be remembered only by the way he or she died, similarly East European Jewry should be remembered for its history and culture, not only for its destruction in the Holocaust. If the students are struck by this idea, the rest is easy.
At JTS, I'm fortunate to teach a wide range of courses that cut across different periods and themes. This semester, for instance, I'm teaching Hasidism and Its Opponents, a seminar that is set in the time period of 1770 to 1850, in which we study primary Hebrew sources: Hasidic divrei Torah and tales, writs of excommunication and polemical writings by the Mitnagdim (rabbinic opponents), and anti-Hasidic satires by Maskilim (Jewish enlighteners). The course illuminates three versions of Judaism that clashed with each other, three aspects that are still in tension with each other: the mystical/spiritual, the Talmudic/halakhic, and the rational/universalist. My other course this semester is Jews and Judaism in the Soviet Union, chronologically a much more contemporary topic, which sheds light on the 1.5 million ex-Soviet Jews who live in Israel and the United States today. In that course, I spend a lot of time explicating the theory and practice of socialism and communism. Only at JTS could I teach both Hasidism and Leninism in depth at the same time-and find students who are interested in both.
That's a very broad agenda. Are your research and publications equally broad?
I feel that I'm at a crossroads in my research. For 25 years, I worked on various topics. My first book, Russia's First Modern Jews, was on the emergence of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement in Russian Jewry at the time of Moses Mendelssohn, in the late 18th century. My second book, The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture, focused on the rise of the Yiddish language in Russian Jewish life in the early 20th century. In between, I wrote several articles on the encounter between rabbis and socialism/communism, as well as on other topics. But I never did scholarly work on the Holocaust-it was too painful and sensitive for me. Now I've crossed the Rubicon.
My new book will be on the rescue of Jewish cultural treasures-books, manuscripts, Torah scrolls, historical records, and documents-during and after the Holocaust. My focus is on Vilna, which Jews called "The Jerusalem of Lithuania," and which had the richest collection of Jewish libraries, museums, and archives in Eastern Europe. When the Germans came in, they created a work brigade of Jewish slave laborers to sort these treasures, and ordered them to send the materials either to paper mills, where they were destroyed, or to Germany, where they would be kept in a special "Institute for the Investigation of the Jewish Question." The work brigade, which consisted mainly of writers, scholars, and educators, sabotaged the Germans' plans. They smuggled the books out of the work site, and buried them in various hiding places. After the Soviets liberated Vilna from the Germans, the surviving members of the "paper brigade" (as the group was called) returned to Vilna and dug up the treasures. (Most members of the paper brigade had perished.) The survivor-returnees created a Jewish museum in Vilna, but soon realized that Vilna had been incorporated into the Soviet Union, and that there was no future for Jewish books and manuscripts there. So they rescued the treasures again, and smuggled them out of the Soviet Union to the United States and Israel.
This remarkable story of spiritual heroism against Nazism and Stalinism has never been told, and the sources to tell it are scattered across libraries and archives in Vilnius (as the city is now called), New York City, Jerusalem, Kiev, Moscow, Berlin, Washington DC, Tel Aviv, and Buenos Aires. So it's a real jigsaw puzzle of research.
For me, the story is a metaphor: If the members of the paper brigade could risk their lives twice-under the Nazis and under the Soviets-to rescue the books that represent our Jewish tradition and heritage, surely we, living in the comfort of the United States, can do our part to pass on the treasures of our heritage.
Finally, can you explain what Project Judaica, the JTS program in Moscow, does? How can you be in New York and Moscow at the same time?
Project Judaica is a full-fledged center for Jewish studies based at Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH) in Moscow. Thirty-five students are enrolled, 20 of them in degree programs leading to BAs and MAs in Jewish studies awarded by RSUH. Over the 20 years of Project Judaica's existence, more than 20 JTS faculty members have taught courses in Moscow. And about an equal number of students from Moscow have spent time studying at JTS. The local faculty consists mainly of people who were trained by Project Judaica and JTS. The program's goal is to train leaders for the Jewish community in Russia, which has been reborn since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Besides courses, there are seminars, conferences, and extracurricular programs. (Right now, we're sponsoring an Israeli film series in Moscow.) And there's a monumental research project to locate and describe all the materials in the ex-Soviet archives related to Jewish history, which were inaccessible to researchers for many decades. We've published seven guides to Jewish documents in the archives of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, so far, and we'll need to publish five more volumes to finish the job.
I go to Russia twice per year-usually in December and June-to teach and supervise the program. It's very gratifying to help bring Jewish learning back to a country that suppressed Judaism just a generation ago. It's kind of like making the desert bloom. And I've been able to see Russian society from the inside-something I'll save for my next Q and A.