Aleksandr Ivanov (European University at Saint Petersburg)
Valery Dymshits (European University at Saint Petersburg)


Course Description
Modern humanities have developed two main concepts of Jewish culture – the “unitary” and the “multiple” one, or to be more precise in the last case, multiple Jewish cultures. However, we suggest that these two concepts might not be that different from each other. On the one hand, partisans of the unitary concept often take into consideration interactions between Jews and non-Jews, but they consider them less important. On the other hand, proponents of a pluralistic hybrid character of Jewish culture agree that practices adopted from neighboring cultures undergo transformation within a specific Jewish context.
As long-term diasporic minorities, Jewries were keen on formulating and preserving their identity/identities notwithstanding the fluidity of Jewish culture/cultures and the blurring of their boundaries. The main source of the so-called core Jewish identity was a religious and in a broader sense, cultural heritage, but this heritage has been changing over the last two centuries: traditional Jewish texts were joined by national history, literature and fine arts, printed books – by museums and exhibitions, pilgrimage – by tourism.
The multi-ethnic and multi-language Jewish community is united by Hebrew as the sacred language and a set of Holy books (Tanakh, Talmud, Rabbinical literature). All Jewish ethnic groups produced such specific linguistic phenomena as their own vernacular and a complex of ritual objects. There was an uninterrupted cultural dialogue between different Jewish communities. Taking into consideration these and many other factors we can describe world Jewry as a special type of civilization.
Our primary task will be to examine and to clarify the complex issues of Jewish identity construction, heritage preservation, and cultural concepts within broad geographical and historical perspectives. A wide variety of episodes from different countries and epochs will merge into a single narrative thanks to implicit similarities between social, cultural and ideological elements.
We shall start with a general overview of the historical evolution of the Jewish diaspora and a brief description of the diversity of Jewish cultures and languages and then discuss the cultural specifics of different Jewish ethnic groups in Europe, Africa, and Asia taking into consideration their material culture, art, language and folklore. Our discussion will be based on twenty-five years of field research of Jewish ethnography and folk art in different regions including Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus. We will introduce the concept of a ‘usable past’ within the framework of the global Jewish context. Special attention will be paid to the evolution of a single religious Jewish identity into several modern identities: historical, ethnic, national, political, cultural, etc.
We will analyze the role of Yiddish literature and language as a new resource for constructing a secular identity in the global context tracing the transformation of Yiddish from a low status vernacular into a global language of an international Jewish cultural elite in the early-20th century.
Some unusual cases such as the Jewish boxers in Great Britain in the 18th – 20th centuries and Jewish soldiers in the Finnish army during and after the WWII will be examined to demonstrate how an intangible Jewish heritage served as a source of local and global Jewish identities.
Another important portion of our course will be dedicated to charitable communal institutions and their role in Jewish culture as a development of the Jewish giving tradition into professional philanthropy in Eastern and Western Europe and in the USA in the late-19th – 20th centuries.
We will compare Zionist and Territorialist agricultural colonization projects in Palestine, Argentina, the USA, and Russia in 1900s – 1940s.
We will discuss the importance of material and immaterial Jewish heritage and ways of preserving it, including practices, representations, expressions, skills etc. related to Hebrew and Jewish studies, the creation of Jewish museums and archives in Europe, the USA, and the Soviet Union that can be considered as places of Jewish memory in the 20th century. We will talk about the memorialization of the Holocaust as a part of Jewish cultural heritage and as an integral part of the global heritage of all mankind.
The Klezmer Music Revival will be studied as an important cultural construct (an ‘invented tradition’) specific to 20th century Jewish culture and an integral part of the World Music movement in the late 1970s – 2010s.
Reconstructing the cultural history of Jewry, we will apply different methods and approaches developed by anthropologists, sociologists, historians of institutions, etc. teaching our students how to utilize them for the analysis of cultural interactions in a global perspective.

30% -- contribution to the first and second seminars
30% -- contribution to the third seminar
40% -- final paper


Isola di San Servolo
30133 Venice,

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