Anti-Semitism and Jewish Culture
Jews, Marxism and the Worker's Movement

Moissaye J. Olgin

Anti-Semitism and Jewish Culture

First Published: Morning Freiheit, November 23, 1986.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The following excerpt is from Olgin’s essay, “Anti-Semitism and Yiddish Culture,” first published in the Dec. 1938 issue of Yidishe Kultur, magazine of the YKUF (Jewish Cultural Alliance). It would appear that Olgin wrote this essay in 1939 with a premonition of the coming tragedy which was to befall the Jewish people of Europe as the consequence of the war which jfascism was then preparing. The opening sentence of this essay reads: “The intensified anti-Semitism of the recent period, the brutal, senseless and incessant, sadistically refined pogrom on the Jews in Germany in the first place has confronted the Jewish collective and each Jew individually with the dilemma: either resistance or destruction.”

* * *

The program of the YKUF states:

“The Jewish people cannot be separated from Yiddish Culture and Yiddish Culture is inseparable from the Jewish people, from its laboring masses. The more strongly its forces are organized, the more richly will the Yiddish people’s culture blossom and the more powerful will the resistance of the people be against those who would destroy it.”

The YKUF advanced the fundamental truth that Yiddish culture is a source of strength for the Jewish people since it is in Yiddish culture that the ordinary Jewish person finds “a direct, complete expression of his entire life, of his intrinsic nature, of his hopes, of his struggle.”

The words indicate the significance and the role of Yiddish culture for the Jewish people in the present period.


When we speak of culture we do not mean a sort of abstract concept, but the numerous and varied cultural values which we possess all over the world and which are able to permeate the life of the Jewish collective everywhere.

We have in mind Jewish literature, beginning with the fiery protests of the prophets up to the poets, narrators and essayists of the present day.

We have in mind the theatre, against certain of whose tendencies we have objected, as we have of unhealthy tendencies in our literature, but which was and can be a great constructive force in the life of the Jewish people.

We have in mind the Jewish arts, Jewish research.

We have in mind the consciousness that there is a Jewish culture which is thousands of years old and which expresses the genius of the people.

We do not forget for a single moment that cultural work must consist of two self-supplementing areas of activity: first, the creation of cultural values, the elevating of Yiddish culture to ever greater heights.

Second, bringing the culture to the people, bringing it down to the very depths of the Jewish people’s collective (which must definitely not be understood as a vulgarization of culture.)

Both of these great areas of cultural activity need to be developed with special vigor in the present period to serve as a defense mechanism against external foes, as a means of winning back those who retreat within – within the Jewish collective itself and as a means of attracting those Jewish elements who do not know “why they are Jews.”


Superficial observers, particularly those who generally maintain a disparaging attitude to Yiddish culture, have more than once asked in the recent period: what point is there in devoting oneself to an organization such as the YKUF? What has culture to do with pogroms? What has Yiddish culture to do with the nazi barbarities in Germany?

We have heard such remarks not only from those who have withdrawn from the field of Yiddish culture, but also from activists.

What relationship is there for example, between literature and the task for uniting ever larger numbers of Jews in a single people’s front against anti-Semitism.

The answer lies in the fact that the task of uniting the people and organizing the resistance to its enemies is not the labor of a day, not the act of a passing moment, but a process which must cover a certain period.

In the course of this period the people will have to achieve the maximum consciousness, the maximum unity and the maximum fighting ability.

Yiddish culture must be the animating force which inspires hope and strength and patience and courage, not to speak of the ability to perceive a clear perspective.

Yiddish culture must be the cement which unites the broadest strata of the Jewish collective. Yiddish culture must be the factor which makes the resistance more spirited and determined. When the struggle of this historic period shall be concluded and bright, broad horizons will be opened to the Jewish people, it will, because of Yiddish culture, itself become a quite different, a newer, a more vigorous collective capable and worthy of entering these new worlds.

Consciousness itself is a great weapon. The enemy, in order to dominate, strives to benumb, to vulgarize, to degrade the spirit of the people. Culture in its best expressions is the great antidote to this poison of oppression. A people which needs to stand up to its enemies, a people which must understand who is its friend and its foe, a people which must see a clear path before it, must drink deeply from the sources of its culture.

The great majority of the Jewish people speaks Yiddish and lives its life in Yiddish.

This majority must drink from the Isprings of the Yiddish culture. But also those sections of the Jewish people who do not know Yiddish must drink from this source of consciousness in those languages in which they are more comfortable. This work, too, must be encouraged and led by the activists of the Yiddish culture.