Abstract: The study of the Ashkenazi Jewish press that emerged as a child of the Berlin Haskalah 200 years ago, presents a challenging task for a variety of reasons. Firstly, because it generated a transnational field of cultural production as a result of which German as the language of the Enlightenment in the West had to compete with Hebrew, Russian and Yiddish in the East. A command of the relevant languages is therefore a prerequisite for its systematic study. Another difficulty is presented by its ephemeral nature; repositories are often scattered as a consequence of either clandestine conditions of production, distribution and reception, state censorship or migrating editors and readers. Over the past 15 years, these challenges have been successfully met by the joint efforts of scholars and archivists in Germany, Israel and the countries of Jewish migration.
Whereas until the 1990s, Jewish presses were merely consulted as vehicles for the reconstruction of and hence as a product of social reality, the 2000s have seen their study as a producer of social reality. In that respect, the Jewish press was regarded as a medium combining Jewish tradition and philosophical inquiry, and as a medium for mass education rather than information. The latter was all the more important, as, in the absence of Jewish statehood, presses were seen as inculcators of Jewish values from one generation to the next. Further topics of study were its contribution to the discursive construction of Jewish national identities, and the rise of modern journalism in Europe.
As a result, the historiography of the Jewish press has now established itself both as an archive of knowledge and as an independent subject of scholarly research involving a variety of disciplines including the history of ideas, literature, art history and philology, to name but the most relevant.
Nevertheless, the question remains how to preserve this treasure house of a unique textual tradition, in which a universe of discourse replaced the physical here and now of a nation with a geographical home. Entrusted with its curatorship in the digital age, with technologies available for data storage, manipulation and retrieval, we find ourselves confronted with further challenges and responsibilities: we are the custodians of this heritage, to take stock, to examine and to sift.
This is the theme of my proposed paper. I will question how appropriate are the received concepts and policies of reclaiming, redefining and reconfiguring this Jewish library of texts, both religious and secular, together with their interpretations, when the task is to negotiate between honouring the central role of discourse in Jewish Diaspora life and telling the story of a people apart.