8 March 2022: Yiddish in South Africa

The Sun Never Sets on Yiddishland: Race, Empire, and the Global in Interwar

by Roni Masel

Respondent: Shirli Gilbert (UCL)

Chair: François Guesnet / Antony Polonsky


Tuesday, 8 March 2022 18:00 – 19:00 GMT

Lecture on Zoom


This event is co-organised with the
UCL Institute of Jewish Studies


Yiddish-writing intellectuals in the interwar period invoked a notion of a transnational “Yiddishland” – an abstract, diasporic, non-territorial space anchored in progressive Yiddish culture. In recent years, Yiddish scholarship has often noted these non-nationalist and yet particularist sensibilities, celebrating Yiddish’s worldliness as an exemplary case of a minor culture on the global stage. This lecture challenges that laudatory perspective by critically attending to markers of race in interwar Yiddish writing from Europe and South Africa, weighing both the benefits and limitations of assuming a global view on Yiddish culture. In particular, we will focus on an enigmatic case of a group of Yiddish writers in 1930s Johannesburg who, facing the rise of Afrikaner white nationalism, decided to promote a stronger affinity to Afrikaans culture and to ethnic Afrikaner politics among the Yiddish readership. Their writings showcase competing forces and tendencies – on the one hand, an aspiration for universal justice and resistance to nationalist chauvinism, and on the other hand, the surfacing of imperialist desires and a racialized philological imagination. Animating the tensions arising in these texts, this lecture charts new ways to account for how notions of empire, race, universalism, and peoplehood in modern Yiddish culture are transformed in global circulation and under colonial settings.


Roni Masel is a Fulbright Postdoctoral Scholar at Ben-Gurion University, specializing in Hebrew and Yiddish literatures and modern Jewish history. Her work appeared in Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, Studies in Yiddish, and Mikan Ve’eylakh. She is currently completing a book manuscript, titled Bad Readers: Misreading, Mistranslation, and Other Textual Malpractices in Hebrew and Yiddish, which explores Jewish literatures in Eastern Europe from the perspective of reading and para-literacy, nationalism and dissent. In addition, she is working on another project titled, “Yiddish Empires: Visions of Race and the Global in Modern Yiddish Culture,” which analyzes a globalizing Yiddish culture in the twentieth century, between Europe, North America, and South Africa.

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