For us, every “nation” has and has always had a “culture,” meaning a defining set of folkways, customs, and styles that is different from...

For us, every “nation” has and has always had a “culture,” meaning a defining set of folkways, customs, and styles that is different from every other. But like the modern understanding of the word “nation,” this idea of “culture” or “a culture” is not very old. According to the OED, the modern meaning gained currency in English only in the nineteenth century. In a way, that’s not surprising: the nineteenth century was the era of high-nationalism and, as we’ve said, every “nation” had to have an essence that distinguished it from all others. That essence came to be called “culture.” This nation-culture equivalency, however, presented some nationalists with a problem, particularly if their “nation” had what looked to be several cultures. Jews are the archetypal example. They were spread all over the place, spoke many languages, and practiced many customs. There was nothing to unite them except Judaism–itself hardly unified. If you believed in a Jewish nation, then you had to believe that there could be a “Jewish culture.” But what would it be? In his fascinating new book Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution (Harvard, 2010), Kenneth Moss explores the ways in which Eastern European Jewish culture-builders attempted to answer this question in the Russian Revolutionary era. As Ken points out, there was no simple answer. Rather, there were a lot of competing answers (Yiddishist, Hebraist, Socialist, etc.). But there was also a lot of deep, deep thought about what it meant to build and have a culture. These thinkers knew what we have forgotten, namely, that all cultures are made. They knew this because they were making one. Whether we admit it or not, we are too…

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