Nicholas Underwood, "Yiddish Paris: Staging Nation and Community in Interwar France" (Indiana UP, 2022)


Nick Underwood's Yiddish Paris: Staging Nation and Community in Interwar Paris (Indiana University Press, 2022) is a captivating study of the culture and politics of the vibrant community of Yiddish-speaking immigrants to Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Making their way to the French capital from various sites in Eastern Europe, members of this Jewish community developed their own cultural institutions, including theatre companies, musical groups, and choruses. Left-leaning in their politics, these newly French Jews typically understood their cultural and community work as expressions of a Socialist or Communist politics. This political orientation also drew non-Yiddish-speaking and non-Jewish audiences to the work of these organizations and artists, establishing forms of solidarity across cultural and religious groups and classes, in Yiddish and in French. 

Throughout the book, Underwood examines closely the history of key cultural organizations that brought Yiddish speakers in Paris together and worked to disseminate Yiddish language and culture throughout a wider community in France. Understanding their efforts as profoundly modern, even avant-garde, these cultural and political actors forged and expressed a Jewish diaspora nationalism they regarded as compatible with French republicanism. France was a space of multicultural possibility that seemed the perfect place to build the future. 

Taking the reader through the work of various figures and groups, Underwood follows the solidarity, performances, and pluralism of the Yiddish community in interwar Paris up to the eve of the Second World War. Attentive to the devastating experiences that awaited so many French and European Jews after 1939, the book remains focused on the present of the interwar period throughout, emphasizing the community's hopes for an inclusive French society respectful of forms of religious, racial, cultural, and linguistic difference.

Drawing on a wealth of archival materials the author pursued in sites in multiple countries, the book includes some very real and moving stories. Apart from the historical actors Underwood sought out directly and through family members, the lives and experiences of so many actors, singers, musicians, and engaged community members spring off many of the book's pages. It's a compelling book that will be of great interest to scholars across subfields and disciplines, and I hope you enjoy our conversation. 

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Roxanne Panchasi

Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor of History at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada who specializes in twentieth and twenty-first century France and empire. She is the founding host of New Books in French Studies, a channel launched in 2013.

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