In 2019, a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Collaborative Research grant was awarded to Professor Shachar Pinsker of the Frankel Center along with co-directors Professor Naomi Brenner (Ohio State University) and Professor Matthew Handelman (Michigan State University).
The project focuses on the feuilleton, an important and immensely popular feature in newspapers and journals during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. A novel form of urban literature and journalism, the feuilleton was a critical public space for political debate, social commentary, and literary innovation that supplemented the news in a time of rising literacy and growing newspaper circulation.
This project was initiated in 2017 as a collaboration between the three co-directors and a growing group of scholars from North America, Europe, and Israel. Early stages were supported by a Small Initiatives Grant from the American Academy for Jewish Research, the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, and the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at The Ohio State University. In the interview below, Professor Shachar Pinsker reflects on how the project directors adapted their plans for the NEH grant amidst a global pandemic and how they plan to continue building upon it in the future.
What exactly is a feuilleton, and why is it important to Jewish Studies?
The French word feuilleton means “small leaf,” in reference to its mode of inclusion in newspapers. It was visibly marked as different by a line toward the bottom on the page. This format “below the line” indicated that feuilletons could be cut off and read separately, independent from the rest of the paper and the political news that was subject to censorship. Over the course of the 19th century, the feuilleton became a site for literary and polemical performances in the newspaper, featuring wide-ranging topics: cultural and political criticism, articles of literary and scientific nature, as well as stories, sketches, travel accounts, local reportage, and poetry. Heinrich Heine and other Jewish writers began to experiment with feuilleton writing in the 1820s and 1830s and, with the lifting of press restrictions after the revolutions of 1848, the feuilleton became a widespread phenomenon across Europe. By the 1860s, Jewish newspapers in Hebrew and Yiddish had started to adopt and adapt this popular newspaper form.
How did you first become interested in this area of research, and how has this project changed since its initiation in 2017? How has the project grown collaboratively?
I first became interested in the feuilleton when I was doing research and writing my book A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture (NYU Press, 2018). I noticed that so many texts written by Jews and about Jews were published in newspapers and journals as feuilletons. I knew little about the feuilleton, and I also assumed that someone has done comparative work on the feuilleton, but I discovered that the topic was understudied and poorly understood. However, because feuilletons were written and published in so many languages, newspapers, and cities, it is impossible for any single scholar to comprehend them. I approached my colleague Naomi Brenner at Ohio State University, who did research on popular serial fiction published as feuilleton in newspapers, and we organized a panel at the AJS conference, and then a small one-day symposium in Ann Arbor. Both were successful and showed that there is much interest in the topic. At that point, we also approached Matt Handelman, a scholar of German and Jewish Studies and Digital Humanities at Michigan State University to collaborate with us. We applied for and received a grants from the American Academy of Jewish Research and National Endowment for Humanities to organize two international conferences in order to convene scholars from Israel, Europe, and the US. We did a very successful conference at the Hebrew University and the National Library of Israel. We widened the circle of scholars working on the feuilleton and modern Jewish culture to include historians, literary scholars, philosophers, and media scholars, who work on materials from the early 19th century to the 21st century. This covers materials written in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, German, Russian, French, Polish, Spanish, and Dutch. So, like the feuilleton itself, the project became multilingual and transnational.
How has the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic affected the project?
The COVID-19 pandemic caught us in the midst of our plans for a large conference in Ann Arbor in May 2020. It took us some time to realize how much the project would be disrupted by the pandemic. There was no possibility of international traveling. For a long time, we couldn’t access essential libraries and archives. However, after a few months we realized that we can move forward. Instead of a large conference, we held online workshops (September 2020-March 2021). We also switched gears and focused on materials that were already digitized and/or materials that our collaborators around the world could access wherever they were located. We developed new digital resources on feuilletons for our project website.
How does the website contribute the project, and how can the public and scholars utilize it?
The website is a major achievement, and we are very proud of and thankful for the large team of scholars, students, librarians, and technology experts who created it with us. This website now features approximately 25 Jewish feuilletons in the original form in which they were published, along with English translations, brief commentaries by experts, along with a timeline and map that show where and when all these feuilletons were published. It represents a preview of the central goals of the future publication: to make available to interested readers a diverse set of Jewish feuilletons with academic context and commentary. With the international conference, the online workshops, and a new project website, we have been able to make significant progress toward the goals of creating, connecting, and convening a large cohort of scholars interested in Jewish feuilletons.
What is your personal favorite feature or content on the website?
It’s hard to pick a favorite feature. I love the linguistic and thematic range of the texts we made available. I am thrilled that we have such a geographical range, with feuilletons published in Berlin, Calcutta [Kolkata], Frankfurt, Johannesburg, Mainz, Moscow, New York, Odessa, Paramaribo, St. Petersburg, Salonica, St. Petersburg, Tel Aviv, Vienna, and Warsaw. While most people think of the feuilleton as a European form that was popular in France and Germany, our project and the website show it to be a truly global phenomenon. You need to check the map to see how widespread the Jewish feuilleton was to understand how popular and influential it was.
In terms of texts, of course I love the text by the writer David Frischmann from St. Petersburg (1886) that I translated from Hebrew and wrote commentary about. But perhaps the most surprising text that I encountered so far is “The Disappeared Sukkah,” written by Abraham Philip Samson in Dutch, published in the monthly journal Teroenga in Paramaribo, Suriname, in October 1945. The feuilleton examines the reasons why Paramaribo’s synagogues were struggling in the 1940s. It reveals not only the difficulties faced by Surinamese Jews, but also their interactions with Afro-Creole Surinamese. Eli Rosenblatt, who was a fellow at the Frankel Institute, found it, translated it, and wrote a commentary to this fascinating text.
What plans do you have for the project moving forward?
We applied for a large collaborative research grant to continue to do research around the world over the next three years. The result of this will be an edited volume of scholarly essays on the feuilleton, the public sphere, and modern Jewish cultures. It will be published by the University of Michigan Press in print and as an open-access digitally enhanced e-book. The e-book will integrate our original scholarship on the Jewish feuilleton with primary sources for scholars, students, and the general public. We also plan to continue to develop the website, to collaborate with media outlets, and to convene scholars to give talks in order to make the project accessible to the public.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I want to thank Naomi Brenner and Matt Handelman, the best collaborators anyone can dream of. I also want to make sure I mention not only the scholars who are collaborating on the project (some of their names with links to information about them is in the About Us page), but also the essential work of Judaic Studies graduate students and Institute fellows who worked with us. I also want to thank Joe Bauer (digital scholarship research consultant at U-M), Beth Binsky (graphic designer), Julia Falkovitch-Khain (website developer and database coordinator), and Nadav Linial (project assistant) for the excellent work they have done. And finally, the project is grateful for the Frankel Center, the College of LSA, the American Academy of Jewish Research, and the NEH for their continuing support.
For more information about the project and our activities, please see: http://www.feuilletonproject.org/