the jews of the other europe

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In public perception, eastern European Jewish thought continues to be surrounded by an almost mystical veil. Particularly after the systematic murder of at least three million Polish Jews by National Socialist Germany, the perception of this culture is accompanied by a justifiable sense of irreparable loss. An outward sign of this melancholy, which is never precisely specified and often borders on kitsch, is the playing of klezmer music at any suitable – or indeed unsuitable – occasion. “Eastern Jewry” is itself a culture that is still seen as a mixture of nostalgic perceptions regarding impoverished shtetl life and the sometimes nebulous sayings of miracle-working rabbis. This narrow point of view fails to do justice to the reality of this destroyed culture, to the fact that at least just as many Polish or indeed Russian and Romanian Jews lived in large cities, that – in addition to the largely Hassidic miracle-working rabbis – eastern European Jewish culture also had at its disposal the intellectually demanding philosophy of the misnagdim, a Vilnius-based school of rational, even rationalistic interpretation of the Talmud.

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