"Old Jew" Turned "New Jew": Jewish Renaissance and the Romanticized Ostjuden
Cultural Zionists promoted national unity rooted in a shared Jewish culture. Martin Buber's call for a "Jewish Renaissance" was a reaction to both the deleterious effects of assimilation and the rise of German anti-Semitism, which was now being expressed in ethnic terms. Just as German conservatives cultivated myth, mysticism, and folklore as part of their "Volkish" ideology, Buber located the primordial essence of Jewish culture in Hasidic folklore. Through his Hasidic tales, he encouraged German Jews to recognize their East European brothers as the torchbearers of a shared myth of origins.
Art and literature were central to the Jewish renaissance. The Jüdischer Almanach (1902), which inaugurated Buber's Jüdischer Verlag (Jewish Publishing House), contained art, poems and prose by both eastern and western contributors. Buber's co-editor, Berthold Feiwel, wrote that the aim of the book was to "emphasize the unity of creativity within a living Judaism" by combining "the rootedness in folklore and tradition of the Ostjuden with the commitment to European culture of West European Zionism." Buber and Feiwel, along with the art editor E.M. Lilien, were founding members of the Democratic Faction, the first self-proclaimed party within the Zionist movement, which emphasized the positive relationship between national and cultural aspirations. Several artists included in the book, such as Hermann Struck, Max Liebermann, Lesser Ury and Lilien himself, were featured in the Jewish art exhibition at the Fifth Zionist Congress (1901).
Buber and his cohort were less concerned with the actual plight of East European Jews than with the spiritual crisis facing assimilated German Jewry. Real encounters during and after World War I would challenge their Romantic images of the Ostjuden.