Samuel Spinner: Jewish Primitivism and Avant-garde Photography

May 3, 2022 | 4:30PM
The Franke Institute for the Humanities

May 3, 4:30 - 6:00 PM
The Franke Institute for the Humanities
1100 Easy 58th Street
Regenstein Library, JRL S-102

Around the beginning of the 20th century Jewish writers and artists across Europe depicted fellow Jews as “primitive.” In his new book, Jewish Primitivism, Samuel Spinner, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, where he holds the Zelda and Myer Tandetnik Chair in Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture, uncovers this phenomenon and explains how it was used to explore the urgent political and aesthetic issues surrounding Jewish identity in Europe.

Showing how Jewish primitivism troubles the boundary between insider and outsider, cultured and “primitive,” colonizer and colonized, Jewish Primitivism offers a new assessment of European modernism and of modern Jewish culture. In this talk, Prof. Spinner will present an overview of the book along with an example of Jewish primitivism in avant-garde photography. A Ghetto in the East – Vilna is a 1931 photobook by the Bauhaus-trained photographer Moyshe Vorobeichic (often known as Moï Ver). Vorobeichic applied the techniques of avant-garde photography to subjects usually depicted sentimentally. While critiquing ideas of Jewish authenticity, Vorobeichic’s photographs also engage tropes of primitive Jewishness in order to valorize the humanity of his subjects.

This event is sponsored by the Greenberg Center of Jewish Studies, the Department of Germanic Studies, the Department of Comparative Literature, and the Yiddish Fund. For information, email Nancy Pardee at