Where Do We Belong? reviewing Homes Away from Home by Sarah Wobick-Segev2 min read

 In Central Europe, Culture, Review, Russia

In Homes Away from Home: Jewish Belonging in Twentieth-Century Paris, Berlin, and St. Petersburg (Stanford University Press), Sarah Wobick-Segev compares the experiences of the Jewish populations of three major European cities before and immediately after World War Two. The book is especially concerned with Jewish identity and community, two topics which, despite having been the basis of scores of literature in recent decades, feel far from exhausted. No doubt lingering questions of continuity compel scholars to return to Europe before the Holocaust, as if by understanding the lives and communities that were lost, we can find and honour the connections to the present that survive. 

What makes Wobick-Segev’s approach unique is her attention to space. Drawing on the theories of Heidegger, Foucault, and the historians who followed in their footsteps, Wobick-Segev investigates belonging as a question of space: Into which spaces were Jews permitted entry, and from where were they forbidden? Which spaces were holy, and where could Jewish youth go to have a good time? Who controlled these spaces, and how did people use space to assert, or rebel against, power? 

Wobick-Segev addresses all of these questions, and more. Her thematic range is broad – social, economic, spiritual – and her geographic-temporal range is enormous. The wide breadth of Homes Away from Home likely does it more harm than good. By comparing three cities over the span of 100+ years (despite the book’s subtitle, a great deal of attention is paid to the events of the 19th century) Wobick-Segev floods her text with names and places which appear just once, only to be drowned out by the detail of another city, another decade. The issue is not the width of the angle, but the speed of the shutter – too fast, and a century’s gone. 

Nonetheless, Homes Away from Home is rich in absorbing detail. Wobick-Segev sheds light on the internal conflicts that defined urban Jewish populations in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, conflicts that had evolved from simple questions of survival to more nuanced dilemmas: self-segregation VS integration, endogamy VS intermarriage, religious observation VS participation in secular state life. To scholars of contemporary Jewish issues (and people living contemporary Jewish lives), these issues may sound familiar, and, indeed, there is surprising comfort in knowing that, despite the irreplaceable losses of the Holocaust, many of the core philosophical struggles of European Jewry persist today in Europe, North America, and Israel. 

Homes Away from Home will be of value not only to historians of space, culture, and religion, but also to those interested in the question of negotiating belonging in a world that demands multiple loyalties. As Wobick-Segev illustrates, the Jewish people of Paris, Berlin, and St. Petersburg found plenty of answers to this question – some charming, some tragic, some amusing, and some brilliant.

Sarah Wobick-Segev’s Homes Away from Home: Jewish Belonging in Twentieth-Century Paris, Berlin, and St. Petersburg was published by Stanford University Press in 2018. It is available on Amazon.

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