Between State and Folk: The Making of a Soviet Jewish Ethnographer
This lecture traces the intellectual journey of an aspiring Jewish scholar from modest beginnings in the former Pale of Settlement to a leading position in the academic world of Leningrad. Born to a religiously observant family in a shtetl, Isaiah Mendeleevich Pul’ner would go on to become a prominent ethnographer of Soviet Jewish populations, and director of the Jewish Section of the State Museum of Ethnography in Leningrad from 1937 to 1942. As a museum curator, he promoted a Marxist-Leninist vision of Jews as purely secular members of a socialist “family of nations.” Unpublished archival documents, however, suggest that Pul’ner retained some connections with the traditional Judaism of his youth. These materials indicate that he was strongly influenced by the pre-revolutionary ethnographer Sh. An-sky, and was deeply concerned with salvaging artifacts of traditional Judaism. Pul'ner's ambitious research plans for the Jewish Section were cut short by the outbreak of World War II and his untimely death during the Siege of Leningrad. By tracing Pul'ner's career in its totality, this presentation considers the complexities that drove Pul’ner’s ethnographic agenda, asking if his primary devotion was to the state, or to the folk.