Genocide: Ch 2 The Jews of Europe, Part 1


The Life That Is No More

A hundred years ago, the majority of the world's Jews lived in Europe in the Polish provinces of the Russian Empire, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and in the German Empire. To be sure, it was a world of poverty and hardship, of sacrifice and struggle, but it was also a world of scholars and poets, of impressionable matchmakers and philosophers. It was a world where each week men and women confronted new perils and hazards, and where each Sabbath they sat with their children around a table surrounded by song and joy. It was a world of synagogues and houses of study where young and old crowded together by the candle wick to study late into the night; where mothers and grandmothers rocked their loved ones to sleep with lullabies of hope and faith; where a neighbor's joy was a shtetl's day of rejoicing, and where hi's pain was its day of sorrow. It was a world where the price for respect was good deeds, but where the right to friendship had no prerequisites. Such a world were these 10,000 tiny dots on the map-Belz, where the Hasid hurried to be at hi's rebbe's table; Vilna, where the ordinary cobbler conversed in the Talmud; Pinsk and Lodz, where vendors rose at the crack of dawn on Monday and Thursday to hurry their wares to the marketplace; there was Warsaw, where writers leisurely sipped tea, and interpreted the life of the times... Vienna, her parks and broad streets bustling with artists etching out moments of memory and violinists transforming cafes into symphonic halls...

Eastern European Jews Before World War 11

Although there have been Jews in eastern Europe for about 1,000 years, the vast majority of the Jewish population there stems from the wave of central European migrants between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. At that time, Poland was by far the largest country in Europe. Because it was on the frontier of the Western Christian world, with an underdeveloped economy in need of merchants and farmers to help in its development, Poland welcomed foreign settlers. An especially large number of settlers came from Germany (both Jews and Christians). In addition to the economic opportunity that motivated many migrants, the Jews were also impelled by massacres and expulsions in German), to seek a new home in Poland. The Jewish migrants brought with them from Germany their Ashkenazic1 religious and communal traditions and their Yiddish language (which was based on Germanic dialects with Hebrew and Slavic admixtures). The peak of the Jewish immigration took place in the sixteenth century. By that time, the Jewish community of Poland had become far larger than the community remaining in Germany. By the eighteenth century, Poland would contain the majority of the world's Jews.

The Jews arriving in Poland found social and political conditions very different from those they had left in central Europe. Poland was a huge country with a weak central government that became progressively weaker. Unlike western and central Europe, Poland had a very weak native middle class which could do little to limit the commerce of the newcomers. The politics and economy of the country were dominated by the nobility, which owned the majority of the land in the realm and kept the peasants (the majority of the population) in a state of serfdom that often differed little from pure slavery. The nobles encouraged Jewish enterprise and settled Jews in private towns on their estates. In addition, they employed Jews to manage their estates as collectors of taxes, tolls, dues, and rents from the peasants and as concessionaires of the nobles' monopoly on liquor distilling and sales. Jews were also able to enter into all types of commerce and into many crafts (especially tailoring); they were not restricted to money lending, as they had been in the West.

Because of the weakness of the Polish government, the Jews were permitted wide powers of self-rule. Since the Polish crown had almost no bureaucracy, the only way it could raise taxes from the Jews was to assess a lump sum on the Jewish community and then leave it to the community to decide how much each individual should pay. The Jews were not only permitted to have self-governing communities in each town, but they were also allowed a council of communal representatives in each of the two sections of the Polish Commonwealth-the Council of Four Lands in the west and south and the Council of Lithuania in the northeast. These councils existed from the late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries until they were abolished in 1764. The Jewish communities and councils had powers that covered virtually all aspects of daily life-tax collecting, legal judgments in disputes between Jews, business regulations, upkeep of synagogues and religious schools- and the government permitted them to enforce their regulations with fines and excommunication. Most Jews, living in communities with large Jewish populations, had virtually no contact with the Polish government except through the intermediary of the Jewish community. just as did other social and national groups it? the huge amorphous Poland, the Jews lived lives of their own, differing from their neighbors in language, religion, and dress.

The weakness of the Polish government also had negative implications for the Jews. Although it allowed them autonomy, it also provided them with little security. The Polish nobleman whose word was law on his estate could favor Jews when it was in his interest and also, if he wished, treat them sadistically. In addition, the position of Jews as agents of the nobility exposed them to the hatred and violence of the peasants from whom they collected the dues and services owed to the landlord. The Jews' position was especially dangerous in the southeastern part of the Polish Commonwealth, the Ukraine. In this area, the Catholic Polish noblemen were lords of estates inhabited by Russian Orthodox Ukrainian peasants. The Poles sent in priests to spread Catholicism. Jewish settlements in the Ukraine grew tremendously in the eighty years preceding 1648. In that year, a tremendous revolt of the Cossacks and Ukrainians took place under the leadership of Bogdan Chmielnitski. The rebels not only attacked Polish noblemen and Catholic priests, but they also singled out the Jews for harsh treatment. Tens of thousands of Jews were massacred.

Poland never really recovered from the Chmielnitski uprising and the invasions of the Swedes and Russians that followed. The government was less and less able to govern, and Poland's neighbors interfered even more in its internal affairs. The Jews remained exposed to intermittent attacks from their neighbors, especially in the Ukraine. Finally, Poland's powerful neighbors, Prussia, Austria, and Russia, divided Poland into three partitions from 1772 to 1795, effectively eliminating it as a nation. After a brief interruption during the Napoleonic Wars, the division of Poland was confirmed in 1815. Most of Poland became a part of czarist Russia, with smaller sections going to the other two powers.

The fate of the Jews in the three successor states to Poland differed greatly. The Jews in Posen and West Prussia (the two provinces of Poland which went to Prussia) were at first subject to many restrictions, but by the second half of the nineteenth century they became Prussian (and later German) citizens. They soon began to adopt German culture and eventually were incorporated into German Jewry. In the late nineteenth century, they began to migrate to Berlin and other German cities; when Poland regained its independence in 1919, there were virtually no Jews still residing in the provinces of Posen and West Prussia.

Austrian Poland, known as Galicia, like Prussian Poland, initially restricted the rights of its Jewish inhabitants. In 1867, however, the Austro-Hungarian Empire granted the Jews full legal equality. The multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire differed greatly from the more monolithic Germany. Since the ruling Germans in Austria were a minority of the empire's population, they were unable to impose their culture on the provinces. Most Jews in Galicia remained traditional in religious practice and Yiddish speaking in language. The backward economic conditions allowed traditional life to continue with little challenge in the small towns where many Jews lived.

Galician Jews were the largest single group of Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but they were not the only ones. Jews also lived in the Austrian provinces of Bohemia and Moravia (now western Czechoslovakia) and in western Hungary. (All of these groups resembled central European Jews as much or more than eastern European Jews.) In the course of the nineteenth century, the Jewish population of Hungary increased greatly as Jews migrated there from the West (Bohemia and Moravia) and from Galicia. The eastern and northeastern provinces of Hungary were inhabited mainly by Hasidic Jews from Galicia, while central and western Hungary were settled by more Westernized Jews.

Jewish communal and religious life, which in the heyday of the Polish commonwealth had been rather uniform under the domination of the powerful communal structures, began to become more differentiated in the eighteenth century. The first religious movement to call for a new type of religious life was Hasidism, founded in the mid-eighteenth century by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. The Hasidic movement, with its emphasis on individual prayer, a charismatic religious leader (rebbe), and the possibility of religious greatness even for the unlearned, swept across the Ukraine and western Poland in the late eighteenth century. In the northeast (Lithuania), rabbinic opposition led by Elijah the Gaon of Vilna, who feared the Hasidic downgrading of learning and its minor liturgical changes, prevented the Hasidim from gaining the adherence of more than a minority of the Jewish population. The second challenge to traditional ways was the Haskalah (Enlightenment). Unlike Hasidism, which wished to make religious experience deeper and more personal, the Haskalah desired to bring the Jews closer to the secular culture, learning, and lifestyles of the non-Jewish world. Beginning in the late eighteenth century in Germany, the Haskalah affected a smaller group of Jewish intellectuals in eastern Europe who wished to see modernizing changes in Jewish education, dress, and religious life. The majority of rabbis opposed the Haskalah, and (at least until the late nineteenth century) so did the majority of the Jewish population of eastern Europe.

Czarist policy in Russia towards the Jews differed both from the policies formerly carried out by independent Poland and from those of Prussia and Austria. Until the partitions of Poland, Russia had excluded virtually all Jews and, when faced with this unexpected (and unwelcome) by-product of its expansion, decided to limit the size of the new population. Jews were allowed to live in the territories captured from Poland and in a few other provinces of southern Russia, but not anywhere else in the country. The restriction on Jewish settlement (Pale of Settlement) created in the 1790s continued in effect until the Russian Revolution of 1917. Czarist Russia, unlike Poland, was a strong centralized state with a large (if corruptible) bureaucracy. It was not willing to allow the Jews to retain their wide powers of self-government, but on the other hand was not willing to compensate them for the loss of autonomy by granting them equal rights and participation in the Russian government.

The policy of Russia in the first half of the nineteenth century was one of assimilating the Jews into Russian society without granting equality in return. Czar Nicholas 1 (1825-1856) ordered the drafting of Jewish boys at the age of twelve for at least twenty-five years of military service; the forbidding of traditional Jewish dress; the abolition of the Jewish communal executive (kahal); and the creation of secular schools for Jews. The Jewish community, except for a small number of supporters of the Haskalah, resisted all of these decrees, including secular schools. When Nicholas died, his somewhat more liberal son, Alexander 11 (1856-1881), instituted some reforms in Russian society and also removed some of the restrictions on Jews. Certain classes of Jews (such as merchants, ex- soldiers, and university graduates) were permitted to live outside the Pale. Political liberalization and the beginnings of industrial development encouraged some Jews to be optimistic about their future in Russia. Larger numbers of Jews attended secular schools and some abandoned traditional religious practice.

The assassination of Alexander II by revolutionaries in 1881 put an end to this brief liberal period. Pogroms (anti-Jewish riots) broke out in many parts of Russia. The reactionary government of Alexander III responded not by punishing the guilty, but by issuing new restrictions on the Jews. Residence restrictions were made stricter and quotas were enforced in institutions of higher learning and some professions. The last czar, Nicholas 11 (1894-1917), faced with growing unrest among the Russian people, turned to more and more explicitly anti-Jewish policies. The government supported organizations like the Black Hundreds, which incited pogroms and murdered Jews; the czarist secret police concocted the Nuernberg Laws, which charged that there was an international Jewish conspiracy; from 1911 to 1913, the government even staged a trial accusing the Jew Mendel Beilis of ritual murder.

The growing government hostility after 1881, coupled with growing economic distress, induced literally millions of Jews to leave eastern Europe, mainly for the United States. Many of those who had hoped that education would lead to the integration of the Jews into Russian society now came to feel that only the Jews themselves could solve their own problems. Although the majority of eastern European Jews were still traditional, the number of those who gained a secular education and abandoned traditional religion grew steadily. But those who gave up religious beliefs no longer looked for assimilation. Instead, a number of modern ideologies emerged, each claiming to have a solution for "the Jewish problem."

One of the new ideologies to emerge was early Zionism.2 The Zionists argued that no solution could be found for the Jews while they remained in eastern Europe. They would never be accepted as equal citizens by either the government or the non-Jewish population because they were a separate nation. Only by returning to their homeland would they be able to have normal relations with the peoples of the world. The early Zionists found the Hovevet Zion movement, which helped found the first modern Jewish settlements in the land of Israel. When Theodor HerzI founded the political Zionist movement in 1896, the majority of his supporters were Russian Jews.

In its early days, Zionism was a minority movement opposed by a number of other strong ideologies. A particularly powerful movement was socialism, which argued that all problems in society were the result of exploitation of the workers by capitalists and noblemen. The Socialists desired a revolution to overthrow the czar and capitalism. Many Jews turned to socialism for a number of reasons. First, the Jews-more than many other groups-saw the existing government as especially hostile to them. Secondly, there were many well-organized Jewish workers. Finally, there were many Jewish students in the universities, the hotbeds of revolution. The Socialists opposed Zionism because it supported Jewish cohesion without regard to class distinctions. They also accused the Zionists of running away from the problems of Russia by looking for solutions in the far-off Middle East. The Socialists themselves were divided. The main Social Democratic party (divided between its Menshevik and Bolshevik, later Communist, wings) claimed that there were no special Jewish issues and no need for a separate Jewish culture. The Jewish workers' Bund (the popular Socialist party active in the workers' trade union struggle), on the other hand, was interested not only in revolution, but also in equal rights for the Jews and in the flourishing of a secularist Jewish culture in Yiddish".

As a compromise between socialism and Zionism, the Poale Zion was founded. It tried to combine the two movements by supporting the class struggle of the workers against the employers while simultaneously working for the creation of a new Jewish society in Palestine. Eventually, Poale Zion split over the issue of which of these two tasks was more important. Poale Zion was not the only ideological subgroup within Zionism. Orthodox Jews, dissatisfied with the secular nature of the movement, created the Mizrachi (religious Zionist movement) to promote a Zionist ideology based on Torah" (Jewish teachings) and Jewish traditions.

Not all Jews agreed with either the Zionists or the Socialists. Some wished to create a Jewish society somewhere, but not necessarily in Palestine. These Territorialists showed interest in territories as varied as Uganda and Argentina. Others agreed that Jews needed to protect their cultural and national rights in addition to their civil rights, but opposed leaving Russia; they promoted the idea of autonomism. They hoped that once democracy came to eastern Europe Jews would gain (besides civil rights) recognition of self-governing Jewish communities and the right to use their own languages in schools, courts, and cultural institutions.

The supporters of the various ideologies disagreed not only about social revolution, religion, and the proper homeland for the Jews, but even about the language of Jewish culture. Although most agreed that Jews should use their own language and not the Polish, Russian, or Ukram n Ian of their neighbors, the supporters of Hebrew clashed with those who favored Yiddish. The Zionists tended to favor Hebrew, while the Socialists preferred Yiddish" (the language of the common people); some were willing to find a place for "both national languages." Both languages developed a sophisticated and prolific literature in the years after 1881. Often, leading writers (like I.L. Peretz, Mendele Mocher Sforim, and Hayyim Nahman Bialik) wrote in both languages.

With the rapid growth of modern Jewish cultural activity after 1881, it no longer seemed necessary for those who left the Jewish traditional way of life to assimilate. Instead, they were able to create cultural or national alternatives which still stressed Jewish cohesion, even if on a secular basis.

Change was taking place not only in ideology, but also in daily life. However, in the 1880s, much of the traditional lifestyle still remained dominant. Jews made up about 10 percent of the population of the Pale of Settlement (and about the same percentage in Galicia), but they were not randomly spread in all settlements. In the mainly agricultural villages, the Jewish population was small or nonexistent. Many of the village Jews were innkeepers, and Russian government pressure tried to force them from the villages and from innkeeping. In the small commercial towns (shtetlakh), on the other hand, the Jewish population was large indeed, sometimes even comprising a majority of the inhabitants. The shtetl, with a population of 500 to several thousand, was usually centered around a marketplace. The Jews tended to live in the center of town, where commercial activity was concentrated; peasants from the surrounding villages would come to the shted on market days to buy and sell. The shtetl generally had a well-organized Jewish community with its own synagogue, houses of study, charity organizations, schools, and other institutions. Within the shtetl, Jews could live a Jewish cultural and religious life with relatively little interference. This is not to say that all shtetlakh were alike or that they were immune to change. The secular ideologies made their entrance into shtetl life in the period from 1881 to 1914, and especially affected the younger generation.

Economic change affected both the 1ife of the shtetl itself and the flow of migration from it. By the late nineteenth century, the trend of migration included not only the millions going overseas, but also the hundreds of thousands of Jews moving to the great cities of eastern Europe. Warsaw Jewry grew from 15,600 in 1816 to 130,000 in 1882 and 337,000 in 1914; Lodz" grew from 2,775 in 1856 to 98,700 in 1897. By 1897, Odessa had 139,000 Jews, Kiev had 51,000, Vilna had 64,000, and Minsk had 47,500. Life in the cities was more varied and anonymous than in the shtetlakh. All the different trends in ideologies and tradition and the widest range of economic standing were to be found there.

The economic structure of eastern European Jewry was heavily influenced by the growth of railroads and industry after about 1880. A small number of bankers, manufacturers, and great merchants benefited from the changes, but the majority became even poorer than before. Changes in transport and trade routes took business from some of the shtetlakh; the many Jewish wagon-drivers were hurt by the competition of the railroad. Another common Jewish pursuitcrafts-was also affected. Small Jewish tailors, weavers, and other craftsmen could not compete effectively with factories. Many lost their independence and became workers in textile factories and other light industries. Numerous Jewish small businessmen saw their businesses decline; many lived from occasional work or business (they were known as Luftmenshen-literally, people living on air). The Jewish charity rolls grew. This trend of economic decline continued for the bulk of eastern European Jews until their destruction in World War II.

World War 1, which broke out in 1914, led to tremendous changes in eastern Europe. At first, Jews tended to favor the German and Austrian forces who treated them better than the czarist government. This changed when the revolution of March, 1917, put a democratic government in place of the czar. The new government gave the Jews equal rights but was unable to maintain its power in the face of the continuing war and ongoing internal revolution. After eight months, it was overthrown by a Communist revolution whose leaders included many (highly assimilated) Jews. The Communist revolution led to a prolonged civil war between the Reds and the Whites (anti-Communists), much of it fought in areas heavily inhabited by Jews. Because the White armies in the Ukraine massacred tens of thousands of Jews in the towns they occupied, Jews were forced into the Communist camp.

The position of the Jews after the Communist victory was peculiar. On the one hand, the Red leadership contained many persons of Jewish origin, and Jews as a group had been supporters of the new regime. On the other hand, much of the policy of the Communists was bound to work against the Jews. First of all, the new regime took a stongly antireligious stand. Jewish religious activities were met by a barrage of obstacles and antireligious propaganda. Secondly, the regime could tolerate no rivals for power; it therefore forbade Zionism, the Bund, and all independent Jewish communal life. Finally, the Communists abolished private businesses and limited the civil rights of former business owners. A disproportionate number of Jews were affected by these measures.

Although the Communist regime had no room for businessmen, Zionism, or independent communities, it did have room, at least in theory, for minority national cultures. It claimed that communism would reverse czarist discrimination against non-Russian cultures and grant each nationality its own language, culture, and even its own provinces. After some debate, it was decided to recognize the Jews as a national group, even though they lacked their own territory. The Hebrew language was virtually forbidden, since it was associated with religion and Zionism, but Yiddish was permitted and even cultivated. It was to be used in theaters, schools, and even courts of law. Of course, by Soviet definition, all national cultures in the Soviet Union were to be "Socialist in content, national in form." This meant that the only thing it could express was Communist ideology, although it could use Yiddish or Jewish holidays to do so. The Jewish section of the Communist party (Yevsektsia) worked both to build up a "proletarian Jewish" culture and to destroy the forces of religion, Zionism, and "bourgeois nationalism" among the Jews. NonCommunist forms of Judaism were driven underground.

With the growth of Joseph Stalin's power in the late 1920s and early 1930s, even the legal Yiddish culture began to arouse suspicion. The Yevsektsia was abolished, in part because the government thought it was hampering assimilation by a too-strong defense of Jewish culture. The anomalous position of the Jewish nationality without a land led Stalin, in 1928 to create the Jewish autonomous region of Birobidzhan, deep in Soviet Asia. The expected Jewish migration to this "Jewish" area did not materialize. Rather, there was a steady stream of Jewish population from the former Pale to big cities like Moscow and Leningrad. Meanwhile, Stalin began to purge and kill all his rivals for power. Many of the most prominent victims, including Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev, were Jews. The Jewish element in the Soviet leadership was radically reduced. Stalin, also began to close many of the Jewish cultural and educational institutions. He became more and more distrustful of the Jews. (This was manifested openly during the period of liquidation of Jewish culture from 1948 to 1953.)

The situation in non-Soviet eastern Europe was very different, but hardly better. The treaties that ended World War I created a number of newly independent nations on territory formerly belonging to Austro-Hungarian Empire and czarist Russia. The new nations included Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia; the boundaries of the existing Austria, Hungary, and Rumania were adjusted to follow nationality divisions. All these nations, created on the basis of national self-determination, were to be democratically ruled and were treaty-bound to respect the cultural and political rights of minorities, including the Jews. Each of the new nations, however, having finally achieved national independence, wished to dominate the minorities. Slogans like "Poland for the Poles" became widespread, and every effort was made to evade the guarantees to the minorities.

Poland, with approximately three million Jews, was the best example of the way the new nations (except for Czechoslovakia) treated the Jews.3 In contrast to Russia, Jewish communal life was left relatively free, but great economic and political pressure was put on the Jews. The Poles found it intolerable that the majority of merchants in Poland were Jews, and to change the situation they implemented tax policies and created monopolies which excluded Jews. Poland and most other countries in the area soon turned from democracy to dictatorship. Although the dictatorship of Marshall Pilsudski (1926-1935) treated the Jews better than most other Polish governments, his successors accentuated the anti-Jewish line. Rightwing parties like the Endeks (National Democrats), with much support from students and others, agitated against the Jews with calls for boycotts and violence. There were a number of pogroms in the 1930s, and in 1937 Polish universities bowed to student pressure and instituted segregated seating for Jewish students. Meanwhile, the economic situation of Polish Jews worsened; as many as one in three Polish Jews received their Passover matzot (unleavened bread eaten during the Passover holiday) from relief. Many depended on money from relatives in America.

Despite the ceaseless outside pressure, the Jews of non-Soviet eastern Europe developed a flourishing cultural life. The Jewish community was ruled by boards chosen democratically in elections, in which the ideological parties-from the Orthodox to the Zionists and Bund-ran candidates. Despite their deep divisions on principles, they were usually able to work together. A ramified system of modern Jewish schools was created in Poland and other countries. Besides government schools that closed on Saturday (Szabatowka), there were the Hebrew Tarbut, the Yiddish Cyszo, and the Orthodox Horeb and Beth Jacob schools. Yiddish theater, newspapers, and magazines flourished; there was even a Yiddish institute for advanced research (YIVO). Although a considerable portion of the Jewish population remained traditional in dress, religion, and habits, modern Jewish institutions grew as never before and tackled problems (modern health care, school texts, etc.) that had never been faced before.

On the eve of World War 11 eastern European Jews were already in the midst of a deep crisis. In the Soviet Union, Jewish cultural life was slowly being eliminated. Elsewhere in eastern Europe, there was a bustling, thriving Jewish cultural life, but the community faced economic disaster and physical threats. Yet, no one could have imagined that within a few years eastern European Jewish culture and communities would be virtually wiped out.

Although little remains of eastern European Jewry in its original location, its impact on Jews throughout the world continues to be immense. Most of the world's Jews are of eastern European background. Our ideas (especially in America) of what are typically Jewish foods, music, dress, and attitudes refer mainly to eastern European Jewish traits. Many of the ideological movements and religious trends still active in modern Jewry (Hasidism, Zionism, concern for social Justice) owe much to their eastern European origins. The face of Jewish life would be hard to imagine without the imprint of the now destroyed communities that lived for a thousand years in the cold and often inhospitable climate of eastern Europe.


1. Ashkenaz was the medieval Hebrew name for Germany. 

2. Zionism, as a movement committed to the return of Jews to their ancient homeland, already existed in rudimentary form before Herzl formulated it as a political movement in 1896.

3. The Jewish population in the various eastern European countries around 1930 was: Poland, 3,114,000; Czechoslovakia, 357,000; Hungary, 445,000; Yugoslavia, 68,000; Rumania, 757,000; Bulgaria, 48,000; Lithuania, 154,000; Latvia, 93,000; Estonia, 4,000; and the Soviet Union, 2,672,000.

For Further Reading

Baron, Salo W. The Russian Jew under Tzars and Soviets. New York: Macmillan Co., 1976. 

Dawidowicz, Lucy S., ed. The Goldern Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967.

Howe, Irving, and Greenberg, Eliezer, eds. Voices from the Yiddish: Essays, Memoirs & Diaries. New York: Schocken Books, 1975. (See especially Abraham Ain, "Swislocz, Portrait of a Shied," pp. 87-108.)

Roskies, Diane K., and Roskies, David G. The Shtetl Book: An Introduction to East European Jewish Life and Lore. New York: Ktav, 1975.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. In My Father's Court. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966.

Weinryb, Bernard D. The Jews of Poland: A Social and Economic History of the Jewish Community in Poland from 1100 to 1800. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1973.

Western European Jews Before World War 11

Jewish settlement in western Europe dates back about two thousand years to the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans conquered all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including Judea (Israel), and Jews soon spread to almost all parts of the empire. A substantial number of Jews settled in the city of Rome and in other parts of western Europe bordering on the Mediterranean, but some settled even further north in areas which would later be part of France and Germany. Although there were occasional persecutions, the Romans generally recognized the Jewish religion as legal and exempted the Jews from worshipping the emperor. Judaism made many converts, and a large proportion of the Roman population (one estimate is as high as 10 percent) was Jewish.1

Tremendous changes took place in western Europe in the fourth and fifth centuries because of two new factors-the conversion of the majority of the Roman population to Christianity and the invasion of Rome by barbarian tribes from the north. The invasions and fall of Rome seem to have put an end to Jewish settlement in northern Europe. The Christianization of Rome changed the position of the Jews tremendously. Judaism and Christianity were not only closely related, but the), had become bitter rivals with diametrically opposed interpretations of their shared traditions. The new Christian rulers of the states that succeeded Rome usually allowed Jews (unlike pagans) to continue to live in their states, but they often imposed various restrictions and humiliations on them as punishment for their rejection of Christianity. Soon the Jews became virtually the only non-Catholic group in western Europe, a position which became increasingly dangerous.

The Jews in both the Roman and post-Roman (Middle Ages) era were recognized both as a separate religious group and as a separate nationality. They were granted a considerable amount of internal self- government in most of the places where they were permitted to live. The medieval social system, which granted different legal status to different social groups (nobles, merchants, craftsmen, peasants), was especially suited to giving the Jews a separate status, in which they were both treated as unequal to the other groups and granted the right to rule their own affairs.

In the course of the early Middle Ages, Jews from the Mediterranean area reestablished communities in northern France. From there (and also from Italy), Jews settled in England and in Germany. The settlement in Germany, which was quite small and insignificant when it was founded in the tenth century, became the ancestor of the Ashkenazic (of German descent) Jewish group (the name Ashkenaz comes from the medieval Jewish name for Germany). Ashkenazic Jews became the majority of the world's Jews by the seventeenth century and have remained so ever since.

In contrast to the Jews in Asia, North Africa, and Spain (which were conquered by the Moslems), who had broad intellectual interests (philosophy, poetry, Bible, Jewish law), the Jews of northern Europe concentrated almost exclusively on Jewish texts (especially the Talmud, the major work of rabbinic law and lore compiled between the third and fifth centuries C.E.*). Ashkenazic Jews in the Middle Ages developed an especially intense religious culture for which many were willing even to sacrifice their lives. Unlike Jews in the Moslem countries, who followed a broad range of occupations, almost all the Jews in northern Europe were merchants. As the non-Jewish merchant class grew and as legal restrictions against Jewish economic activity increased, northern European Jews were pushed more and more exclusively into money lending as an occupation. In some places this was virtually the only occupation that Jews were legally permitted to follow.2 It was not an occupation that made their popularity or physical safety any greater.

The position of Jews in northern Europe worsened between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. Beginning with the First Crusade (1096), the Jews of northern Europe were subject to recurring massacres and religious persecutions. Various new accusations were made against the Jews in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, including charges of ritual murder, of desecration of the host (communion wafer), and of causing the bubonic plague by poisoning the wells. Hundreds of Jewish communities were massacred. The survivors were subject to growing government restrictions in occupation, to laws ordering them to wear special badges and live separately from Christians, and to special heavy taxation. Beginning in the late thirteenth century, Jews were expelled from one country after another (England- 1290, France- 1306, Spain- 1492). Because Germany was not a united country, the Jews were not expelled from all sections of it. Nevertheless, many Jews left Germany for eastern Europe. After the sixteenth century, the center of world Jewry shifted to the East.

The relatively small numbers of Jews who still lived in western Europe after the sixteenth century suffered under a host of legal restrictions. Germany and Italy (neither of them united politically) were virtually the only places that still had Jewish communities. Although massacres were relatively uncommon after the fifteenth century, the position of the Jews was unenviable. Although Italian Jews did participate in some common cultural activities with their Christian neighbors during the Renaissance, they were restricted in many ways and, from the sixteenth century on, were strictly segregated in walled ghettos. The German Jews (perhaps 200,000 in number in the eighteenth century) were expelled from many of the major cities in the late Middle Ages and thereafter lived in small towns and villages, where they earned precarious livings as peddlers or agricultural middlemen. Although laws concerning Jews differed in various parts of German-speaking Europe, most states agreed to treat the Jews as outsiders whose permission to settle was a revocable privilege. Most Jews had to pay for their residence permits and often were not allowed to pass these permits on to their children. They were subject to special taxes, limited in their occupations, and they had little social contact or intellectual relations with the non-Jewish population. A considerable proportion of the German Jewish population consisted of beggars and wanderers who could not secure residence permits.

Despite the many restrictions, German Jews were permitted religious freedom in most places where they were allowed to settle, and the Jewish community had considerable power in regulating internal Jewish affairs. Most Jewish individuals had little to do with the government, since taxation, most judicial affairs, commercial regulations, and religious life were all controlled by the Jewish community. The community also cared for the Jewish poor, Although Yiddish-speaking Jews and German-speaking Christians could understand each other's language and did business with each other, they differed widely in manners, dress, occupations, and type of education. The overwhelming proportion of Jews was religiously traditional; their educational system still relied almost exclusively on Jewish religious texts and left very little room for secular knowledge.

In the course of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the trend of migration to the East began to reverse itself. Jewish communities were established (or reestablished) in England, the Netherlands, and parts of France. The Jewish settlement in the Netherlands, developing with fewer governmental restrictions than elsewhere, manifested traits that later would herald a major change in Jewish life in western Europe. Dutch Jewry, like the other new settlements, was made up of two population elements: Marannos, fleeing Spain and Portugal; and Ashkenazic Jews from Germany and Poland. The Marannos, who had masqueraded as Christians for generations,3 were among the first Jews to know Christian culture, dress like non-Jews, speak and read their languages, and have far closer cultural ties with them than were found among Ashkenazic Jews. The influence of these Spanish and Portuguese Jews affected the Ashkenazim as well, although to a lesser extent.

A more widespread change in western European Jewry did not take place until after the attitude of European leaders towards the Jews began to change. First, the economic doctrine of mercantilism, in which the primary duty of governments was said to be the amassing of money, induced even some anti-Jewish rulers to favor those wealthy Jews who were economically useful to the state. Sometimes, the same ruler would favor wealthy Jews while expelling or restricting poor and "economically useless" ones. Slowly, in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a small class of wealthy "Court Jews" grew up, some of whom began to adopt the lifestyle of Christian society. A second factor which became important by the middle of the eighteenth century was the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which spread through the educated classes of Europe.This world view downgraded the role of the Church and of traditional Christian doctrines and proclaimed the idea that all human beings were created equal and had natural rights that no one could take from them. Although not all Enlightenment thinkers were favorable to the Jews, the doctrines themselves helped to undermine the legitimacy of treating one group as inferior to another. In Germ any, the Enlightenment even affected some of the Jewish elite,4 especially in Berlin. One Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, even achieved recognition among German Intellectuals as a leading Enlightened thinker, although he remained a practicing Jew.

A third factor leading to new policies towards the Jews was the general transformation in the European state, which began in the eighteenth century and carried over into the nineteenth. The old society, made up of different legal classes, each with their own different legal status, was being replaced by a society of national citizens with equal rights and duties. This new way of organizing society was desired by governments not so much because they believed in the Enlightenment principles of equality, but because it was more efficient to have one set of rules rather than a crazy-quilt of different regulations for each province, religion, and social group. Impetus for moving towards a more un I form state came both from rulers and bureaucrats in central European monarchies, like Prussia and Austria ("Enlightened Despotisms"), and from the revolutionaries in France, who overthrew the old regime and began a thorough change of all French institutions from 1789 on.

The French Revolution had an especially great impact, because revolutionary France began territorial expansion in a series of wars that lasted over twenty years. Under Napoleon, French troops dominated almost all of continental Europe and had great influence on policies well beyond the borders of France.

Although the French Revolution at first hesitated giving Emancipation (legal equality) to the unassimilated Ashkenazic Jews in the eastern French province of Alsace, it finally granted full rights to all Jews in 1791. In granting equality, one parliamentary leader stated that France would grant "to the Jews as individuals everything, to the Jews as a nation nothing."5 Equality, thus, had two sides to it. Jews would be admitted into the French nation, but in return they were to give up the corporate status they had previously had. In exchange for the right to live where they wished, engage in all occupations, and hold government positions, the Jews were expected to cease being a separate group. Jewish communal courts were abolished; Jews were required to attend government schools, serve in the army, and identify with the nation in which they held citizenship. The old government policies of keeping the Jews separate were completely reversed. Now the governments hoped that all social and economic differences between Jews and Christians would disappear and that Jews would no longer feel national solidarity with Jews in other countries.

The emancipating governments were expecting a total transformation in Jewish life. They thought that eliminating the restrictions on Jews would make it possible for Jews to become like everyone else (except for religion) with little difficulty. In fact, the changes in occupation, education, and national identification, which would be required for the Jews to become so well integrated, were much more complex than the governments realized. For many Jews of the first generation after the Emancipation, the changing of government expectations must have been confusing. Often the governments were troubled at the slowness of the social transformation of the Jews and tried to intervene to speed up the changes. In 1806, Napoleon called an assembly of Jewish leaders and demanded to know if there was something in the Jewish religion which stood in the way of integration. Among other things, he asked whether Judaism permitted intermarriage, whether Jews considered France their homeland, and whether they considered French Christians to be their brothers. Although the Jews gave Napoleon the answers he desired, he nevertheless suspended some of their rights for a period of ten years. Despite Napoleon's ambiguous attitude, the French armies brought increased rights for the Jews in most of the countries they conquered. After Napoleon's defeat in 1815, some of the German states revoked some of the rights they had granted. In some cases they made rights conditional on changes in the Jewish social structure. They hoped (unrealistically) to produce a wholesale transformation of Jewish peddlers and middlemen into farmers and craftsmen. Those who did not change their occupations were subject to a host of restrictions. The final restrictions on Jews in Germany were lifted in 1871, when they finally achieved full legal equality.

Although the transformation of Jewish life in western and central Europe was neither as fast as the governments had expected nor of the type they wished, it was nevertheless quite thorough. Not only did Jewish political status change, but there were also important changes in Jewish economic life and in the very intellectual and religious definitions of what it meant to be a Jew. Exposure to secular culture in the schools that Jewish children now had to attend led to a new attitude towards traditional Jewish culture. Jews were quick to adjust to the new schools, and by the second half of the nineteenth century they were disproportionately represented in higher education. Jews began to participate in and contribute to the general culture as writers, musicians, and scholars. Often there was little specifically Jewish about their work. Many Jews wished to drop all features of traditional Jewish life that stood in the way of their integration into the larger society. Whereas Judaism had previously combined national and religious elements in an inseparable mixture, it now seemed necessary to many western European Jews to separate the two, eliminating the national Jewish and retaining only the purely religious. Even many Jewish religious practices, such as the dietary laws and the observance of the Sabbath, which seemed to many to stand in the way of social mixing or of economic advancement, were dropped by some Jews. Previously unknown religious problems, such as observing Jewish dietary laws in the army and compulsory school attendance on Saturday, troubled even the traditionalists.

For many of the educated and well-to-do, the traditional synagogue seemed too foreign and too old-fashioned to be of any value. Some Jewish leaders, especially in Germany, felt that the only way to prevent these people from being totally lost to the Jewish community was to make changes in Jewish liturgy and ritual. By introducing prayer in the vernacular and insisting on Western-style decorum and organ music, these Reformers hoped to make the synagogue more palatable to Westernized Jews and to their non-Jewish neighbors. By removing references in the liturgy to a return to the Promised Land and a restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, they hoped to eliminate Jewish nationalism, which could conflict with hard-won citizenship rights. Whereas the early Reformers were more interested in specific changes than in an overall rationale for them, the university-trained Reform rabbis, who became prominent in the 1840s and thereafter, endeavored to create a Reform theology. Reform leaders, such as Abraham Geiger, argued that Judaism was a religion which had undergone historical evolution and would continue to do so. They argued that Judaism had progressed since the time of the original revelation and that some biblical and rabbinic laws relating to ritual had become outmoded. In creating their theory, many Reform leaders relied heavily on new methods of studying Jewish sources based on modern university research methods (Science of Judaism). Most Reformers in the nineteenth century argued that Judaism was purely a religious doctrine (ethical monotheism) and that its national elements were a thing of the past.

Not all German Jews accepted the arguments of the Reformers. The Orthodox theorist Samson Raphael Hirsch argued that the Torah (the Law) was eternal and divine and could be changed neither by human will nor by the "Spirit of the Times." Even Hirsch's followers, however, accepted the Emancipation and felt that Jews should participate in the life of the general society around them, providing they observed all the laws of the Torah. Although the Orthodox continued to have followers, Reform Judaism (in a fairly mild form) gained the adherence of the majority of German Jews by the 1870s. In most other western European countries there was no strong Reform movement, but there was still a decline in traditional religious observance. Although the synagogues in France and England remained rather traditional, there was a decrease in attendance.

Reform Judaism and the decline in traditional observance could be seen as direct consequences of the new Jewish education and the attempt by many Jews to fit into a society that now seemed to accept them. Economic changes, which were equally striking, were the result of a combination of the opportunities given by the Emancipation and those that came from the Industrial Revolution, which swept through western Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. The governments' hopes of Jews becoming farmers and craftsmen were frustrated, because industrial and commercial development provided greater opportunities for business pursuits in which had traditionally been involved. Within commerce, the economic position of Jews improved substantially. By the late nineteenth century, Jewish beggars had virtually disappeared from western and central Europe; Jewish peddlers mostly had become shopkeepers or wholesalers, and many had built substantial businesses. Some, especially the children of those who had been successful in business, went into the professions, especially medicine and law. Western and central European Jews had become overwhelmingly middle class. These changes helped create a tremendous chasm between the Jews of western Europe (who constituted less than I percent of the population there) and those of eastern Europe (who were closer to 10 percent). Whereas the Emancipation and industrialization created Jewish communities in the West which were culturally integrated, often nontraditional in religious practice, and economically prosperous, eastern European Jews remained culturally self-sufficient and isolated, religiously traditional, and overwhelmingly poor.

Although western and central European Jews were very different by the 1870s from what they had been three generations earlier, they had not disappeared as a recognizable social group, nor had their organized communal life disintegrated. Most Jews still married other Jews, lived in neighborhoods near other Jews, had many Jewish friends, and supported Jewish charities; they still tended to concentrate in certain occupations (although not necessarily the same as those they had followed earlier). Often, because conservatives and supporters of Church control had opposed equality for the Jews, the Jews tended to support liberal causes. Nevertheless, it was clear that the Emancipation and social change had not eliminated Jews as a recognizable entity. Because the Jews now participated much more fully in the economic, political, and cultural life of the nations in which they lived, they now appeared more conspicuous and (in the eyes of those who distrusted them) more powerful than they had been before the Emancipation. When a period of economic slump followed the boom of the 1850s and 1860s, organized anti-Jewish feeling began to reemerge, arguing that the Emancipation had been a mistake, since it made the Jews stronger and more dangerous but had failed to cause them to merge and disappear into society as a whole.

The anti-Jewish forces were of two main types. The milder (and larger) of the two trends was Christian Antisemitism. Followers of this trend wished to return society to its older Christian roots, in which each class knew its place and the rich helped the poor. They blamed capitalism and the secularized state (which they identified with the Jews) for eliminating all values except money. They saw the Jews as foreign to their Christian society and as a group which stuck together in order to dominate. This anti- Jewish feeling was directed not only against those unassimilated Jews who remained recognizably Jewish, but also against those who tried to fit in. This latter group, it was argued, was merely trying to penetrate European society in order to undermine it. Christian antisemites usually called for various types of restrictions to limit the political influence and economic activities of the Jews.

The second group was far more extreme. It claimed that Jews had not integrated (and could never do so) because they were racially different. The term "antisemite" was coined to show that the objection was not to the Jewish religion (since they wished to avoid being considered religious bigots) but to the morally inferior semitic race. Relying on pseudoscientific racist, anthropological, and linguistic ideas, they created complex theories showing the eternal opposition between the semitic and Aryan (a vague racist term which could mean blond northern European or be a mere code word for non-Jewish) races. Some of the extreme racial antisemites even opposed Christianity because of its Jewish origin.

The new antisemitic movement spread in a number of countries, especially Germany, France, and Austria. Although it did not succeed in limiting the rights of the Jews, it did spread anti-Jewish ideas in the press, the universities, and in many political groups. Antisemitism became respectable in "patriotic" and conservative circles in all three countries. In France, the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906), in which a Jewish army officer was accused of spying on behalf of Germany, divided the country and led to intense anti-Jewish agitation. In some countries, even the medieval accusations of ritual murder were revived.

Jews reacted to antisemitic attacks in two main ways. The majority of western European Jews felt that Jews should defend their legal rights as citizens and should disprove the charges made against them through pamphlets and other types of literature. They resented accusations that they were not full-fledged and fully integrated Germans (or Frenchmen, etc.). Some Jews disagreed with this approach. The revival of Antisemitism convinced them that Jews would never be accepted in the countries where they lived no matter how hard they tried to fit in. In their view, this was because the Jews were a nationality in exile from their homeland. They could never live a normal life in exile and would only be accepted when they again became an independent nation. This idea was promulgated by Theodor Herzl in his epoch-making book The Jewish State in 1896; the book helped lay the groundwork for the Zionist movement. Most of the western European Zionists were acculturated Jews who had once hoped for acceptance and now despaired of its achievement. They felt that the Emancipation had been based on false hopes and that assimilation was a mistake. Zionists called on Jews to look to their own culture and their own people rather than try to enter cultures in which they were not wanted. Zionism, in a way, represented the opposite of classical Reform Judaism. Whereas the Reformers wished to see Judaism as pure religion with no nationalist elements, the Zionists saw Judaism as primarily national. Although the Zionists remained a minority of western European Jewry (and were resented by many Jews as undermining the hard-won Emancipation), they slowly gained strength as Antisemitism continued and Jewish settlement in Israel grew.

The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were marked by great migratory waves affecting western European Jews. From about 1820 through the 1860s there was a wave of emigration, especially from Germany to the United States. Within each country there was a continuous migration of Jews from the small towns to the cities. Around 1815, less than 2 percent of the Jews of Germany lived in Berlin; by 1925 over 30 percent of German Jews lived there. By the twentieth century most western and central European Jews were residents of the big cities, where they played an important and conspicuous role in economic, social, artistic, and cultural life.

Another wave of migration, which became especially important after 1880, brought increasing numbers of eastern European Jews to the cities of Germany, France, Holland, and England. In France and England, the new immigrants eventually outnumbered the older community, while in Germany their numbers finally reached about 25 percent of the total Jewish population. The new immigrants brought a more conspicuous Jewish life and more outspoken political views than were prevalent among the older residents. Often the "natives," who had a purely religious view of Judaism, were embarrassed about the Yiddish- speaking, Orthodox, or Socialist newcomers and feared that their presence would undermine the position of all Jews in the country. World War I and the upheavals that followed it created an even more threatening political situation for western European Jews than had existed previously. Economic difficulties, frustrated nationalism, fear of communism, and dissatisfaction with democracy characterized the political attitude of many, especially young people. Often they turned to Fascist movements, some of which were blatantly antisemitic. In Germany, the Nazis were able to come to power by legal means, because the population had little respect for a democratic government that seemed to bring only economic disaster. In many countries the wave of hostility seemed to be mounting dangerously.

On the eve of the Holocaust, Jews represented only a small proportion of the population of western and central Europe. The largest community, Germany, had fewer than 600,000 Jews. France and Austria each had about 200,000. Other Jewish communities were even smaller (Netherlands-115,000, Belgium-50,000, Italy-45,000). Despite their relatively small numbers and their relative conspicuousness, many of these communities were the objects of intense hostility.

The Jews of western and central Europe were the first to face the challenge of modernity. It was in those countries (and especially in Germany), that Jews tried to find intellectual answers to the dilemma of participating in general society while retaining some kind of Jewish identity. Western European Jews experienced tremendous economic and cultural changes, which helped make them some of the most prosperous and culturally integrated Jews in the world. The Cultural contribution of persons of Jewish origin in western and central Europe is immense. One need only mention the names of Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, or Heinrich Heine to demonstrate this fact. In most cases, there was little specifically Jewish about these men beyond their ancestry. Yet, despite the seeming integration and adjustment of western European Jews to their environment, they were not accepted. The disaster which would destroy much of European Jewry began not in eastern Europe, where Jews remained clearly and openly distinct, but in Germany, where Jewishness was rarely shown publicly. The tragedy of western European Jews was that they attempted to make the adjustments to European life that the Emancipation seemed to demand, but their very success in living within European society intensified hostility to such an extent that it led ultimately to their destruction.


1. Salo W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, vol. I (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), pp. 170-171: "Every tenth Roman was a Jew." Baron estimates that four million Jews lived in the Roman Empire outside of Palestine and that Jews made up 20 percent of the population in the eastern Mediterranean.

In contrast to more recent Jewish practice, Judaism was an actively proselytizing religion in Roman times. Several Latin writers refer to the conversion to Judaism of many Romans. At the time of the late Roman Empire, the decline in belief in the old Roman, Greek, and local gods, and the search for a spiritual way of life seemingly absent in the traditional religions, led many to turn to "Eastern" religions, including Judaism. Judaism made great inroads, but was eventually outstripped by Christianity, which did not require the observance of Jewish ritual (including circumcision) from its converts.

2. The restriction of Jews to money lending resulted in part, ironically, from the shared Jewish and Christian tradition that it was sinful to take interest from "your brother" but permissible to charge interest from "the stranger." Since Christians were forbidden by Church law to lend to other Christians on interest, the Jews became the natural source of potential credit. This fostered Antisemitism in the following ways: 1) the Jews were accused of engaging in antisocial behavior by being in a business that was morally prohibited to Christians and 2) the high interest rates of the time gave rise to "normal" antipathy of those who owe to those who lend. Finally, the Jews also faced the problem of being coerced by local authorities to make high-risk loans. Often these went unpaid, and the Jews were expelled, empty-handed, from their homes.

3. Since the expulsions of the Jews from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497), the practice of Judaism had been illegal in those countries.

4. Many wealthy Berlin Jews began to adopt the Cultured lifestyle of bourgeois Christians, attending the theater and opera, going to coffeehouses, and giving up Jewish costume. They gave their children a secular education, often with a rationalist slant; some also began to abandon Jewish religious practice.

5. This statement by Clermont-Tonerre is quoted innumerous histories. One example is Raphael Mahler, A History of Modern Jewry, 1780-1815 (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 32,where it is translated: "Everything must be refused to the Jews as a nation; everything must be granted them as individuals."

For Further Reading

Abrahams, Beth-Zion, ed. and trans. Gluckel of Hameln Written by Herself. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1963.

Duker, Abraham G., and Ben-Horin, Meir, eds. Emancipation and Counter-Emancipation. New York: Ktav, 1974.

Hyman, Paula. From Dreyfus to Vichy: The Remaking of French Jewry, 1906-1939. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Katz, Jacob. Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages. New York: The Free Press, 1961.

Marcus, Jacob R. The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book, 315-1791. Cincinnati: Union, of American Hebrew Congregations, 1938.

Massing, Paul W. Rehearsal for Destruction: A Study of Political Antisemitism In Imperial Germany. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949.

Mendes-Flohr, Paul R., and Reinharz, Jehuda. The Jew In the Modern World: A Documentary History. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Meyer, Michael A. The Origin of the Modern Jew: Jewish Identity and European Culture in Germany, 1749-1824. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967.

Mosse, George L. Germans & Jews. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1970.

Pulzer, Peter. The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria. New York: Wiley, 1964.

Reichman, Eva G. Hostages of Civilization. Boston: Beacon Press, 1951.

Reinharz, Jehuda. Fatherland or Promised Land?: The Dilemma of the German Jew, 1893-1914. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975.

The Life and Culture of Sephardic Jews Before World War 11

One of the main components of the Jewish people is the Sephardim, or Jews who trace their origin to medieval Spain. Living under Christian and Muslim overlords for over 1,000 years in Spain, the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula developed a unique culture, both secular and religious, and an articulated sense of a proud and brilliant history. Sephardic Jews in Spain, despite their many centuries of persecution, experienced periods of economic efflorescence and social integration, feeling quite at home in their Jewish culture as well as in the broader culture of the wider non-Jewish society. Open to philosophical concepts, receptive to Arab scientific and geographic discoveries, and enamored of the Hebrew language and its abilities to express lofty as well as mundane notions, Sephardic Jews developed an outlook and civilization unique in the annals of the Jewish people. This civilization was violently uprooted with the pogroms of 1391, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the expulsion from Portugal in 1497. Thousands of Spanish Jews sought refuge wherever possible, while smaller numbers chose to remain in Spain as clandestine Jews until escape was more propitious. But the doors of Europe were almost entirely shut to practicing Jews. Thus, the Jewish community of Spain was forced to flee to distant lands, bringing with them their cultural baggage and fierce nativist loyalties of a dispossessed people.

Sephardic Jews were warmly welcomed in the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Indeed, the Ottoman sultan is reported to have been incredulous that the king of Spain had ousted such a talented population element. From the 1490s, and in increasing numbers throughout the first quarter of the sixteenth century, boatload after boatload of Sephardic Jews arrived in the Ottoman Empire: Sephardi in came to Rhodes after it was conquered by the Turks in 1523; the first documents attesting to a Jewish presence in Sarajevo date from 1565 and relate to Sephardic Jews; Sephardim quickly overwhelmed and dominated the old Ashkenazic and Romaniot (Greek- speaking) Jews of Bulgaria, so that the separate Jewish communities joined into a single Sephardic enclave in the sixteenth century. With the conquest of Belgrade by the Turks in 1521, older Jewish settlements in the city were revivified by Sephardic refugees. By far, the greatest concentration of Sephardic Jewish life and culture in Europe soon after the Spanish expulsion was in the city of Salonica in Greece (then part of Ottoman Turkish suzerainty).

For hundreds of years, Jewish culture in the Balkans emanated from the Sephardic cultural center of Salonica. On the eve of World War 11, Salonica, with its 60,000 Jews, its printing presses and newspapers, its schools and scholars, its craftsmen and merchants, was the greatest Sephardic Jewish center in Europe. This premier place of Salonica had been established in the early sixteenth century, as waves of refugees settled there and dynasties of great rabbinic scholars and personalities issued legal decrees from its academies. While to the outside world these refugees were simply "Sephardim," internally they were divided by geographic origin, their synagogues bearing the names of Saragossa, Barcelona, Gerona, Gerush Portugal, Castille, Aragon, and a score of other Iberian place names. Each of the separate congregations boasted its own nexus of self-help institutions, such as alms chests, burial societies, sick care, and chests for orphans and widows. In addition, each congregation took pride in its academy of learning. Sixteenth-century Salonica was a center of learning of the Talmud that attracted students from abroad, its luminaries including such Jewish personalities as Solomon Alkabez and Samuel da Medina. It was also famed as a center of Jewish mysticism and provided instruction to Jews in medicine, natural sciences, liturgical poetry, and song. Although the city was weakened by successive plagues and conflagrations in the seventeenth century, its Jewish population still comprised half the population of the town throughout this period.

Salonican Jews were severely traumatized by the false messianic movement of Shabbetai Zevi in the seventeenth century, particularly as the impostor had preached in the city and had a strong personal following there. After Zevi's conversion to Islam and death, 300 Jewish families in the city converted to Islam, severely weakening the unity of the Salonican Jews. In general, the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire began to decline as the empire grew more anarchic.

The spread of European influence and consular protection of Jews in the Balkans ushered in a new era for Sephardic Jews. The nineteenth century witnessed many signs of Westernization among the Jews, the introduction of secular subjects in the newly founded schools of the French Alliance Israelite Universelle, and a quickening of Jewish political life, as Zionism captured the imagination of Sephardic Jews in Greece, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. So vital was the Jewish community to the economy of the city of Salonica that the whole town and its port were closed on the Sabbath at the beginning of the twentieth century. (It is interesting to note that fishermen, sailors, and stevedores of Salonica played a conspicuous role in the development of maritime life in Haifa and Tel Aviv in the 1920s and 1930s, encouraged to emigrate by Palestinian leaders Yitzhak Ben Zvi and Abba Khoushi.)

Sephardic Jews had not labored under the same restrictive economic system as their Ashkenazic coreligionists. While they distinguished themselves in commerce, utilizing their widely dispersed family connections to their commercial advantage, the Sephardim were an economically variegated community in Europe, equally distributed among rich and poor, modest blacksmiths and bankers or textile magnates. They were not housed in ghettos, but rather shared in the modernization and incipient industrialization of their states.

The cultural and communal life of Sephardic Jews, up until, the eve of the Nazi onslaught, was richly textured and colorful. Despite differences among them, the Sephardim of the Balkan nations shared an underlying cultural unity. A lively Ladino and Hebrew press could be found in Sephardic lands, frequently tracing its origins back to the great Sephardic printing houses of Lisbon via Italy. Romances or ballads conveying vibrant, lyrical, and frequently courtly and sensual Iberian traditions could be heard at family and communal gatherings in Rhodes or Greece, Sarajevo or Sofia. Music and poetry were staples of community life.

Religious institutions and edifices were sources of pride I n the Jewish communities. New and majestic synagogues dotted the communities, such as the great Sephardic synagogue built in Sarajevo in the late 1920s, and benevolent societies flourished. Zionist politics added lively debates to community discussions. The Sephardim of Sarajevo could even boast of a Jewish Workers' Union and a Jewish choir (Lyra Sociedad de Cantar de los JudiosEspanoles). The great cemetery of Salonica's half-million graves was a living archeological treasure house of Jewish history in the area. This cemetery was desecrated and destroyed by the Nazis in the general pillaging of all the Jewish historical and cultural treasures of the city.

How does the historian measure the cultural and human loss when a community is wiped out? How does one comprehend the measure of destruction of communities that date their beginnings back to approximately 140 B.C.E.,(Before the Common Era; equals B.C.) as was the case in Salonica? In the mosaic of Jewish communities, the dazzling jewels of the Sephardic Jews added a special luster to the whole. All that remains today are the oral traditions and ballads laboriously collected by anthropologists and folklorists among emigres in Israel, Paris, and New York as literary testimony of the fidelity of Sephardic Jews to then- Spanish heritage and Jewish patrimony.

For Further Reading

Angel, Marc D. The Jews of Rhodes. New York: Sepher-Hermon Press, 1978.

Benardete, Mair. Hispanic Culture and Character of the

Sephardic Jews. New York: Sepher-Hermon Press, 1952, 1982.

Molho, Michael. Usos y Costumbres de los Sefardies de Salonica.

Madrid: Conejo Superior de Investigaciones Scientificas, Instituto Arias Monto, 1950.

Rosanes, Solomon. Korot ha-Yehudim be-Turkiyah ve-Artsot

Ha-Kedem. 6 vols. Tel Aviv: Sofia, 1930, 1948.

Tamir, Vicki. Bulgaria and Her Jews: The History of a Dubious

Symbiosis. New York: Sepher-Hermon Press, 1979.

And Under Every Roof They Would Sing

I cannot presume to speak for a civilization I know only secondhand through books and brief encounters. My time is discontinuous with theirs. Like the events recorded in the Scriptures forever closed in the biblical canon, to be opened only with the rote repetition of the story as aided by the standard interpretive guides I/we live outside the time scheme of 1939, minus all the years that came before, and most certainly outside 1939 and the six years that came after. Only through the study of its texts, or through attuning one's ears to its echoes, can the barrier of time be broken, revealing that part of ourselves which is lost forever.

A poet named Mani Leib anticipated our dilemma. He was from Nyezhin, the Ukraine, originally, but lived in New York most of his life. This is the sonnet he wrote sometime in his later years as he strained his fine- tuned ears for that echo.

There they were many, 0 God, so many
Such vital ones and unafraid,
Such noble ones, with beard and braid-
And talking in a marvelous strange way.
Zey zenen dort, oy, Got, geven a sakh, a sakh,
Azelkhe lebedike un azelkhe brave, 
Azelkhe shtaltne, berdike un kutsherave 
Un mit a vunderlekher oysterlisher shprakh.

Their strength, they thought, lay in numbers. They always felt safer in towns and cities, crowded into the central business districts, in walking distance of each other. Village Jews, who lived among the peasants, came to town for the major festivals or during the periodic expulsions. Later, when the centers were no longer safe, when the towns were left empty on account of the trains, and poverty seeped through every crack of every home-such poverty that even statistics and the most compassionate reporting cannot begin to convey when every Jew who could (and many peasants, too) sought every possible means of escape-to America, Palestine, the bigger cities, to the West, to social revolution-then, even then, the vast majority sought out groups of the like-minded, and these groups eventually grew into movements.

Once organized, there was no stopping them. Indeed, the Jewish Labor Bund of Russia and Poland was the first Socialist movement In eastern Europe with a real constituency. Zionists of every persuasion mobilized the scant financial resources and the vast reservoir of talent to make that impossible dream come true; there were those who fought for civil liberties and Cultural autonomy on the spot, regardless of economic policy.

Every traveler from the West was struck by the sheer number of Jews that could be seen in the streets of the Eastern cities. Under closer inspection, the traveler might observe the vast network of interlocking agencies that kept the Jews going even against incredible odds-the religious and educational network of synagogues; study houses; Hasidic shtiblekh (houses of prayer); adult study groups; private and community- supported elementary schools and yeshivot (talmudic acadmies), which later competed with secular Jewish schools where Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, or Polish was the language of instruction; social and charitable services offering free loans, dowries for poor brides, hospitalization, visitation of the sick and burial; and the organization of Jewish trades into professional guilds that later evolved into effective unions. And if this traveler returned after World War 1, he would also find Jewish libraries; theater groups; clubhouses; soccer teams; orchestras; and a dizzying array of political parties covering the entire spectrum-from the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel to communism.

Much of this activity was conducted in Yiddish, the language created by Ashkenazic Jews in their millennial history. Yiddish was, itself, a fusion of past and present, with a Hebrew-Aramaic base, and a repository of tradition, melding first with Germanic and then Slavic cultures. It was through Yiddish that Hebrew stayed alive, for Jewish vernaculars were always the vehicle for preserving and translating the classical heritage; it was the proximity of Yiddish to German that helped the teachings of the Enlightenment spread in eastern Europe; and it was in that a new and modern idiom evolved for the writing of fiction, poetry, and scholarship; manifestos, editorials, and cookbooks. Above all, it was the language of the folk.

And Linder every roof they would sing-
With Torah chant and Scripture cymbals-
Such rare songs, proud and boastful:
Of the golden peacock and Elimelekh the king.

Un zingen flegn zey fun unter yedn dakh
Azelkhe hoferdike lider un tshikave:
Fun meylekh Elimeylekh un der sheyner Pave,
Mit mayver-sedre-trop un tsimblen fun tanakh.

The folk tradition was exceedingly rich, drawing freely and unselfconsciously from the Torah-not as the dead letter of the law, but as a living lesson, chanted each week and proclaimed anew each season; the Torah-as reinterpreted and revitalized by Hasidism, the greatest mass movement Judaism had produced in 1,700 years. With Torah as its foundation, there was nothing the folk could not assimilate: peasant proverbs and shepherds' tunes; marching songs and satires on the rabbis; expressions of erotic love and appreciations of nature. The modern poets, like Mani Leib, tried to forge a new language, using folksong as their source of inspiration, and hailed the Golden Peacock, di goldene pave, as the mascot of their trade. And all this flowed right back to the source, so that when Moyshe Nadir, who frequented the same writers' cafe on Second Avenue as Mani Leib, recast "Ol' King Cole" into the "Rebbe Elimelekh," the folk accepted the song as authentic in every way! Between Hasidic ecstasy and mournful love laments, they sang of work ("This is how a tailor stitches, this is how he sews and sews, making other people's britches"); of play ("Have you seen my honey bears, honey bears, sitting up on wooden chairs?"); of childhood ("Afn pripetshik brent a fayerl"); of marriage ("I will dance with you, my dear, and you will dance with me. You can have the son-in-law, the daughter-in-law's for me!"); of protest ("Brothers and sisters, let's do it together. Let's bury Tsar Nicky along with his mother!"); and of warning ("Fire, brothers, fire! Our poor town is on fire!").

Modernity erupted in eastern Europe with explosive force, but the experience of modernity was channeled back into the popular culture, competing with and complementing the older forms of expression. Hasidim and market women rubbed shoulders with pickpockets and union organizers. Two women set out for Warsaw from the same town: one to get an abortion and the other to ask the Wonder Rabbi to bless her womb with male progeny. Anyone who has read a Yiddish family saga (The Brothers Ashkenazi; The Family Moscat; Zelmenyaner) remembers how radically the generation of the fathers was challenged by the sons. The grandchildren were already on their way back, to complete the cycle. 

But above their heads only the sun and its stare
Saw the raw fury, the killer's cold blade,
How with wild force it descended,
And what massacres were there.
Now they are but a trace of that fury:
An axed forest, a couple of trees.

Nor iber zeyer kop-di zun hot nor gezen
Di roye gvald, dem kaltn meser baym rotseyekh,
Vi er iz iber zey arop, mit vildn koyekh,

Un sara merderay iz dort geven!
Itst zenen zey a zeykher nokh fun yener gvald:
A tsvey-dray beymer fun an oysgehaktn vald.

Those who were left were but a trace, not of the marvelous multitudes, but of the raw fury that descended upon them. There is no forest for lack of trees. So it is up to the rest of us to carry the echo and transform it back into song.

For Further Reading

Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967. 

Dobroszycki, Lucjan, and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. Image Before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864- 1939. New York: Schocken Books, 1977.

Howe, Irving, and Greenberg, Eliezer, eds. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories. New York: Schocken Books, 1973.

---.A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry. New York: Schocken Books, 1976.

Mlotek, Eleanor Gordon. Mir trogn a gezang. The New Book of Yiddish Songs. New York: The Workmen's Circle Education Department, 1977.

Roskies, Diane K., and Roskies, David G. The Shtetl Book: An Introduction to East European Life and Lore. New York: Ktav, 1979.

 Impressions of Religious Life of the Shtetl Before World War II


The following essay provides a succinct description of several aspects of religious life in eastern Europe, in the vanished world before the Second World War. I have limited the geographical areas to the shtetlakh (small towns) in Lithuania, Poland, and the ethnic White Russian provinces of northeastern Poland, which are representative of all eastern European Jews. The Jewish population of these provinces was approximately four million.

The Family
Jewish family life eastern Europe followed a traditional patriarchal structure. The home was seen as the woman's castle, and she was called akeret habayit (the lady of the house). The training of the young-boys and girls-was entrusted to the mother. Wives were respected and appreciated. Husbands followed traditional injunctions to "love their wives as themselves, honor them more than themselves, guide their sons and daughters in the ways of the upright, and marry off their daughters at an early age."1 Halakhah (Jewish religious law), enforcing principles of modesty and sexual purity, restricted the role of women in the synagogue and in education, and denied them positions of religious and communal leadership.

The value of education was highly emphasized, even in lullabies. A popular Yiddish lullaby proclaimed: "Toyre iz di beste skhoyre" ("Torah [the Law] is the best commodity"). Daily observances of such mitzvot (religious commandments) as prayer and blessings were practiced at a young age. Some parents taught Hebrew reading to pre schoolers so that they could pray from the siddur (prayer book). Children were also taught politeness, respect for elders, and responsibility. Learning and piety were highly valued.

Children were not pampered. They had to perform such daily chores as pumping and carrying water from the well, assisting with shopping, and supervising younger siblings. Toys were scarce; recreation and games were few. Children learned self-sufficiency and responsibility early in life.

For the family, the Sabbath (day of rest) was a blessed day. The father worked hard six days a week. He put in long hours whether he was a wagon-driver, shoemaker, tailor, blacksmith, watchmaker, or a small businessman. Unions, already active in the cities, were barely known in smaller shtetlakh. An eight-hour workday was not the norm. It was, therefore, natural that every member of the family looked forward to their only day of rest-Shabes (Yiddish for Sabbath). They longed for the physical rest, the special meals, the singing of zemirot (Sabbath songs) during each meal, and, of course, the sanctity of the Seventh Day.

Preparing for Shabes required planning and hard work. There were no canned, frozen, packaged, or convenience foods; every housewife had to bake the hallah (the traditionally braided white bread loaves) and cook the gefilte fish and the rest of the Shabes menu.

Boys helped by shopping. Equipped with homemade shopping bags, they were dispatched to the general store to pick up flour, salt, sugar and spices, candles, and other required items. While one of the sons went to the grocery, another took a live chicken or two (depending on the family's income) to the shohet (ritual slaughterer). After plucking the feathers by hand, the mother would open the fowl and soak it in water and then salt it to draw out the blood (Jews are prohibited from consuming blood). Occasionally, a question would develop about whether the chicken was really kosher (ritually fit). If something about the fowl looked abnormal or unusual (a broken leg, a missing organ, or a needle inside of the chicken), one of the children would be summoned to take the chicken to the rabbi. The rabbi would examine the bird carefully and render his decision. When the rabbi pronounced "kosher," the child would run home bringing the good news. If the verdict was unfavorable, the child would walk into tire house with a sad face. The otherwise perfectly edible bird then had to be sold to a non-Jew for a fraction of its cost.

Preparing for Shabes-cleaning the house, getting washed (in the public bath house), and putting on one's best clothes -involved everyone. Some of the poorest families had dirt floors in their home. They prepared for the Shabes by sprinkling yellow sand on the floor to beautify the house. Older boys would help their father chop firewood. Often, especially in winter, the wood was wet and their mother had a hard time lighting a fire in the big Russian oven in which she cooked and baked. Girls would help cook, wash dishes, and do the laundry.

Just before lighting the Sabbath candles on Friday night, the mother would drop a few coins in the pushke (Yiddish for charity box) as she ushered in the Sabbath Queen (tradition has compared the Sabbath to a Queen). There was an expression of peace on her face. The children watched her with reverence. Standing by the table with her hands covering her eyes, she pronounced the blessing over the candles and whispered her private prayer. Mother wished her family "gut Shabes" (Yiddish for "good Sabbath"), and everybody joyously responded, "gut Shabes!" Often the older children thought that their mother was a tsadeykes (Yiddish for righteous woman); when she lit the Shabes candles, it would seem that the Divine Presence entered their home.

The father, dressed in his Shabes clothes, would go to shul (Yiddish for synagogue). The shul had also taken on a special appearance. The davenen (Yiddish for prayer) recited with the special Shabes chants was pleasant and relaxed. Almost every Friday night there were a number of itinerant beggars in the shu 1. T he shammash (beadle) would assign them to families for the three Shabes meals. No matter how much food the family had prepared, no fellow Jew would be deprived of a Shabes meal.

During the Sabbath meals, the father often discussed with the children their studies during the week. The weekly chapter to be read in the shul was another regular topic for discussion.

During the Shabes day there was time for a shpatsir (Yiddish for a stroll) through the shtetl and the fields. Families visited relatives and friends and children played games. But, there was also some serious business. Schoolchildren faced the weekly farher (Yiddish for examination) by fathers and grandfathers in the presence of the child's rebbe (teacher). The boy who knew his subjects well would receive an approving knip (Yiddish for pinch) of the check, as well as candy and compliments.

After everyone had rested, the grandmother would read the Tsenerene (a Yiddish language anthology on the Torah) as the young gathered around her, enjoying the fascinating stories. This would add to the Oneg Shabbat (enjoyment of the Sabbath) of the reader and her predominantly female audience.

As the Sabbath drew to a close the following evening, when the stars were visible, grandmothers and mothers would recite the Yiddish folk prayer Got fun Avrom... (God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Their subdued voices added to the sadness which descended on the house darkened by approaching night. The father returned from shul and recited the Havdalah (farewell to the Sabbath). Many people, particularly the Hasidim, wishing to delay the Sabbath Queen's departure, would gather for a melavveh malka (a Saturday night festive meal) to accompany her with songs storytelling, and cheerful comradeship. Life in the shtetl on weekdays was often drab and monotonous. Religious parents did not allow their children to join secular youth groups. Religious youth organizations had not reached every shtetl and there was little opportunity for diversion and entertainment for either the young or adults. Children were busy. Long school days, homework, and household chores left little time for boredom. Besides the Shabes, family events (weddings, etc.) and holidays provided occasional excitement. Major holidays required weeks of preparation and generated anticipation and enthusiasm.

Even a minor holiday as Tu Bi-Shevat (Jewish Arbor Day) would stimulate the children. On a cold winter night, with snow blanketing everything, a knock at the door interrupted everyone's activity. Two boys, representing a Zionist youth group, brought a present from the Holy Land, a small bag filled with dry fruit. The father gave the boys a coin and thanked them. Once a year the family had a chance to eat fruit from Erez Israel (Land of Israel) and pronounce the special blessing of She- Heheyanu (traditionally recited when partaking of a new crop of fruit). Most intriguing were the carobs, hard fruits fit only for young teeth. Eating fruit from the Holy Land evoked nostalgia and yearning. It was a bittersweet experience. The family enjoyed the tangible evidence of the remote and inaccessible Promised Land, where they were unable to go.

Families produced law-abiding citizens. juvenile deliquency was almost nonexistent. Drunkenness, murder, and rape were unheard of. The incidence of divorce, although legally permitted, was low. There were thieves, cheats, and quarrelsome people, but those individuals were a small minority.

Yihus (lineage) played a major role in community life. If a family was headed by a noted scholar, or had a grandfather who was a distinguished talmudist, it was a source of pride for the entire family. Such a family was respected and would receive lucrative marriage proposals. On the other hand, the people of the shtetl looked down on "ordinary" families (the tailors, shoemakers, wagon-drivers, etc.). The only way a son of a humble family could marry into a distinguished or wealthy family was if he enjoyed a reputation as a brilliant talmudic student. A daughter of a working class family could marry into a family with yihus or wealth if her father became rich and she had a good reputation. This class system must have imitated the caste and class structure of their Christian milieu, since in talmudic times, no shame was attached to menial work. Many sages of the Talmud were woodcutters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, and farm hands.

Families stayed together-even if husband and wife did not get along- because of the influence of the extended family. Most families lived in the same shtetl for generations with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives close by. A couple would receive solicited and unsolicited advice on many topics involving their marriage. The opinions of the extended family could not be easily ignored, for that might mean a loss of moral and financial support.

The mutual help available within the extended family was often substantial. For example, the extended family of a bride prepared weddings, including all cooking and baking. In times of illness or bereavement, the larger mishpokhe (Yiddish for family) provided counsel, comfort, and assistance.

Historically, education has had a high priority in Jewish life. In keeping with the commandment "and you shall teach them [the words of Torah] diligently to your children,"2 fathers were obligated to provide their sons instruction in Torah and Talmud. Mothers trained their daughters informally at home. Until recent times the schools were male-oriented. Girls did not attend religious schools. Many received a formal Jewish education from their parents or private teachers. Throughout history there were some notable women prophetesses, scholars, and leaders, but they were few in number.

This situation underwent a major change in the early twentieth century. Modernization, industrialization, and acculturation led to the loss of religious and family influence. The proliferation of newspapers, magazines, paperbacks, and radios contributed to the family's loss of influence. Although religious schools predominated in the provinces of Poland, Lithuania, and White Russia (excluding territory controlled by the Soviet Union after 1917), secular and antireligious movements and schools began challenging the traditional family. Formal religious education offered some protection against secular or demoralizing influences on boys, but the girls were not prepared to cope with new conditions. At the same time, the state required compulsory education, which exposed sheltered young girls to the alien environment of a non-Jewish public school. Thus, when an enterprising and inspiring educator, Sara Schenirer, organized in 1917 the first Beth Jacob school for girls in Cracow, the leading rabbis of that time approved and encouraged the establishment of such gender-segregated schools.3 The Beth Jacob schools were an answer to this new situation. Jewish girls from observant homes were now provided with an intensely traditional and religious environment where they could study Jewish and secular Subjects.

The changes wrought by increasing urbanization and subsequent modernization also affected boys' schools. Prior to World War 1, when the provinces of Poland, Lithuania, and White Russia were ruled by the czarist empire, the old-style heder prevailed. In this elementary school, no formal secular studies were offered. Competing modern schools were organized by maskilim (secular, "enlightened" Jews) with the encouragement of the authorities, but they were not accepted by the majority of the rural Jewish populace. Compulsory public school attendance after World Way I and the growth of Socialist and Zionist secular Jewish schools, providing a general secular education, led to the decline of the heder. The Orthodox community responded by establishing modern day schools, where intensive Torah studies were pursued alongside general studies.4 These new elementary day schools, named Horev, became the largest Jewish school system. The language of instruction was Yiddish and the emphasis was on Talmud. Teachers were trained at newly opened pedagogical institutions in Grodno and Warsaw. Simultaneously, yeshivot (talmudic academies) on a high-school and college level continued with Torah studies without a secular curriculum.5

The elementary schools were under the auspices of the World Agudath Israel Organization (non-Zionist Orthodox). The Mizrachi (the religious Zionist organization) opened a network of elementary and secondary day schools called Yavneh. In some cities, the lower grades, one through four, were coeducational, but were segregated after the fifth grade. In many schools, the language of instruction was Hebrew, even for arithmetic and science. These schools stressed the importance of living in Erez Israel. Bible and Talmud were studied, although Talmud study was generally less intensive than in the Horev schools. The Yavneh network included a teacher- training seminar and developed into a large educational system.6

These developments occurred in the ethnic Polish-White Russian-LI thuan Ian areas. In Lithuania, which became a sovereign nation after World War 1, the battle between Jewish secularists and religious Orthodox was similar to that in Poland, albeit with less ideological strife. The Yavneh schools were sponsored by all the Orthodox movements, although some independent Agudath Israel type schools were established in Telz and Kelm (Kelme). For a short period, the Jews of Lithuania had a large measure of autonomy and operated their own educational system. Only 10 percent of Jewish children attended public schools; the remaining 90 percent remained in elementary and secondary Jewish schools. The quality of education was very high.

The Yeshivah
Technically, a yeshivah is a talmudic academy, a school of higher learning. A yeshivah is not, however, a professional school for the training of rabbis or other religious functionaries (although anyone who wishes to be a rabbi must study in a yeshivah). A yeshivah does not have graduation ceremonies, for one never completes studying Torah. There are no written examinations, although informal and indirect oral questions are used. There are no required courses, term papers, or dissertations. The Lithuanian and Polish yeshivot had neither formal registration nor tuition fees. Most students were poor, and the yeshivah provided them with study stipends.7

The scope, intricacy, and complicated language rendered the study of Talmud a formidable undertaking, requiring a master and the dialectics of associates. Without a yeshivah, headed by a venerable rosh yeshivah (dean), it would have been impossible to transmit the essence of Judaism's teachings from generation to generation.

Yeshivot existed in the communities of the Diaspora for many centuries. Whether in Babylonia, North Africa, Spain, France, Germany, Lithuania, Russia, Poland, Hungary, or America, all studied the same subject-Talmud. No matter what language the students spoke, and regardless of local customs and mores, the text remained the same.

In Europe, prior to the nineteenth century, each Jewish community had many students of the Talmud in local synagogues, where the rabbi or other local scholars could be consulted. Many famous rabbis would secure pledges from the community to set up and support yeshivot. The rabbi would serve in the dual capacity of spiritual leader and rosh yeshivah.

Around 1800, the local yeshivah was gradually replaced by larger, universal types of yeshivot. In the years from 1803 to 1807, two famous yeshivot were created. One academy in Volozhin, White Russia, was founded by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the chief disciple of the Vilna Gaon. The second school was established in Pressburg, Hungary (Slovakia) and was headed by Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the illustrious "Hatam Sofer."8

In each yeshivah, the rosh yeshivah established its philosophy and curriculum priorities. Each yeshivah had its own style of instruction. Some stressed the analytical approach, with the student concentrating on the text; others emphasized the dialectic method, in which the student explored wide-ranging topics, seeking analogies, distinctions, contradictions, and underlying general principles. The rosh yeshivah's regularly scheduled lectures sparked student eflections and further research. Students were expected to adhere to a rigorous schedule of study lasting from early morning to late night. Moreover, they were expected to discuss with the rosh yeshivah their ideas, insights, and questions.

In the Lithuanian yeshivot, which came under the influence of Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin-Salanter (1810-1833) and his disciples, the curriculum also included the study of musar. Musar, the Hebrew word for ethics, is a comprehensive term with a complex etymological structure. It is related to several roots and has a number of meanings and connotations. Musar refers to chastisement, reproof, admonition, exhortation, instruction, prohibition, transmission, discipline, politeness, and proper conduct.9

The religious ethic espoused by musar, especially as developed by Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin -Salanter,10 was an all-embracing morality which recognized no distinction between moral law and statutory law. Morality and law were one.

Salanter developed the theory that the inconsistency between knowledge and belief, on the one hand, and conduct on the other, was caused, in part at least, by the formal study of ethics as if it were mere subject matter. To make ethics a decisive factor in human affairs, Salanter introduced a system of studying musar with ecstasy and employing unique methods of self-analysis and group analysis.

Salanter believed that his system of studying ethics, designed to involve the learner's emotion and hence evoke his commitment, would lead men to acquire actual beliefs. He maintained that the study of ethics as if it were cognitive knowledge at best resulted in professed beliefs. According to Salanter, only actual beliefs have a direct bearing on behavior.

The behavioral standards which musar maintained were indeed high. The numerous laws of the Torah governing human relations were apparently deemed insufficient, for there was an overriding moral requirement to go beyond the point of the Law.11 The Musar Movement understood that the purpose of this injunction was to prevent people from following the letter of the Law while violating its spirit. Ethical behavior, then, was the constant and active striving to do more than was required; to seek to avoid any harm to others (especially that which may, through a loophole, be permitted); and to be willing to forego that which was rightfully one's own for the sake of helping others who are in need or distress. Ethical behavior meant also politeness of speech, proper manners, and the peaceful settlement of differences. But all of these had to be more than conventional mannerism; they had to flow from a sincere and abiding inner commitment to the worth of the individual and the equality of men. This sort of meaningful ethical behavior was expected of all students of the musar yeshivot.

The Musar Movement saw an element of vagueness permeating moral laws and moral situations, leaving many people confused as to the proper course of action in a given situation. Each human trait or inclination applied to an infinite number of situations, and each situation could be assessed and approached in many ways. In deciding what was moral and what was not in particular situations, each man had to be his own judge. Salanter was convinced that without full knowledge of and commitment to musar, one was incapable of rendering fair ethical decisions.

Underlying Salanter's theory of musar was an optimistic assertion that human nature can be improved. But, due to the complexity of human nature and the various environmental pressures and temptations, man must make musar a lifelong pursuit.

The study of musar was "bitter in the beginning but sweet in the end." The student of ethics sought first to relinquish frivolity and light- headedness and acquire sobriety and reverence. Only after a prolonged period of "bitterness" did he contemplate reaching the advanced "sweet" state of contentment and serenity epitomized by self-fulfillment.

In the yeshivot which espoused musar, students were expected to be critical of themselves. Disciples often kept a daily record of their achievements and failures, so that both the positive and negative elements in their behavior could be noticed and scrutinized. Recognizing that one's subjective judgment may weaken or impair self-analysis, the Musar Movement devised new methods of group analysis. Small groups of like- minded students would meet and evaluate the conduct of each member. No one escaped the group's evaluation, and each individual was under obligation to accept its recommendations for improvement.

The Musar Movement maintained that the group would be more objective than the individual could ever be regarding himself. Students were advised to exercise patience and to disregard pride when their behavior was discussed by the group. Members were also urged to take sufficient time for deliberation; not to mock anyone; and to consider the whole individual, his failures as well as his achievements.

The musar master,who, serving as mashgi'ah (musar mentor), would deliver lectures on ethics and theology and act as a mentor to the students, absented himself from the meetings, so that freedom of expression might be assured and the individual's rights and dignity safeguarded. There were no secret sessions, and the individual whose conduct was under discussion was on hand to clarify his position. Quite often the individual himself would present his "case" for discussion.

Musar was studied with ecstasy, "stirring the soul to seek selfimprovement."12 Ecstasy was engendered by reading aloud, and by projecting in one's mind the actual extent of the moral obligation he was studying as it pertained to his life. Asserting that the constancy of an emotionally charged study of musar would result in consistency of ethical conduct, regular periods for learning ethics were set aside daily.

The rosh yeshivah's relationship with his students, in both musar and non-musar yeshivot, was also that of a mentor and guide.

Students respected and revered him, and would also consult him on personal matters. The general community also respected the rosh yeshivah. It was not enough that he was a man of great intellect, or a gaon (genius); he also had to be a zaddik (righteous one).

The yeshivah was the medium for the transmission of the rabbinic tradition from generation to generation. To this end, the curriculum consisted of Talmud and cognate studies; not history, language, literature, or other secular subjects. The yeshivah asserted that the transmission of this sacred heritage could only be accomplished through total commitment to Torah study and the interaction between masters and disciples, who sought no personal or material gain, but rather the perfection of their minds and personalities. The yeshivah refused to integrate sacred and secular studies for two reasons. First, the study of the complex talmudic subjects must command the student's full attention. Success in Talmud study could only be achieved through total immersion. Second, secular culture was unacceptable to the talmudists, who predicted the moral decay of Western civilization and the bankruptcy of secularism. The roshei yeshivah (deans) were not opposed to natural sciences,13 but to the humanities.

The shul was the community center, study hall, house of worship, and a place to gather; it was home. Davenen (prayer) in eastern European synagogues would often elicit a krekhts (Yiddish for sigh), tears, ecstasy, and kavvanah (concentration) and would be accompanied by shoklen (Yiddish for swaying to and fro). Two characteristics resulted in an emotional style of prayer.

First, life in the shtetl had many difficulties. The standard of living was low and the environment was hostile. When people came to shul they sought relief and reassurance and found them in the siddur (prayer book). Davenen was thus an intensive emotional and therapeutic experience.

Second, an important factor which influenced eastern European worship and made prayer a regular daily activity was the homogeneous and organic Jewish lifestyle. Yidishkayt (Yiddish for Judaism) was a total experience. In larger cities, limited acculturation and assimilation existed, but the shtetl Jews were generally unassimilated. Although they spoke the vernacular, the rich and colorful Yiddish language constituted a mehizah (a separation) between the Jew and the Gentile; except for economic and governmental interaction, there was little or no social contact between them. It was, therefore, natural for people who lived a total religious life to consider the synagogue as their spiritual center.

The close ties between the shtetl Jews and their acute sensitivity to the problems of the Jewish people as a whole created a sense of community. Thus, they would come to shul to say tehillim (psalms) and shed a tear for any Jewish community, near or far, which had suffered from a pogrom or other calamity.

Besides prayer, the shul was used for other purposes. Funerals would originate in the courtyard of the shul, where the hesped (eulogy) was delivered by the rabbi. If the deceased was a talmid hakham (a scholar), the coffin would be taken into the shul. Customarily, the hesped did not concentrate on the virtues of the deceased. Most of the remarks were directed to evoking teshuvah (repentance) and the strengthening of the faith, the vanity of life, and the meaning of death.

The shul was also a place for regular and emergency communal meetings. Holiday celebrations, weddings, circumcisions, and the like, were also arranged in the shul. Individuals who faced personal crises would also turn to the shul. A mother whose child was critically ill would run into the shul shrieking that her baby was dying. She would open the Aron Kodesh (the Holy Ark), embrace the Sifrai Torah (scrolls of the Law), and beg for a ness (miracle).

A person who felt that he was denied justice would "stop the reading of the Torah" on the Sabbath. The man or woman would embrace the Sefer Torah (scroll of Law) as it was taken out of the ark, crying out for Justice. No one would dare to use force against a fellow Jew holding a Sefer Torah in shul and demanding justice. Calling the police was unthinkable. Only after the leaders of the local kehilla (the official organized Jewish community) would promise to take action could peace be restored.

Occasionally, a well-known hazzan (cantor) was invited to a shtetl. He would conduct part of the Shabes morning service, in addition to giving a concert in the shul on a weekday. The concert featured religious selections from the siddur and other sacred texts.

When the hazzan led popular prayer songs, such as "Sheyl'boneh Beit Hamzkdosh" ("May the Temple Be Rebuilt"), the audience joined in with gusto, as in community folk "songs".

Another diversion was the appearance of the maggid (itinerant preacher), who came to the shtetl once a year to preach in the shul. There were many maggidim. Some spoke on Saturday afternoons or on weekday evenings. Most maggidim were popular. Their stories and exhortations served a double purpose-instruction and entertainment. The more accomplished maggid spoke eloquently.

The maggid not only preached and entertained, but he also informed. Because he traveled from place to place, the maggid often disseminated news about outside events in the Jewish world. Whereas the hazzan was engaged in advance by the community for an agreed sum of money and, therefore, admission to his concert was by ticket only, the maggid arrived uninvited and admission was free. He passed a collection plate after his talk.

The shul was also used for Torah study. Seated at long tables, lit by candlelight (electricity had not yet reached most shtetlakh), informal groups of men of various ages would spend an hour or two learning. In shul, there was a Hevra Shas (a group studying Talmud), studying a Gemara, or talmudic text of their choice; a Hevra Mishnayot (a group learning Mishnah, or talmudic text); a Hevra Humash (a group engaged in the study of the Pentateuch); a Hevra Hayei Odom (a group studying Jewish laws); and a Hevra Tehillim (a group reciting psalms). When a siyyum (conclusion of study) of a text was celebrated by a group, they organized joyous festivities, much like Simhat Torah (the holiday marking the end of the annual cycle of synagogal reading of the Torah).

The Rabbinate
The eastern European rabbinate was divided into a number of different categories. The local rabbinate consisted of three distinct groups. First, there was the elected spiritual leader of the town. In some instances, his jurisdictional area included several smaller neighboring villages that could not afford to support their own rabbi. The elections of the rav (rabbi), ordinarily conducted by the kehilla, were free and democratic. In larger shtetlakh, the rabbi had two or more associates known as dayyanim (judges), who served on the bet din (rabbinical court). A dayyan would rule on shayles (Yiddish for queries), questions regarding kashrut (dietary laws), and other religious matters. The rabbi of the community was the av bet din (presiding judge) and official spiritual head of the shtetl. In Hasidic communities, especially in Poland, there was the rebbe. He was neither an official rabbi nor a dayyan. He was selected, rather than elected. Whether he was a scion of a distinguished dynasty of rebbeyim or a charismatic leader, the rebbe was the spiritual leader of his Hasidim. As a rule, the rebbe did not share in the official functions of the local rabbinate. However, as a prominent spiritual guide of many Jews, he would be invited to regional or national rabbinical conferences. A few of the well-known Polish Hasidic leaders were the rebbey1m of Ger, Belz, Sanz, Novominsk, and Tchortkov. The Lubavitch group was especially prominent in White Russia.

In addition, there was a less formal rabbinate. In some Lithuanian and White Russian communities, there were saintly individuals known either as a zaddik (a righteous one) or a "guter yid" (a good Jew). The local populace revered their zaddik and told wonder tales about him, considering him a miracle maker.14 People would travel to see this zaddik for a brokhe (a blessing) in times of distress. In some instances the official rabbi himself would send people to the zaddik for his blessings and prayers. Some of these zaddikim had shunned publicity and spent most of their lives in private Torah study, davenen, fasting, and in ascetic practices. Others involved themselves in the affairs of the community. The hallmark of their communal service was gemilut hasadim (acts of kindness). A good example of such a zaddik is the legendary nineteenth-century sage Reb Nochurnke of Grodno. Reb Nochumke was reportedly referred to by Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin-Salanter as "the pillar of hesed" (kindness) of his generation. It is known that the Hafez Hayyim (a leading sage) traveled to Grodno to learn hesed and piety from Reb Nochumke.

Eastern European Jews looked towards a series of a manhigai hador (leaders of the generation) for inspiration and direction. They were often communal rabbis, such as the late Rabbi Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor of Kovno (1817-1896), Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski of Vilna (1863-1940), or Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin (1888-1934), who founded the well-known yeshivah in Lublin, served in the Polish Sejm (parliament), and conceived the idea of the Daf Yoml (daily page of the Talmud), studied to this day the world over. Quite often these men were neither communal rabbis nor dayyanim. Representative of such types were Rabbi Elija of Vilna (1720- 1797), known as the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin-Salanter (1810-1883), and Rabbi Yisroel Meir Ha-Cohen (1839-1933), universally known as the Hafez Hayyim, the title of his first book. These saintly "uncrowned" leaders served the Jewish people by convening regular and emergency meetings, 15 lecturing to large audiences, and guiding scholars. They were viewed as a court of last resort and were besieged by people in distress seeking advice and blessings.

Leadership of the Jewish community was not the sole province of the rabbi. He was engaged by the kehilla. Between the two world wars, the governments of Poland and Lithuania recognized the kehilla as a legal entity. The kehilla was empowered to levy taxes on the Jewish community. The kehilla tax was a head tax, collected from every Jewish resident, and also an income tax, where the rich paid more than the poor. An additional tax was added to the price of kosher meat. The kehilla leadership was elected democratically. It is noteworthy that representatives of Socialist and Zionist movements, who had a considerable following in the cities, served on the kehilla together with Mizrachi and Agudath-Israel councilmen. The kehilla council members elected the president of the community. The kehilla had jurisdiction over the religious institutions and activities. Thus, the shul, school, mikveh (ritual bath), slaughterhouse, the home for the aged, the orphanage, the guest house for poor transients, and philanthropic drives were controlled by the kehilla.16

The cemetery was also under the auspices of the kehilla. Funerals were arranged by a volunteer group called Hevra Kaddisha (burial society) without charge. Cemetery plots were provided to the poor without cost. Wealthy families were taxed so that there would be sufficient funds for the upkeep of the cemetery.

The kehilla was also charged with the responsibility of engaging a rabbi and paying his salary and those of other religious functionaries. Some shtetlakh had two rabbis, each accepted by his followers only. Disputes over rabbis, which often lasted for a long time, developed because of ideological differences, personal likes and dislikes, or the recurring question of hazakah (tenure).

The principle of hazakah was often a perennial source of dissension. It was generally accepted that a rabbinical position was held for life. When the rabbi died, his son, if qualified, traditionally had priority, or hazakah, over other candidates. At times there were those who wanted a new rabbi and a controversy would ensue.

The rabbi in a large kehilla was paid a relatively comfortable salary. This was not true of the rabbi of the small town, who received an inadequate salary. To supplement his income, the shtetl kehilla granted the rabbi some exclusive business concessions, which, usually, were managed by the rabbi's wife, the rebetsn. That monopoly generally included the sale of candles, yeast, or wine. To be sure, sales did not generate much money and the rabbi rarely was rich. It was assumed that a rabbi did not need material wealth.

The rabbi's functions were varied. Since the kehilla had to register births, weddings, divorces, and deaths, it was the rabbi who kept the official records. The rabbi supervised the shehitah (kosher slaughtering), the religious schools,17 the mikveh, the synagogues, and all other aspects of religious life. The adjudication of litigation in civil or marital matters, in conjunction with the dayyanim, was another important responsibility. The rabbi would also have to paskenen shayles (Yiddish-to rule on halakhic questions) with regard to kashrut, the synagogue, or other areas of religious life.

As spiritual leader of the community, the rabbi was expected to be both student and teacher. He had to be humble so that even widows, orphans, and the poor saw him as their protector and as the embodiment of Jewish justice and morality. The rabbi often made rounds on behalf of needy families. And, finally, the rabbi was the spokesman for the Jewish community to local government officials and visiting state dignitaries.

The communal rabbi's relationship with other rabbis was guided by traditional etiquette. Even a great rabbi, when visiting the shtetl, would pay a courtesy call on the local rabbi, as he was the mara de-atra (the local master). The communal rabbi, in turn, would afterwards visit the famous guest at his hotel to show his respect. The local rosh yeshivah, even if he was of greater stature, would acknowledge the authority of the communal rabbi. Thus, when a religious question would occur in his home, the rosh yeshivah would submit it to the rabbi for a decision. Similarly, the local rabbi maintained tactful relations with the rebbe and the zaddik.

The rabbi was not required to give weekly sermons on Shabes. He delivered two major addresses a year, one on Shabes Hagadol, before Passover, and the other on Shabes Teshuvah, before Yom Kippur. If the rabbis were not overly involved in public speaking, many of them spent considerable time writing Responsa (rulings on questions of religious law) and Hiddushei Torah (new insights in Torah interpretation). Over the centuries there developed a massive Responsa literature, known as she'elot u'teshuvot, which may be classified as applied halakhah. In their Responsa, rabbis applied old principles to new situations created by scientific or medical advances and changing social conditions. The Responsa literature addresses practical new problems generated by changing circumstances of life. Whereas the rosh yeshivah was the academician and theoretician, the local rabbi was the practitioner. On the other hand, the theoretical issues, the Hiddushel Torah, were written mostly by roshei yeshivah.

The rabbi, himself a product of a yeshivah, brought the richness of his knowledge to bear upon the life of the entire community. The yeshivah transmitted the Torah from generation to generation, and the practicing rabbi, by applying halakhah to actual life, brought the word of Sinai to the people.

Concluding Note
Nurtured by the warm and inspiring traditions of the family, and guided by the shul, school, yeshivah, and the rabbinate, the religious eastern European Jew developed an iron faith in Judaism and an intense pride and identity in being Jewish. Thoroughly pragmatic, he directed his life to the affairs of this world. At the same time, he yearned with all his being for the coming of the Messiah. The ultimate value of Judaism and its covenant were well understood and gladly accepted. These characteristics of the religious eastern European Jews were powerful weapons against assimilation and secularism and provided him with the inner strength to endure. To understand, therefore, the survival of the Jew, one must comprehend his religion.

New Jewish centers emerging in our time, although they seek to recapture the legacy of the vanished shtetlakh, will not be able to rebuild on the ruins of the Holocaust. Contemporary conditions and attitudes are generally antithetical to those of the shtetlakh so that a similar, rich Jewish life most likely will not be duplicated. The shtetlakh had warmth, beauty, a wholesome and sanctified life, the grandeur of eastern European scholarship, and much more. That which took a thousand years to build cannot be restored in a short time. Some aspects of shtetlakh yidishkayt will be reproduced, but not the great totality of eastern European Jewish life. The losses have not been replaced and the wounds have not yet healed. We pray to the One who heals the sick of Israel that He should soon in our days bring comfort to His people and eternal joy.



1. Yevamoth, p. 62 (Babylonian Talmud).

2. Deut. 6: 7.

3. Aaron Suraski, Toldot Ha-Hinukh Ha-Torati [Hebrew] (Bnai-Brak, Israel: Or Hahayim Publishers, 1967), pp. 427-431.

4. Miriam Eisenstein, Jewish Schools in Poland, 1919-1939 (New York: King's Crown Press, 1950), pp. 71-82.

5. Suraski, Toldot, pp. 54-76.

6. Tz'vi Scharfstein,Toldot Ha-Hlnukh B'Yisrael Badorot HoAharonim [Hebrew], vol. II (Jerusalem: Ruben Mass Publishers, 1960), pp. 131-160.

7. In the nineteenth century, poor yeshivah students had to rely on esn teg (literally, "eating days"), whereby the student would dine each day of the week with a different family for the duration of one semester. This was discontinued for the college-age men, but until World War 11, the younger boys of the Yeshivah Ketanah (preparatory school) continued to have "eating days."

8. Suraski, Toldot, p. 281.

9. Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, Milon Ha-Lashon Ha-Ivrit [Hebrew], vol. VI (Tel Aviv: La-Am Publishing House, 1948), pp. 2849-2853, 3137.

10. Isaac Blazer, Or Ysrael (Tel Aviv: Israel-American Offset, 1959); Zalman F. Ury, The Musar Movement (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1970).

11. Deut. 6:18; Prov. 2:20; Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Bava M'tzia, 30b; Bava Batra, 12b, 88a,b.

12, Blazer, Or Yisrael, p. 32.

13. Some great rabbis in our history were physicians, astronomers, etc. They had acquired scientific knowledge outside of the yeshivah, after having mastered the Talmud.

14. In the Hasidic community, such reverence would be accorded to the rebbe. The famous rebbeyim would attract adherents from far and wide.

15. The Gaon of Vilna appeared less frequently in public than the other two rabbis.

16. Harry M. Rabinowitz, The Legacy of Polish Jewry (New York and London: Thomas Yoseloff, 1965), pp. 108-125.

17. There were some children who attended public schools. The rabbi, or his representative, would be invited once a week to give religious instruction to Jewish students.

For Further Reading


Eisenstein, Miriam. Jewish Schools in Poland, 1919-1939. New York: King's Crown Press, 1950.

Garfunkel, Leib, et al. Yahadut Lita. [Hebrew] Tel Aviv: Am Hasefer Publishers, 1960.

Kariv, Avraham. Lithuania Land of My Birth. New York: Herzl Press, 1967

Mirski, Samuel K. Mosdot Torah Be-Europa Be-Vinyanarn UVechurbanarn. [Hebrew] New York: Ogen Publishing House, 1956.

Rabinowitz, Harry M. The Legacy of Polish Jewry 1919-1939. New York & London: Thomas Yoseloff, 1965.

Sachs, A.S. Worlds That Passed. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1943.

Scharfstein, Tz'vi. Toldot Ha-Hinukh B'Yisrael Badorot HoAharonim. [Hebrew] Jerusalem: Reuben Mass Publishers, 1960.

Segal, Simon. The New Poland and the Jews. New York: Lee Furman, Inc., 1938.

Suraski, Aaron. Toldot Ha-Hinukh Ha-Torati. [Hebrew] Bnai_ Brak: Or Hahayim Publishers, 1967.

Aspects of Hasidic Life in Eastern Europe Before World War Il

Hasidism, the great revivalist and mystical movement in Jewish religion, arose in eastern Europe during the first part of the eighteenth century. The Jews had never fully recovered from the devastating aftereffects of the Chmielnitski massacres of 1648-1649; furthermore, the spiritual confusion resulting from the apostasy of the pseudo-Messiah Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676) was still present. In a milieu combining Polish political instability, religious hatred, and economic deterioration, the Jewish masses needed hope and a new approach to rally and inspire them. Some of this was found in the movement and beliefs of the Baal Shem Tov.

Little is known about the early life of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (c. 1700- 1760), also known as the Baal Shern Tov ("Master of the Good Name"), or Besht. Hasidic tradition tells us that he came from a poor and pious family and was orphaned at an early age. According to Shivhei ha-Besht, the earliest collection of stories about the Besht, his father's last words were ". . . my beloved son, remember this all your life: God is with you; you should therefore fear nothing."1 These words made a firm impression on the young boy. His life's work was devoted to spreading the message of God's real presence in the world, and the consequent banishment of all fears, spiritual as well as material.

The Besht's message was simple and, in the context of the history of Jewish ethical thought, not particularly new. He emphasized the power of faith in God, the need for joyful enthusiasm in prayer, the performance of mitzvot (meritorious deeds), and the importance of love and good fellowship. One must ask what the Besht's originality and creative influence was. Part of the answer may be inferred from a story that describes the Besht's first encounter with a skeptical and hostile talmudic scholar and preacher, Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezhirich (1710-1772), known as the "Mezhiricher Maggid" (preacher), who later succeeded the Besht as head of the Hasidic movement. The Besht won over Dov Baer as his student by challenging him to interpret a certain mystical text. Dov Baer read the text in question, interpreting it in a formally correct but cold and detached manner. When the Besht recited the text the house was filled with light, fire raged around it, and they saw with their own eyes the angels whose names were mentioned in the text." The Besht turned to the maggid and said, "The interpretation you gave is correct, but your study lacks soul ...... Dov Baer, we are told, immediately cancelled his travel plans and "remained with the Besht who taught him sciences great and profound. "2

Leaving aside the supernatural elements of the story, a central point is clearly discernible: The Besht was able to attract mature rabbinic scholars to Hasidism because he could breathe fresh spirit into the dry words of ancient texts. This is precisely what he did with Judaism as a whole-penetrating traditional forms and rigid patterns, not to reject them but to make them glow with renewed human enthusiasm. One must always guard against performing religious acts reflexively and automatically, the Besht taught. Only by investing one's very self into one's words and actions could they be charged with life and inner power.

The generative core of the Besht's teachings is the emphasis on divine immanence-on God's presence in all creation and His accessibility to human beings. God may seem far from us, but this is only because we allow the material world to sustain the illusion of God's hiddenness. This point is brought out in the famous parable of the castle:

There was once a very wise king. By employing optical illusion he made walls, towers, and gates, and commanded that he should be reached by way of the gates and towers. He further commanded that at each and every gate should be disbursed the treasures of the king. There were some individuals who went as far as the first gate, took money and turned back. Others [advanced further but then found some treasure and turned back.] Finally his son, his beloved, resolved firmly to reach his father the king. Then he saw that there is no partition separating him and his father, because all [the walls, towers, and gates] were merely illusion.3
Or, as the Besht's student Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye (d. 1782) explained:
. . . the whole earth is full of His glory; every movement and thought comes from Him, also all the angels and heavenly chambers-all these are created and made, as it were, from His very essence, like the snail whose garment is actually part of its body. [With this knowledge], there is no separation between the person and Him .... 4
A related notion is that the secular and the sacred are not distinct domains. The profane has sparks of holiness; the secular can and must be sanctified. The eastern European Jew, socially isolated by walls of hatred and oppression, and by the self-imposed restraints of asceticism and exclusive devotion to study, was made to feel at home in the world of nature, and saw in its beauty a manifestation of the divine. Music, dance, and storytelling became expressions of religious creativity.

The Besht was not afraid of using mundane tools to arouse a spiritual ecstasy. If a morose heart could be made joyous by a joke, a prank, or even a shot of whiskey, then so much the better. The inner intensity of prayer was often sustained by wild gesticulations and by swaying to and fro (known in Yiddish as shoklen). Concentration in study and prayer was also maintained by a meditative focusing on the letters that comprised the words of the text. The point was to deflect attention away from the content in favor of perceiving the letters as pure spiritual forms serving as "vessels" for the flux of divine energy.5

One is struck by the earthiness of the stories about the Besht He is often depicted as smoking a pipe or talking about horses. He heartily embraced the folk traditions of his people, healing with amulets and herbs as well as with prayer. He had a large mass following but was able to inspire an intellectual elite. He was a wonder-working folk hero-and also a teacher of esoteric doctrines to a devoted circle of religious sophisticates. Indeed, the transcendence of dualities, and the unification of disparate elements in the community's social and religious life, were key elements of his vision. They were the true test of the authentic teacher, the clear indication that his teachings came from the divine source of unity and not the fragmented "world of separation."6

The emphasis on unity was perhaps the key to the movement's success. Initially some Jewish communal and religious authorities opposed the Hasidim, suspecting that their emphasis on divine immanence and devekut (communion with God) might develop into a full-fledged antinomian heresy. The polemical literature of the Mitnaggedim (opponents of Hasidism) was emotional and vituperative.7

The early opposition to Hasidism came primarily from religious traditionalists, who saw Hasidic innovations as deviations from established customs. To them, the Hasidic adoption of a different liturgical rite, their ecstatic devotion, and their supposed neglect of the study of Torah threatened the continuity of religious life. Opposition also surfaced from the Jewish proponents of European Enlightenment, the Maskilim, who saw in Hasidism an anachronistic return to medieval superstition. The Maskilim valued critical rationalism and sober intellectual thought. The great nineteenth-century Jewish historian, Heinrich Graetz, lost his objectivity on the subject of Hasidism, characterizing it as "an unclear and irrational dream which to this day does its deeds in darkness." By mid- nineteenth century the Hasidin and Mitnaggedim had made peace with each other. They came to recognize that their real enemies were the Maskilim, who in their extreme manifestations opposed any form of traditional religious expression. Certain Hasidic leaders even acknowledged that the early opposition of the Mitnaggedim was good for the movement, in that it checked tendencies towards religious anarchy.

At the center of the Hasidic society was the rebbe, or master, also known as the zaddik (righteous one). The rebbe was their leader, teacher, emissary to God, and God's emissary to them. The zaddik was the channel through which both material and spiritual blessings flowed from heaven. The zaddik was prepared to risk all-his life, even his share in Heaven-for his people.8 Opponents of Hasidism criticized the notion of the zaddik as the intermediary between God and the people. For the Hasidim, however, the zaddik became their guide even in matters of the world. Hasidim turned to their rebbe for advice in choosing a marriage partner, initiating a business venture, or purchasing a new home. Hasidim believed that their rebbe's sagacity emerged from paranormal powers of clairvoyance; for others, it was primarily a matter of astute judgment sharpened by years of experience in dealing with the problems of his flock.

In any event, the Hasid felt a new infusion of energy and confidence when he received the blessing of his master. Hasidim would travel for weeks, sometimes by foot, to be with their master for a Sabbath or holiday. During the long and often arduous journey, the individual Hasid might meet others who, like himself, were traveling to visit their master. Their shared "pilgrimage" would be spent reciting Hasidic stories, anticipating the spiritual glories they would behold, and preparing themselves for the few moments when they might be granted a private audience with their master. Each individual wanted to make the most of the time he would spend alone with his master, and would mentally rehearse his every word. Of course, the meeting almost never went as planned; it would often seem to the Hasid that the rebbe penetrated to the core of his concerns rather than their superficial aspects, uncovering layers of which the Hasid was totally unaware.9 The interview might conclude with the rebbe giving the Hasid a spiritual direction which the Hasid would attempt to implement in his daily life, for months or years, until the next time he might be privileged to visit with his master.

Besides the private audience with the rebbe, the Hasid would wait for those times when his master would "say Torah," or present an original homily. The discourse would elucidate the inner significance of a classical text, disclosing its relevance to the spiritual needs of the Hasidim. Usually delivered in Yiddish (but later recorded in Hebrew), the discourse would unfold an associative train of thought, building around key words and concepts and connecting unrelated passages of sacred literature with new creative insights. Featured frequently in the Hasidic discourse, as well as in the shorter epigrams for which some masters were celebrated, was the play on words, which often hinged on a semantic or syntactic shift in the sacred text. These plays were meant to startle the listener into new perceptions of familiar passages, as well as of their own personal situations. Many masters became famous not for miraculous powers, but for the ability to "say Torah" in an engaging manner. The Hasidim were especially captivated when it was clear that the master had not prepared his homily ahead of time, but was speaking from the inspiration of the moment. At such times it was believed that the master's speech was not under his conscious control, but was being used as an instrument of the Divine Wisdom.10

Hasidism bridged-but did not eliminate-the gap between rich and poor, between scholar and semiliterate.11 Wealthier Hasidim generally supported their poorer brethren, and opened their houses to travelers needing lodging. In the Hasidic community everyone had a place, and each individual was an organic part of a unified body of believers. While the role of women followed traditional patterns, it was true that women had opportunities for creative religious expression which were unavailable elsewhere. Certain exceptional women recognized for their charismatic gifts attracted their own followers, in effect becoming independent Hasidic masters.12

While untutored Hasidim could not follow the learned discussions of scholars, they could-and did-participate equally in the life of prayer, the devotional recitation of psalms, the study of Ein Ya'akov (a collection of the homiletical passages of the Talmud), and the telling of stories of the masters. These activities were considered appropriate for even the greatest scholars. Thus, while Hasidism by no means eliminated social and class divisions, it definitely made them less sharp and divisive.

The softening of rigid lines of demarcation is evident, for example, in the laxity shown regarding fixed times for prayer. The Hasidic practice of offering afternoon prayer well after sunset scandalized the Mitnaggedim. The Hasidim replied by pointing out that while the king's ministers need an appointment to approach their monarch, the king's own children can approach him at any time. This attitude to prayer did not signify a lessening of commitment to the body of Jewish law. In fact, in most respects the Hasidim kept the Law with a vigorous enthusiasm. The Hasidic flouting of the fixed times for prayer was an attempt to enact on a symbolic level the interpenetration (though not the elimination) of separate domains, a softening of the sharp contours of the map of everyday reality. As some of their critics noted, this was closely related to the Hasidic theology of divine immanence, which lessened the perceived distance separating God and man, and undermined distinctions in general.13

The Hasidim also emphasized the need to transcend polar opposites even in the realm of human emotion. There must be reflective sobriety as part of greatest joy. On the other hand, even in tragedy one must search for a glimmer of light, and retain the ability to rejoice.


Psalm 126:5, which states: They that sow in tears
-in joy they shall reap
was given a Hasidic twist. The verse was parsed differently, so that it read:
They that sow in tears [and] in joy
-they shall reap!
The Jew of eastern Europe was no stranger to tears, but Hasidism gave him the ability to mingle them with JOY.

By the third generation of Hasidism-in the last decades of the eighteenth century-the movement had no central location. Disciples and descendants of the major leaders were constantly traveling to new areas carrying their message. Thus, the movement spread from its original location of Podolia in the Ukraine into Lithuania, Galicia, Central Poland, and the rest of eastern Europe. Each individual master became known for a particular style and approach. For the economically oppressed and politically disenfranchised Hasidim, who were treated as aliens in the countries they resided in, personal allegiance to a master became a means of identification and enabled feelings akin to patriotic national sentiments. At times, the inevitable disagreements between different dynasties would degenerate into serious internecine feuding; more often, however, there was mutual respect, or at least peaceful coexistence.

The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the dramatic growth of several Hasidic dynasties and the transformation of the movement's character. Hasidism had received its initial impetus from small circles of enthusiasts, and was originally confined to rural and remote towns of eastern Europe. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, it had become a genuine mass movement, with some of the major dynasties numbering adherents in the hundreds of thousands. World War I accelerated population trends and movement to the large cities. In the years between the two world wars, Warsaw was a major center of Hasidic activity. These changes led to the appearance of a new type of Hasid. The followers of some masters included physicians, journalists, and industrialists as well as craftsmen, scholars, and laborers. Certain Hasidic groups became politically sophisticated and organized political lobbies and parties for Orthodox Jews.

In evaluating the creative achievements of eastern European Jews in the 200-year period between the onset of the Besht's public ministry (1736) and the Holocaust, it is evident that Hasidism played a major role. It inspired a veritable explosion of religious, literary, and aesthetic creativity.

The losses to Hasidism during the Holocaust were substantial. It is a remarkable phenomenon that, one generation later, Hasidism is again flourishing in Israel, the United States, and elsewhere. The Hasidim themselves no doubt see Divine Providence as responsible for their regeneration. At the same time, it seems evident that certain aspects of the Hasidic ethos were specific to the eastern European period, and it is hard to see how these might ever be fully recaptured. Nevertheless, Hasidism insists that it is possible, at least in part, to recover a lost reality by telling its story. Telling a tale, in the Hasidic view, is very different than nostalgic reminiscence or folklore transmission. It charges the values embedded in it with new potency; it invests the transmitter, the audience, and most of all the heroes of the story itself with new life.

In that spirit, we shall conclude this brief essay with a story,14 which touches on the three central themes of Hasidism: love of one's fellow, love of God, and love of the Torah. As is quite commonly the case, the story serves as a commentary on a biblical passage; the stage is set not by artistic evocation of a mood or ambience, but by pointing out a puzzling feature of the sacred text, which the story, in parabolic fashion, then proceeds to resolve and clarify. Also, this tale exhibits a rudimentary version of the story-within-a-story format, which often (though not here) involves many twists and concatenations of the story line. In addition, it should be noted that because of the oral character of Hasidic stories, most of them have no "canonical" form. Therefore, the same story may appear in a number of sources, with slight variation of detail; also, similar stories are often attributed to several different masters. In our case, the subject of the "outer" story is Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov (d. 1815), student of Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk; the hero of the "inner" story is ... ah, but perhaps it is best to let the reader decide that!

One year, on the High Holiday of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), just before the sounding of the shofar (ram's horn), Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov went to the pulpit of the synagogue and posed the following question to his congregation: "Why does the famous passage in Leviticus (19:18), which states 'And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,' conclude with the words, 'I am the Lord'? What does the latter phrase add to the former? What does it mean in this context?"

The congregation agreed that the words "I am the Lord" seemed to be curiously unrelated to the beginning of the verse. No one could answer his question. Rabbi Mendel waited a few moments and then continued by telling a story:

Once, in a small Russian town, two children-let us call them David and Jonathan-became fast friends. They played together, they got into trouble together, and they always helped each other out. When, one day, it became clear that the responsibilities of young adulthood would force them to move to separate towns, they decided to enter into a bond of friendship. They promised that wherever life may lead them, they would never forget the fellowship they had shared.

Years later, Jonathan-who by that time had entered the world of business, and had a large family-was accused of a serious crime of a political nature, which involved the possibility of the death penalty if he were convicted. When news of the situation reached David, he traveled to the city where Jonathan was being tried, and demanded to see the prosecutor. He said, "I do not know why you are accusing my old friend Jonathan, but of one thing I am sure ... he could not have committed that crime!" When it became clear that the prosecutor was utterly unimpressed by David's assurances regarding Jonathan's character, David found himself blurting out, "I'll tell you why I'm so sure that Jonathan is innocent-it's because I committed the crime myself! " Having a confession in hand, the prosecutor had no choice but to release Jonathan and imprison David. However, when Jonathan discovered the reason for his release from prison, he immediately reversed his own protestations of innocence and loudly declared that he was, indeed, the guilty party after all. At this point the prosecutor threw up his hands and, because of the political nature of the accusations, decided to refer the whole matter to the central government.

Eventually, the case came to the attention of the czar himself. The czar called both parties into his private chambers, and demanded that they tell him the truth. Both David and Jonathan told the czar of the bond of friendship they had made long ago, and each one explained how he had confessed in order to save his fellow. Suddenly, the czar began to cry. David and Jonathan were both puzzled and frightened. After a while the czar regained his composure and said, "I am the Czar of Russia, I can have anything I want. My servants are only too eager to do my bidding. But there is one thing I do not have, and could never get by demanding it. And that is ... a true friend. Of course I have millions of subjects, as well as many advisors and counsellors. But that is all very different than a true friend.

"Your stories have the ring of truth, and I am sure that you are both innocent. So, you are free to go. But, may I ask a favor? Could you grant me the gift which no one else can give me? Will you take me in and make me the third partner in your bond of friendship?"

Rabbi Mendel of Rymanov looked at his congregants and said, "You see, God is an all-powerful ruler. The whole universe is His. But there is one thing, in all his awesome majesty, which, as it were, He does not have- a true friend. So whenever two people really love each other, and carry out in life the full meaning of the words "And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," then God, as it were, gazes on them longingly and says, "I am the Lord-I created heaven and earth, all the angelic hosts sing my praises, but there is one thing they cannot be for me ... a true friend. So, I ask you, will you allow Me to be the third partner in your friendship?"



1. S. A. Horodezky, ed., Shivhei ha-Besht [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1975), p. 41. An English translation of this work, by Dan BenAmos and Jerome R. Mintz, was published under the title In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1970).

2. We present here the version of this story found in KeterShem Tov, a collection of the Besht's teachings as found in the writings of his students, in particular Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye. The work, compiled by Aharon ben Zvi Hirsh ha-Cohen, appeared originally in 1794-1795. Most current editions are quite corrupt, with separate teachings running together in one section, and with some teachings arbitrarily divided and made to appear as separate and unrelated.

Many of these errors are corrected in the Kehot Publication Society edition (Brooklyn, 1972). In that edition, our passage appears on pp. 124-125, and is marked as no. 424.

3. Keter Shem Tov, p. 15, no. 51.

4. Keter Shem Tov, p. 15, no. 51.

5. See the discussion of J.G. Weiss, "The Kavvanoth of Prayer in Early Hasidism," Journal of Jewish Studies 9 (1958): 163-192. For Hasidic prayer in general, see Louis Jacobs, Hasidic Prayer (New York: Schocken Brooks, 1973).

6. Cf. Keter Shem Tov, p. 8, nos. 22-23.

7. Cf. Mordecai Wilensky, Hasidim u-Mitnaggedim [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1970).

8. Cf. Samuel H. Dresner, The Zaddik (New York: Schocken Books, 1974).

9. The material on the rebbe as spiritual counsellor has been extensively discussed by Zalman M. Schachter in The Yehidut: A Study of Counselling in Hasidism, (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew Union College, 1968).

10. Cf. J.G. Weiss, "Via Passiva in Early Hasidism," Journal of Jewish Studies 11 (1960): 137-155; also Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer, Ha-Hasidut ke- Mistikah [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1980), especially Chapters 8 and 9.

11. The whole issue of the social significance of Hasidism is perceptively discussed by Shmuel Ettinger, "The Hasidic Movement- Reality and Ideals," in Jewish Society Throughout the Ages, eds. Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson and Shmuel Ettinger (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), pp. 251-266. Ettinger emphasizes the role of Hasidism as a unifying force.

12. Material on this has been collected I n Harry M. Rabinowicz, The World of Hasidism (Hartford, Ct.: Hartmore House, 1970), pp. 202-210.

13. For the Mitnaggedic attitude, see Hayyim Volozhiner, Nefesh ha- Hayy1m (Vilna, 1834), especially Chapter 3. This work and its relationship to Hasidism has been discussed by Nahum (Norman) Lamm, Torah Lishmah (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1972). See also Norman Lamm, Faith and Doubt (New York: Ktav, 1971), pp. 42-68; 212-246.

14. As recounted by Shelomo Carlebach.

For Further Reading


Buber, Martin. Tales of the Hasidim. 2 vols. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.

Jacobs, Louis. Hasidic Prayer. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.

Rabinowicz, Harry. The World of Hasidism. Hartford, Ct.: Hartmore House, 1970.

Schatz Uffenheimer, Rivka. Quietistic Elements in Eighteenth Century Hasidic Thought. [Hebrew] Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1980.

Wiesel, Elie. Souls on Fire. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

Jewish Religious Leadership in Germany: Its Cultural and Religious Outlook

In November, 1938, immediately after Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass-1938 German pogrom), the Rabbiner-Serninar fuer das Orthodoxe Judenturn, the Orthodox rabbinical seminary established by Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer of Berlin in 1873, was closed by the Nazis. Similarly, the pogrom of 1938 led to the demise of the Juedisch-Theologisches Seminar of Breslau and on February 21, 1939, this institution of Positive- Historical Judaism, which had opened in 1854 and had initially been headed by Rabbi Zacharias Frankel, ordained its last two students as rabbis. Finally, on July 19, 1942, the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judenturns, established by Rabbi Abraham Geiger of Berlin in 1872 as a center for the academic study of Judaism and the ordination of Liberal rabbis, was also shut down by the Nazis. Thus, through the destruction of these three major spiritual centers of religious German Jewry, the Nazis brought an end to an important era in German Jewish history. However, the religious and cultural world views these institutions represented, and the models of Jewish religious leadership they produced, have been of lasting relevance to Jews in Western lands. Institutions such as Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in the United States, and the Leo Baeck Rabbinical College in London are all, in several senses, modeled today after these three previous centers of German Jewish religious life. Their significance clearly extends beyond their own day into our own.

This brief essay will attempt to capture the essence of the religious world views-the differences and similarities-that marked the outlooks of the leaders of these three German Jewish religious institutions, and will draw a profile of the cultural and religious models of leadership they produced. In this way, something of the spirit of German Jewish religiosity can be evoked. This will also enable us to understand its legacy for the post-Holocaust Jewish world.

Alexander Altmann, a graduate of the Orthodox Hildesheimer Seminary in Berlin, has commented that graduates of the three major rabbinical institutions of German Jewry shared sufficient cultural and religious characteristics to be termed "colleagues." Essentially "Intellectuals," these western European rabbis "all shared a common language"1 and a German cultural milieu. Although there is some truth to the claim that a true German-Jewish dialogue never existed,2 Altmann's observations point to the unique Jewish cultural and religious leaders produced in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany. In order to understand the background for this leadership cadre and its world view, it is necessary to turn to the first decades of the nineteenth century and the phenomenon of Wissenschaft des Judenturns-the academic study of Judaism-which was born in those formative years.

The term "Wissenschaft des Judentums" was first used by Leopold Zunz (1794-1886), perhaps the greatest scholar of nineteenth century Germany, in the title, Zeltschrift fuer die Wissenschaft des Judenturns (journal for the Scientific Study of Judaism), which he edited from 1822 to 1823 for the Verein fuer Kultur und Wissenschaft der Juden (Society for Jewish Culture and Science), an association formed by several outstanding Jewish students in Berlin in 1819. Immanuel Wolf, in the first article published in this periodical, "Concerning the Idea of a Science of Judaism," stated that Wissenschaft des Judenturns embraced Judaism in its totality, "not in the limited sense of Jewish religion alone." Secondly, the purpose of the academic study of Judaism was to present Judaism in a systematic form by relating the particular item under discussion to underlying principles which formed the core of Judaism. Here, the Hegelian and German idealistic concern to define the essence of a phenomenon can be seen to have made a major impact upon these early pioneers. Moreover, this influence continued on German Jewish religious thinkers throughout the nineteenth century. Finally, every subject treated by Wissenschaft des Judenturns was to be explored for its own sake, and not for some extraneous program or school.3 Wissenschaft des Judenturns thus aspired to an academic objectivity and presentation that conformed to contemporary standards of German scholarship.

All branches of Judaism in Germany-Liberal (which had a generally less ritually observant Reform wing and a more ritually observant Positive- Historical wing) and Orthodox (with the exception of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, and his followers)-were equally wedded to Wissenschaft des Judenturns. All were committed to explaining Judaism to German Jews and Gentiles in the language and style of contemporary German culture. Abraham Geiger, Zacharias Frankel, and Leopold Zunz embraced Wissenschaft des Judenturns. Esriel Hildesheimer, in a letter to a supporter of his Orthodox seminary, emphasized that Wissenschaft des Judenturns was practiced no less assiduously within the walls of the Rabbiner-Seminar than it was at Breslau or at the Hochschule.4 The rabbinical candidates at all three schools were required to be graduates of German Gymnasia (university preparatory schools or the equivalent), and during their years at the seminary, each student also had to obtain a doctorate from a German university. Thus, men such as Fritz Bamberger and Abraham Joshua Heschel of the Hochschitle, who later became leading scholars of American Reform and Conservative Judaism, and Eliezer Berkovits of the Rabbiner Seminar, a major contemporary spokesman of Orthodox Judaism in the United States, were students at the University of Berlin; this created collegiality and relationships between graduates of the different seminaries not found in other countries, such as the United States. Professors at each institution engaged in rigorous academic studies, and the results of their research were usually published in yearbooks printed by each institution. The spirit of the German rabbinical seminary led to a similarity of outlook and of spirit.

How, though, and why did this come to be the case? Moreover, having seen how Wolf defined Wissenschaft des Judenturns, it is now necessary to ask how the leaders of these rabbinical institutions viewed the purposes of this study. The answers to these questions are interrelated and provide a key to understanding the spirit of religious Jewry in Germany-a spirit attracted to the worth of German culture-during the pre-Holocaust era.

First, it is essential to note that the political structure of the medieval world-the Jewish one included-dissolved in western Europe with the rise of the modern nation-state and the advent of modern notions of individual, not group, rights. Civil rights were now granted to individuals and not to corporate, sermautonomous bodies within the state. Clermont-Tonnerre, a leader of the French Revolution, articulated this position for the Jews when he stated, "The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but [the Jew] granted everything as an individual." The political identity of the Jew, which in Europe during the Middle Ages had been derived from his position as a member of the Jewish community, was transformed. The Jew was now regarded as a citizen of the country or state where he resided, whose religious faith happened to be Jewish. The Jewish community was no longer semiautonomous, and the community no longer could impose police sanctions to enforce its will. Religious Jews in Germany did not protest these developments, but-from Hirsch to Geiger-applauded the opportunities that political emancipation afforded the Jews.

The Jews also began to participate in the life of German society and culture. During these post-Napoleonic years, Jewish life moved from a segregated ethnic-religious community, united by a common world view and political structure, into fragmented communities stripped of their autonomy and eagerly seeking their place within European culture and society. Jewish identity was no longer monolithic, and Jewish religious leaders had to define a philosophy that would permit Jews to participate in Western life while still maintaining concepts and practices deemed essential to an authentic Judaism." While responses to this challenge were variegated, Wissenschaft des Judentums and an affirmation of German culture on the part of the religious leaders of German Jews became an important, indeed, crucial means to responding to this dilemma of modernity.

Wissenschaft des Judenturns, as understood by its nineteenth century German practitioners, was designed as a weapon in the struggle for political emancipation and cultural equality. In 1836, and again in 1845, Abraham Geiger called for the establishment of a department of Jewish theology in a German university. All such attempts to establish Jewish theological departments at German universities failed and with it the hope that German universities-by including the academic study of Judaism within their curricula would legitimate the integral role Judaism played in the development of the West. Despite this failure, the early years of Wissenschaft des Judenturns also witnessed efforts on the part of Jewish religious leaders to replace the old talmudic rabbinical academies (yeshivot) with modern rabbinical seminaries that would train rabbis both in traditional rabbinic texts and the more contemporary scientific approaches to Jewish scholarship. Ludwig Phillipson (1811-1889), a major Reform leader, proposed the creation of a seminary in 1837, but only in 1854 was such a school created in Breslau; its head was Zacharias Frankel. Slightly less than two decades later the Hochschule and the Rabbiner- Seminar were founded.

The purpose of these seminaries, and their study of Wissenschaft des Judenturns, was to lead the Jews into a harmonious relation with the age and nation in which they lived. By applying contemporary standards of scholarship to Judaism and to the study of the Jewish past, proponents of Wissenschaft des Judenturns felt that they were extricating Judaism from its cultural isolation and thus earning a place of cultural parity within the intellectual milieu of nineteenth century postrevolutionary Europe. The inclusion of Wissenschaft des Judentums in the training of German rabbis meant that these rabbis shared a common theological language and a positive attitude towards German culture. The embracement of Wissenschaft des Judenturns was intended to improve the political, as well as cultural, position of the Jews in Germany. As Zunz explained, one of the purposes was "the winning of favor of those in power and the good will of sensible men."5 It was this positive attitude towards German culture that marked all religious branches of German Jews. Wissenschaft des Judenturns was seen as an ally in the political and cultural struggle of Judaism in its confrontation with modernity in Germany during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Proof for this enthusiasm with which religious Jews in Germany welcomed political emancipation and Western culture can also be seen in the cultural mores and patterns of the leading German rabbis. German Liberal Judaism adopted nineteenth-century German aesthetic standards of decorum, order, and beauty and employed them in the cause of liturgical reform and synagogal architecture. Sermons in the vernacular, choirs, clerical gowns, and the abbreviation of services were introduced into German Jewish religious life in the nineteenth century. However, these reforms were not confined to Liberal synagogues alone, but became standard in many Orthodox synagogues as well (although prayers were not abbreviated). Decorum came to mark the German religious service, and rabbis such as Hirsch and Hildesheimer wore clerical gowns when attending services and preached sermons of moral edification and spiritual uplift in the same manner as their Reform colleagues. Moreover, as a picture of Rabbi Hirsch Hildesheimer-the son of Esriel and himself a professor at the Rabbiner-Seminar-in the lithograph collection of the Skirball Museum at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles indicates, the German Orthodox rabbi dressed in contemporary German attire and would sometimes even go bareheaded. Indeed, Rabbi David Hoffman (1843-1921), Hildesheimer's successor as rector of the Rabbiner-Serninar, reports that when he first arrived in Frankfurt from his native Hungary, Rabbi Hirsch informed him that wearing a head covering in certain situations in Germany would be regarded as a display of bad manners.6 Orthodox Jews in other parts of Europe viewed their German colleagues with suspicion, and Rabbi Hildesheimer himself, in the responsurn of one Hungarian Orthodox rabbi, was referred to as "an abominable troubler who intends to destroy the Jews."7 Thus, it is evident that the positive affirmation of Western culture by the religious leadership of German Jews distinguished it from the majority of rabbis living in eastern Europe.

Despite the common cultural bonds which united German Jewish religious leaders, there were also crucial differences between the religious outlooks of these men. A major purpose of Wissenschaft des Judentums was to aid the Jews in their struggle for political emancipation and entry into German cultural life, but the academic study of Judaism also had another purpose-to provide the basis for religious reform. Zunz said that Wissenschaft des Judenturns would make it possible "to know and distinguish the old which is still of use, the antiquated which has become pernicious, and the new which is desirable. "8 This approach was designed to integrate the "genuine" and "essential" elements in the Jewish past into contemporary Judaism. Reform was to be based on historical investigation. History, the academic study of the past, was thus a major determinant for theology.

The respective attitudes towards history and the role of history in theology divided the Liberals from the Orthodox in Germany. Both Frankel and Geiger believed that all religions, including Judaism, were the products of history. Religions did not simply endure but evolved in history. One obvious implication of this view was that history produced certain forms and institutional expressions in one particular era and could eliminate or create new ones for different milieus. One radical (Reform) exponent, Rabbi Samuel Holdheirn (1806-1860), applied this view to Judaism in the following declaration: "The Talmud speaks with the ideology of its time, and for that time it was right. I speak from the higher ideology of my time, and for this age I am right."9 According to the Liberals' position, history legitimated the reforms they made in contemporary Jewish practice and theology.

However, it is crucial to note that the study of history could be used not only to abnegate certain traditional practices, but also to legislate the continuity of Jewish ritual and ceremonial law. Frankel was the most prominent non-Orthodox leader in Germany to adopt this view towards the study of Jewish past; Geiger, to a large extent, also shared this attitude. In his classic, Darkhe HaMishnah, Frankel asserted that the talmudic expression, "a tradition of Moses from Sinai," referred to those ordinances whose origins were unknown and which, because of their great antiquity, were regarded by the rabbis of the Talmud as if they had been received by Moses at Sinai . Frankel accepted the idea that Judaism had developed over time; and this work is one of the great contributions to the study of the development of Jewish law. Frankel stated that the academic study of the Jewish past could be used to demonstrate the developmental character of the rabbinic law, but it also showed the "Positive-Historical" and binding nature of the past. Law, revealed by the study of the Jewish past as the essence of Judaism, could not be dismissed. Ritual laws regarding the Sabbath and Jewish dietary laws had to be retained, and Frankel departed from his more Liberal colleagues in the 1840s through his insistence that the predominantly Hebrew character of Jewish prayer be maintained.

Geiger was not as conservative as Frankel in his approach to Jewish traditions and history, although he, too, spoke of "Positive Historical" approaches to Judaism. Geiger described Judaism in Hegelian terms and saw the notion of one God as the essential ideal of Judaism, but he opposed Sunday Sabbath worship, observed Jewish dietary laws, and refused to serve separatist Reform congregations which were not affiliated with the general Jewish community. Liberal Judaism in Germany was much more traditional than in the United States and, in almost every Liberal community in Germany, men wore head coverings during prayer and men and women sat separately during services. German Liberal rabbis uniformly observed the dietary laws and-in the twentieth century-only in the largest cities would a Liberal rabbi have driven on the Sabbath. This display of traditional ritual practice by the Liberals allowed the Orthodox to be somewhat tolerant of their Liberal brethren and also sometimes permitted cooperation on such issues as conversion between Liberal and Orthodox rabbis in Germany.10

Finally, a distinctive Liberal approach to revelation emerged in Germany during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Influenced by liberal Protestant thinkers, Liberal Jewish theologians asserted that the revelation into which God entered with Moses and the Jewish people at Sinai was, "a nonpropositional one." God, in this view, revealed Himself as a presence to the Jewish people at Sinai and did not, initially, place any substantive demands (such as commandments) upon them. The Jewish people, when covenanting with God at Sinai, first said, "We will do," indicating their affirmation of His presence. Only later did they respond, "We will listen," availing themselves of the substantive content of His message.

This approach, most clearly stated by the great lay leader of Liberal German Jewry, Martin Buber (1878-1965), has been important in liberal Jewish circles until today. Its importance in Germany, and its relationship to Wissenschaft des Judentums, can be seen most clearly in the life and thought of Buber's friend and colleague, another layman, Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929). Rosenzweig believed in the dynamic quality of Jewish revelation and felt that a commitment to understanding that revelation necessitated an encounter with Jewish sources and history. Rosenzweig established an adult education program in Frankfurt and spoke of the need for the Jew-both as an individual and as a member of a community-to distinguish the Law (Gesetz) and commandment (Gebot). Law, to Rosenzweig, was impersonal and static. Commandment, however, was personal, an address by God to the individual Jew and the Jewish community. In Rosenzweig's view, the task of the Jew, through study and practice, was to transform the Law into commandment. In this way, individual autonomy-a modern concept-could be retained while yet maintaining a common sense of obligation. Indeed, this approach, which allows both the individual Jew and the Jewish community to study the Jewish tradition in order to extract God's message from it, remains one of German Jewry's most profound contributions to contemporary Jewish religious life.11

For the Orthodox in Germany, however, this approach to Jewish life and faith was considered inauthentic. In Rabbi Hildesheimer's words, Jewish authenticity consisted of continued allegiance to the principle that the Torah-both written and oral-was revealed "from the mouth of the Almighty." For Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, this meant that "the Torah, both written and oral, was closed with Moses at Sinai."12 In contrast to Liberal Jewish theology, the Orthodox rabbis saw Jewish tradition as codified in the rabbinic law and the writings of leading rabbinical authorities over the centuries as authentic. They labeled themselves "Gesetztreuer," literally, "faithful to the Law [of the Torah]," and attacked all other denominations of Judaism as religiously inauthentic.

The Orthodox attitude towards history-not its positive response to German culture, language, patriotism, and style distinguished it from the Reformers. The Orthodox denied historical development in Jewish law, and Hirsch excoriated Frankel for his work on the development of the rabbinic law. Similarly, Hildesheimer would not permit the academic study of the Jewish past to encroach upon the theological principle that Jewish law was divine and given by God to Moses at Sinai.13 Thus, Hildesheimer and Hirsch proscribed any Jewish community from accepting a graduate of the Breslau Seminary as a rabbi and stated that if a community chose to accept such a rabbi, then a pious Jew was obligated, by religious duty, to secede from it. From the standpoint of theology, Hildesheimer saw little to choose between Frankel and Geiger. He wrote, "How little is the difference between these Reformers [the Breslau people], who do their work with silk gloves on their hands, and the Reformer Geiger, who strikes with a sledgehammer."14 God's revelation to the Jewish people was seen as a "propositional one," and the a historical nature of Jewish law Was defended by the Orthodox in accordance with the rabbinic statement found in the Palestinian Talmud, Peah 17a, "Even that which a distinguished disciple is destined to teach in the future before his master was already revealed to Moses at Sinai." The problem of individual autonomy and development In Jewish law, while sometimes alluded to in the writings of the German Orthodox, was not as important for them as for their Liberal colleagues. In this sense, the spiritual outlooks of German Orthodox and Liberal Jews diverged and the purpose of Wissenschaft des Judenturns, to provide the scientific basis for religious reform, was rejected by the Orthodox in Germany.

Moshe Schwarcz has commented that, "Cultural integration became one of the distinguishing marks of religious Jewry in Germany."15 This observation is correct. German Jews were highly acculturated, and this led to similar cultural styles and world views on many facets of German Jewish religious life. The German rabbi, trained in Wissenschaft des Judenturns, was uniquely the modern scholar-rabbi. There were, of course, real differences between religious trends in German Jewish life. Nevertheless, the spirit of cultural integration and loyalty to Judaism exemplified by the religious leaders of the German Jews remains instructive to Jews today and is an important part of the spiritual legacy bequeathed by German Jews to the contemporary Jewish world. The spirit of German Judaism, despite the physical destruction and dispersion of its people and institutions, continues today.


1. Alexander Altmann, "The German Rabbi: 1910-1939," Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook (1974): 32.

2. Gershom Scholem, "Against the Myth of the German Jewish Dialogue," in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis, Gershom Scholem (New York: Schocken Books, 1976), pp. 65-70.

3. For a translation of the Wolf essay, see Michael Meyer, Ideas Of Jewish History (New York: Behrman House, 1974), pp. 141-155.

4. See Ismar Schorsch, "Ideology and History in the Age of Emancipation," in Heinrich Graetz-The Structure of Jewish History and Other Essays, ed. and trans. Ismar Schorsch (New York: Ktav, 1975), pp. 10- 11.

5. Leopold Zunz, quoted by Nahum N. Glatzer, "The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Studies," in Studies in Nineteenth Century Jewish Intellectual History, ed. Alexander Altmann (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 39.

6. David Hoffman, Melammed L'Hoyll, Yoreh Deah, no. 56.

7. This description of Hildesheimer by Rabbi Hillel Lichtenstein (1815- 1891) is found in Alexander Guttmann, The Struggle Over Reform in Rabbinic Literature (New York: World Union for Progressive Judaism, 1977), pp. 289-291.

8. Leopold Zunz, quoted in Michael Meyer, The Origins of the Modern Jew (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967), p. 161.

9. Cited by Noah Rosenbloom, Tradition in an Age of Reform (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1967), p. 18.

10. 1 would like to thank my colleague, Rabbi Wolli Kaelter, who immigrated to the United States in 1935 and whose father was the Liberal rabbi in Danzig prior to the Holocaust, for these insights into German Liberal Judaism.

11. For example, see Jakob J. Petuchowski, Ever Since Sinai (New York: Arbit, 1979); and Eugene B. Borowitz, How Can a Jew Speak of Faith Today? (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), for the influence Buber and Rosenzweig have had upon American Reform theologians. For further insight into the influence of Rosenzweig upon contemporary non-Orthodox Jewish thought in America, see Milton Himmelfarb's Introduction to The Condition of Jewish Belief, compiled by the editors of Commentary magazine (London: Macmillan & Co., 1966).

12. Cited by Rosenbloom, Tradition in an Age of Reform, p. 234.

13. A classic statement of the Hildesheimer circle's approach to academic scholarship and its limits can be found in David Hoffmann's introduction to his commentary on Leviticus. The translation of this introduction appears in jenny Marmorstein, "David Hoffman: Defender of the Faith," Tradition (Winter 1966): 91-101. There, Hoffman writes, "Any interpretation of the Torah which opposes traditional interpretation ... is to be rejected as . . . an un-Jewish explanation," p. 92.

14. See David Ellenson, "Modern Orthodoxy and Jewish Religious Pluralism: The Case of Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer," Tradition (Spring 1979): 74-91.

15. Moshe Schwarcz, "Religious Currents and General Culture," Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook (1971): 3.

For Further Reading


Blau, Joseph. Modern Varieties of Judaism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Graupe, Heinz Moshe. The Rise of Modern Judaism. Huntington, NY: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company, 1978.

Meyer, Michael. The Origins of the Modern Jew. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967.

Schorsch, Ismar, ed. and trans. Heinrich Graetz: The Structure of Jewish History and Other Essays. New York: Ktav, 1975.

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