Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772-1881 by Israel Bartal

This excellent history of modern Eastern European Jewry explains the original conditions of the Jewish people when they were an isolated majority and how the community deteriorated with the indulgence of partitions and interactions of the central states of Austria, Russia and Poland. It is a story of the end of a golden age of Shtetl life with the commencement of the industrial revolution of Russia which forced the townspeople into the big cities.

Modernity for the eastern European Jewry means the change from an agrarian feudal society where the Jews fit in as middlemen and brokers for the Polish gentry to an industrialized capitalism that broke the feudalism.  It is the change of being communally independent to being subservient to the central state of Russian or Austrian or Polish countries.

One reads about the successful Jewish revolution of Hasidism that overwhelmed the entire Ukraine with the lone Lithuanian opposition of the community led by the Vilna Gaon.  What becomes clear is that although the opposition is vigorous and strident, it nevertheless, is a failure.  Hasidism even makes strongholds in Lithuania.  Only the modern yeshiva that follows the approach of the Vilna Gaon becomes the dominant educational vehicle that is transplanted in America.

The Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment makes its way to Eastern Europe and the maskilim, its advocates become very optimistic about the possible reforms and freedoms that seem destined to be visited upon the Jewish people. They become practically agents of the regimes, propaganda machines to convince the people to adopt the various themes of the enlightenment.  The adoption of the Russian language, dropping of Yiddish, integrating secular education is the agenda of changes.

Hasidism is ravaged by the ideologies of the late 19th century: Communism, Socialism, Zionism, Capitalism because of the innate optimism of the Jewish people.  The Central state makes demands that squelch the autonomy of the Jewish community and the hostility of the Russian Orthodox and Polish Catholic churches remain constant.

Ultimately the program to integrate the Jewish community as a Russian minority is a failure.  The Jewish people do not assimilate well since for so many years the community functioned autonomously.  This failure translates into violent attacks, pogroms against the Jews all over Russia! The pogroms marks a watershed, the beginning of the greatest migration of Jewish history mostly to the USA, a  place where most Eastern European Jews experience true emancipation and freedom for the first time.

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