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The Jewish Community of Russia

Russia

Росси́я
Российская Федерация / Rossiyskaya Federatsiya - Russian Federation
A country in eastern Europe and northern Asia, until 1991 part of the Soviet Union.

21st Century

Estimated Jewish population in 2018: 172,000 out of 147,000,000 (0.1%). Russia is home to the seventh largest Jewish community in the world. In addition to Moscow and St. Petersburg, there are several dozen Jewish communities of more than 1,000 people. Main umbrella organizations:

Russian Jewish Congress
Phone: +7 (495) 780-49-78
Email: info@rjc.ru
Website: www.rjc.ru

Federation of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Russia (Va’ad)
Phone: +7 095 230 6700
Fax: +7 095 238 1346

 

HISTORY

The Jews of Russia

1772 | Polish Today, Russian Tomorrow

Many believe there have always been Jews in Russia. However, the truth is that save a few traders wandering between country fairs throughout the Czarist Empire, no Jews at all lived there until 1772.
The reasons were mostly religious. While elsewhere in Europe the Catholic Church wished to maintain the Jewish entity in an inferior position as testament to the victory of Christianity of Judaism, the central religious establishment in Russia – the Russian Orthodox Church – strictly opposed the settlement of Jews, held to be responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. This sentiment can be found in the famous remark by Empress Elizaveta Petrovna: “I have no desire to profit by the haters of Christ.”
This was the situation until the year 1772, when Russia began to annex large parts of Poland, which were populated by multitudes of Jews. It was then that Empress Catherine the Great decided, mostly for financial reasons, to maintain the rights enjoyed by the Jews under the Kingdom of Poland. So it was that hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews found themselves living under Russian sovereignty, without having moved an inch.
Catherine promised “equality to all subjects, regardless of nationality or faith”, and to the Jews she granted rights in the “Charter of Towns”, which decreed that the municipalities of the empire would be run by autonomous administration, and the Jews could enjoy the right to vote for these institutions and be employed by them. However, these rights came with a hefty dose of alienation. Catherine also decreed Jews to be “foreigners” in Russia – enjoying the rights of foreigners but barred from the rights of native Orthodox Russians – and finally in 1791 invented the “Pale of Settlement” - a large but remote swath of land in the west of the empire. Jews enjoyed freedom of movement and toleration of their religion within this territory, but needed special permits to move elsewhere in Russian domains.

1797 | A Genius? You Must Be From Vilnius!

One of the most fascinating chapters in the history of Jews in Russia concerns the ethos of scholarship of Lithuanian Jews, despite the fact that most of those known as “Litvaks” lived in areas outside of modern-day Lithuania.
The moniker “Litvaks” came to stand for the spiritual identity of this stream, which developed as a counter-revolution to the Hasidic movement. Litvaks prized scholarship, rationalism and above all a rejection of Hasidism, which was spreading through Eastern Europe like wildfire at the time.
The ethos of the scholar, who devotes his days and nights to the fine points of the debates between Abai and Rabba, dedicating his life to the hair-splitting of the Talmud, was a role model and an embodiment of the creative force born from the merger of faith and reason. Furthermore, being a Litvak scholar made one part of the community elite, opening the doors to a possible match with the daughter of someone rich and well-born, thus securing one's financial existence for life.
The founding father of the Litvak tradition was Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman (the Gr”a) of Vilnius, or Vilna as Jews called it, better known as The Gaon of Vilna (1720-1779). Although he served in no official capacity and was rarely seen in public, the Gaon enjoyed extraordinary admiration within his lifetime. His authority stemmed from his personality and intellectual prowess. The Gaon of Vilna had many pupils, the most famous of whom was Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, who founded the famous yeshiva named after his hometown. Many years later that institute of learning would boast a graduate named Chaim Nachman Bialik, the national poet of Israel.

1801 | There Is No Despair

Against the model of the rationalist Litvak scholar stood the common-man's Hasidic model, which focused on his emotional life and religious experience and offered more to hardworking, hard-living Jews.
The struggle between these two schools, known as the Hasidim-Misnagdim dispute (Misnagdim is the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the Hebrew word Mitnagdim = “opponents”), was replete with boycotts, ostracism and Jews informing on each other to the Gentile authorities. The most famous such case is that of the founder of the Chabad/Liubavitch group, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, who was thrown in a Russian jail in 1801 due to information from Misnagdim informants.
Several famous Hasidic dynasties operated within the Pale of Settlement, among them those of Chernobyl, Slonim, Beslov, Ger and of course Chabad. Each Hasidic court was headed by an Admor – A Hebrew acronym for “Our Master, Teacher and Rabbi” - a man shrouded in mystery and the aura of holiness. The Admor was reputed to have magical abilities and a direct line of contact with higher beings. Multitudes of followers (“Hasidim”) thronged to him for guidance on every matter under the sun – from fertility problems to financial difficulties and match-making. The Hasidim had (and still have) distinct dress and social codes. They would gather in the “Shtibel” - a place that serves as house of worship, of study, and a gathering place for Sabbath and holiday meals. At times a Hasid would make a pilgrimage to his Admor's court, even if it was thousands of miles away. The highlight of the Hasid's week is the “Tisch” meal (tisch means “table” in Yiddish), which is held on Friday night, during which the Hasidim gather around their Rebbe and lose themselves in ecstatic songs that drove them to spiritual elation.
According to the basic views of Hasidism, joy is the root of the soul. This view is expressed in the famous saying by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, that “There is no despair in the world at all.” Other key concepts of Hasidism are love of one's fellow man, abolition of classes and removal of barriers. These humane principles are beautifully captured in a prayer composed by the Admor Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk:
“Furthermore, give to our hearts to each see our friends' advantages and not their shortcomings, that we may each speak to each other honestly and pleasingly to you, and let no hate arise in our hearts from one to another, Heaven forbid, and strengthen our love for you, for it is known that all is to please you, Amen so be thy will.”

1804 | Improving The Jew

13 years after the Jews of France were granted equality, Russia passed the “Edicts of 1804”, whose stated goal was to “improve the Jews” and integrate them into the economic and social fabric of the Czarist Empire.
Like many other episodes in Jewish history, the attempt to “correct the situation of the Jews” was attended by purist justifications and religious condescension meant to legitimize the hostility directed at them. While the edicts reflected the liberal approach of the early reign of Czar Alexander I, allowing Jews to attend any Russian institute of higher learning, at the same time Jews were required to “purify their religion of the fanaticism and prejudices which are so detrimental to their happiness”, seeing as “under no regime has [the Jew] reached proper education, and has hitherto maintained an Asiatic idleness alongside a revolting lack of cleanliness.” And yet, the Edicts of 1804 state that the nature of the Jews stems from their financial insecurity, due to which they are forced “to consent to any demand, if only it should benefit them in any way”.
Despite the fact that the Edicts of 1804 were tainted with anti-Semitism, eventually they benefited the Jews. The “Pale of Settlement” was redefined and expanded, with new territories added to it; Jews who chose to engage in farming were awarded land and tax relief; and rich Jews who opened workshops received orders from the state.

1844 – Shtetl, The Jewish Town

For hundreds of years, the shtetl – the Jewish town in Eastern Europe – was a sort of closed autonomous Jewish microcosm. Yiddish was the prevailing language, and the community institutions – the charity, the religious trust, the religious courts and the community council – ran the public life. Figures such as the gabbay (who collected payments for the synagogue and managed its funds), the shamash (the custodian of the synagogue and its upkeep), the butcher and others populated its alleys alongside the town idiot, the aguna (a woman whose husband has either disappeared without proof of death or is refusing to divorce her, leaving her unable to remarry) and the beit midrash loafer. The only contact between shtetl Jews and their gentile neighbors took place at country fairs and the Sunday market, usually held in the main square of the town.
The penetration of Enlightenment (and its Jewish variant, Haskala) and modernism into the Jewish town throughout the 19th century ate away at the traditional structure of the shtetl. Many young Jews removed themselves from the home, the family and the familiar surroundings. Some of them, including Abraham Mapu, Sh.Y. Abramowitz (known by his pseudonym “Mendele Mocher Sforim”) and Shalom Aleichem were to become the pioneers of the Haskala literature. In their descriptions, which ranged from nostalgia to biting satire, they painted the Jewish township and its characters, streets and institutions, at times castigating the town and at times painting it in rosy, yearning colors.
The traditional structure of the town was attacked not only from the inside, but from without as well. In 1827 Czar Nikolai I issued an edict requiring every Jewish community to supply a certain quota of young men, age 12-25, to the Russian army for a period of 25 years. When the community didn't meet its quote, the Czar sent men to lie in wait for the children and kidnap them away from their families and schools. These children were sent to distant location, where they were handed over to gentile farmers for reeducation until they reached the age of enlistment. The “Cantonists Edict”, as the Czar's decree was known, divided the community, which was forced again and again to decide which children shall suffer the horrible fate.
In 1835 the Czar's government issued laws forcing the Jews to wear special clothing, banning them from distributing “harmful” books in Yiddish and Hebrew and distinguishing between “useful” and “un-useful” Jews. Another nail in the coffin of the shtetl was driven in 1844, when the “kahal” system, which was the self-administration mechanism of the Jewish community for many years, was abolished.

1860 | Odessa – Non-Stop City

It is well known that language creates consciousness and consciousness creates reality. An example of this is the policy of Alexander II, who sought to reward “good Jews”, unlike his father Nikolai, who chose to punish “bad Jews”.
The Jews seized upon Alexander's reforms with great gusto. Figures such as Adolph Rothstein, the great financial wizard, the Polyakov Family, who covered the soil of the empire in railroad tracks, and Baron Joseph Gunzburg, who established a large banking network throughout Russia, are but a few prominent examples of Jews whose talent took great advantage of Alexander II's liberal policies.
The atmosphere of liberalism spread to the world of publishing as well, with Jewish periodicals popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, including “HaMagid” (1856), “HaMelitz” (1860) and “HaCarmel” (1860).
From the mid 19th century the city of Odessa, on the shore of the Black Sea, became a Jewish intellectual and literary hub. The cosmopolitan city was home to Greek merchants, Turkish barkeeps and Russian intellectuals, who all delighted in Odessa's air of freedom and libertine mores, of which the wits of the time joked that “Hell burns for a hundred miles around it.”
The combination of innovation, globalism and a lifestyle unencumbered by the weight of the past made the city a lodestone for Jews, who flocked to it in droves from all over the Pale of Settlement – Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and elsewhere as well. To illustrate: In 1841 there were 8,000 Jews living in Odessa, but in 1873 that number reached 51,837.
In the 1860s many intellectuals gathered in Odessa, among them Peretz Smolenskin, Alexander Zederbaum, Israel Aksenfeld, and Y.Y. Lerner. Years later other influential figures were active in Odessa, among them Mendele Mocher Sforim, Achad Ha'am and Chaim Nachman Bialik. In Odessa they could live unencumbered by religious restrictions, exchange views freely, make pilgrimage to an admired writer's court and carouse together, without feeling guilty for wasting time that should be spent studying Torah.
At that time some Jews, mostly the richest, began to settle outside the Pale of Settlement as well – in Moscow and St. Petersburg. This in addition to a small Jewish community living in central Russia, in the Caucasus Lands.

1881 | Greasing the Wheels of the Revolution

The Jews' hopes to integrate into Russian society and be, as the revered Jewish poet Judah Leib Gordon put it, “A human being when you go out and a Jew in your own tent” was smashed against the rock of modern anti-Semitism, which reared its ugly head in 1880.
Dazzled by Czar Alexander II's reforms and their accelerated integration in the economic, cultural and academic life of the country, the Jews ignored the anti-Semitic coverage growing more and more prevalent in the Russian press and literature, consistently describing the Jewish “plot” to take over Russia and dispossess the simple farmer of his land.
Author Fyodor Mikhailovich Reshetnikov, for instance, described in his books how Jews buy young Russian men and women and abuse them like slaves. Not to be undone was Dostoyevsky, who in his masterpiece “The Brothers Karamazov” describes a Jew crucifying a four year-old against a wall and delighting in his dying.
Such descriptions and others trickled into the consciousness of the masses and farmers, who sought for someone to blame for their failure to compete in the free market, which appeared following the abolition of serfdom in 1861.
The pogroms of 1881, dubbed “Storms in the South”, left the Jews stricken with grief and astonishment. Great disappointment was caused by the silence of the Russian intellectuals, which at best kept their mouths shut, at worst encouraged the rioters, and at their most cynical regarded the Jews as “grease on the wheels of the revolution,” a metaphor common among Russian socialist revolutionaries. These reactions sharpened the bitter realization for many Jews that whether they joined the local national forces, assimilated or adopted socialist views, they would always be seen as unwanted foreigners and be treated with suspicion and violence.

1884 | Get Thee Out Of Thy Country

Nietzsche's statement that “Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the existence of suffering” may be pessimistic in sentiment, but is most apt to describe the lot of the Jews in Russia in the 1880s. The “Storms in the South” pogroms that broke out in 1881 and the anti-Semitic climate that grew even stronger in their wake with the passage of the “May Laws” and the “Numerus Clausus” laws limiting the number of Jews who could enroll in universities, led the Jews to realize that waiting for emancipation would only prolong their suffering.
From 1881 to the outbreak of WW1 in 1914 some two million Jews left the Pale of Settlement, mostly to the United States and some to Argentina, Britain, South Africa, Australia and the Land of Israel.
The myth of America as “Di goldene medina” (country of gold, in Yiddish) drew the migrants like magic. Reality was less romantic. Upon arrival in America the immigrants huddled in small neighborhoods and suffered from poverty and severe hygiene conditions, which only improved after a generation or two.
At the same time, anti-Semitism in Russia led to a revival of Jewish national sentiments, which manifested in the foundation of Hibat Zion in 1884 in the city of Katowice. One of the ideological leaders of the movement was Leon (Yehudah Leib) Pinsker, author of the manifesto “Auto-emancipation”.
To describe the relations between the Jews and the general society Pinsker used the image of the “jilted lover”: Like a lover courting his beloved only to be rejected again and again, so the Jew tries incessantly to win the love of the Russian, but in vain. The only solution, according to Pinsker, was to establish a national political framework in Israel, the land of our fathers.
The accepted verdict among scholars is that Hibat Zion failed as a movement, but succeeded as an idea. And indeed, the First Aliyah, organized under this movement, was the first of several waves that followed.

1897 | Jews Of The World, Unite!

Dates sometimes have a life of their own. Thus, for example, the muse of history chose 1897 as the official date of birth for two parallel and highly influential Jewish schools of thought were born: The World Zionist Organization and the Bund Movement, the labor party of Russia's Jews.
While the first Zionist Congress convened in the glittering casino hall in Basel, the Bund, as befits a labor movement, was founded in an attic of a house on the outskirts of Vilnius. The Bund received its ideology from Marxist-Socialist sources, and as a result abhorred anything bourgeoisie, all religions and hierarchical social structures. The party called for the abolition of all holidays except for May Day, the holiday on which, the party leaders thundered, “the evil bourgeoisie with their arrogant, rapacious eyes shall shiver in fear.” The Bund opposed Zionism and called on Jews to establish “A social-democratic association of the Jewish proletariat, unfettered in its actions by regional boundaries.”
This should not be understood to mean that the members of the Bund renounced their Jewish identity. On the contrary: The Bund taught its members to be proud of who they were, to refuse to accept the pogroms and to actively react to any injustice and discrimination. The youngsters of the movement even called upon their brethren to take their fates into their own hands.
In the socialist climate spreading rapidly throughout Eastern Europe at the time, the Bund became highly successful, but in the test of history it was the parallel movement, Zionism, that held the winning hand.

1903 | None But Ourselves

In the same year that saw the distribution throughout Russia of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” - possibly the most prevalent anti-Semitic document in the world to this day – a young man was sent to report on the riots that had broken out in the city of Kishinev, later to be known as the “Kishinev Pogrom”. The horrors encountered by this man, poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, were transformed by his razor-sharp quill into one of the most devastating poems in the Hebrew language, “In The City Of Slaughter”. This poem is considered a scathing rebuke of Jewish society, and it wounded the souls of many readers. The dishonor of the Jews, who cowered in their hiding holes praying that evil should not reach them, while their mothers, wives and daughters were raped and murdered before their eyes, was exposed in clear, harsh words.
Bialik's words struck deep, and roused many of Russia's Jews to vengeance and a deep desire to do something, rather than wait in hiding for the killers to come. Many Jews took the realization to heart that a Jew must defend himself, or he was lost.
This was a true revolution of mind. The Jews, who until then were used to the status of a minority in need of another's protection, were forced to grow an awareness of brawn out of thin air. The poems of Bialik and the writings of Berdichevsky may have roused their souls, but the reticence of violence was burned deep in their collective consciousness. Most of them were drawn to the moderate, reserved approach of Achad Ha'am than to that of the tumultuous and combative Yosef Chaim Brener, and yet, many historians mark the Kishinev Pogrom as a watershed line; a formative moment when the collective psychic frequency switched from “None but Him [can save us]” to “None but ourselves.”

1917 | The Global International

Upon the end of WW1, in which tens of thousands of Jewish soldiers died on Mother Russia's altar, a new era began in the land of the Czars, which now became the land of the hammer and sickle. The monopoly on power, which for four hundred years resided exclusively in the hands of the legendary House of Romanov, devolved to the people. Equality became the highest value, and the simple working man was (supposedly) no longer anyone's exploited victim.
For four years civil war raged in Russia, claiming the lives of 15 million people, among them some 100,000 Ukrainian Jews slaughtered by the anti-Semitic White forces. However, the triumph of the revolution and the overthrow of the Czarist regime instantly released immense forces in Russia's large Jewish community.
No-one believed that change would be so swift, as a mere five years before the “Beilis Trial” was held – an infamous blood libel in which the authorities accused a Jew named Menachem Mendel Beilis of baking matza with the blood of Christians, sending anti-Semitism skyrocketing to new heights.
Most of the change happened on the national level. Representative and democratic Jewish communities organized throughout Russia, and attempts to establish an all-Russian Jewish representation began to take shape. The telegraph lines flooded the newsrooms with reports of the Balfour Declaration, promising a national home to the Jewish people, which was the product of efforts by a Jew born in the Pale of Settlement, Chaim Weizmann. All these increased the confidence of the national Jewish circles that their hour of victory was at hand.
And yet, as the Bolshevik revolution grew stronger, the national motivations subsided in favor of the universal ones. Drunk on equality, the Jews embraced the prophecy of Isiah, “For mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people,” and determined that this was a messianic hour of grace, a time to shed the national trappings and unite with the workers of the world, without regard to faith, nation or sex.
It is difficult to overstate the stamp placed by Jews on the face of Russia in the years following the revolution, whether as heads of government and of the Communist Party, as thinkers or as military leaders. In all these fields and many others the Jews played a central part, out of all proportion to their share of the population.
But was it indeed springtime for the People of Abraham? Let the annals of the Jews of the Soviet Union answer this question.

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The Jewish Community of Russia

Russia

Росси́я
Российская Федерация / Rossiyskaya Federatsiya - Russian Federation
A country in eastern Europe and northern Asia, until 1991 part of the Soviet Union.

21st Century

Estimated Jewish population in 2018: 172,000 out of 147,000,000 (0.1%). Russia is home to the seventh largest Jewish community in the world. In addition to Moscow and St. Petersburg, there are several dozen Jewish communities of more than 1,000 people. Main umbrella organizations:

Russian Jewish Congress
Phone: +7 (495) 780-49-78
Email: info@rjc.ru
Website: www.rjc.ru

Federation of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Russia (Va’ad)
Phone: +7 095 230 6700
Fax: +7 095 238 1346

 

HISTORY

The Jews of Russia

1772 | Polish Today, Russian Tomorrow

Many believe there have always been Jews in Russia. However, the truth is that save a few traders wandering between country fairs throughout the Czarist Empire, no Jews at all lived there until 1772.
The reasons were mostly religious. While elsewhere in Europe the Catholic Church wished to maintain the Jewish entity in an inferior position as testament to the victory of Christianity of Judaism, the central religious establishment in Russia – the Russian Orthodox Church – strictly opposed the settlement of Jews, held to be responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. This sentiment can be found in the famous remark by Empress Elizaveta Petrovna: “I have no desire to profit by the haters of Christ.”
This was the situation until the year 1772, when Russia began to annex large parts of Poland, which were populated by multitudes of Jews. It was then that Empress Catherine the Great decided, mostly for financial reasons, to maintain the rights enjoyed by the Jews under the Kingdom of Poland. So it was that hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews found themselves living under Russian sovereignty, without having moved an inch.
Catherine promised “equality to all subjects, regardless of nationality or faith”, and to the Jews she granted rights in the “Charter of Towns”, which decreed that the municipalities of the empire would be run by autonomous administration, and the Jews could enjoy the right to vote for these institutions and be employed by them. However, these rights came with a hefty dose of alienation. Catherine also decreed Jews to be “foreigners” in Russia – enjoying the rights of foreigners but barred from the rights of native Orthodox Russians – and finally in 1791 invented the “Pale of Settlement” - a large but remote swath of land in the west of the empire. Jews enjoyed freedom of movement and toleration of their religion within this territory, but needed special permits to move elsewhere in Russian domains.

1797 | A Genius? You Must Be From Vilnius!

One of the most fascinating chapters in the history of Jews in Russia concerns the ethos of scholarship of Lithuanian Jews, despite the fact that most of those known as “Litvaks” lived in areas outside of modern-day Lithuania.
The moniker “Litvaks” came to stand for the spiritual identity of this stream, which developed as a counter-revolution to the Hasidic movement. Litvaks prized scholarship, rationalism and above all a rejection of Hasidism, which was spreading through Eastern Europe like wildfire at the time.
The ethos of the scholar, who devotes his days and nights to the fine points of the debates between Abai and Rabba, dedicating his life to the hair-splitting of the Talmud, was a role model and an embodiment of the creative force born from the merger of faith and reason. Furthermore, being a Litvak scholar made one part of the community elite, opening the doors to a possible match with the daughter of someone rich and well-born, thus securing one's financial existence for life.
The founding father of the Litvak tradition was Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman (the Gr”a) of Vilnius, or Vilna as Jews called it, better known as The Gaon of Vilna (1720-1779). Although he served in no official capacity and was rarely seen in public, the Gaon enjoyed extraordinary admiration within his lifetime. His authority stemmed from his personality and intellectual prowess. The Gaon of Vilna had many pupils, the most famous of whom was Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, who founded the famous yeshiva named after his hometown. Many years later that institute of learning would boast a graduate named Chaim Nachman Bialik, the national poet of Israel.

1801 | There Is No Despair

Against the model of the rationalist Litvak scholar stood the common-man's Hasidic model, which focused on his emotional life and religious experience and offered more to hardworking, hard-living Jews.
The struggle between these two schools, known as the Hasidim-Misnagdim dispute (Misnagdim is the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the Hebrew word Mitnagdim = “opponents”), was replete with boycotts, ostracism and Jews informing on each other to the Gentile authorities. The most famous such case is that of the founder of the Chabad/Liubavitch group, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, who was thrown in a Russian jail in 1801 due to information from Misnagdim informants.
Several famous Hasidic dynasties operated within the Pale of Settlement, among them those of Chernobyl, Slonim, Beslov, Ger and of course Chabad. Each Hasidic court was headed by an Admor – A Hebrew acronym for “Our Master, Teacher and Rabbi” - a man shrouded in mystery and the aura of holiness. The Admor was reputed to have magical abilities and a direct line of contact with higher beings. Multitudes of followers (“Hasidim”) thronged to him for guidance on every matter under the sun – from fertility problems to financial difficulties and match-making. The Hasidim had (and still have) distinct dress and social codes. They would gather in the “Shtibel” - a place that serves as house of worship, of study, and a gathering place for Sabbath and holiday meals. At times a Hasid would make a pilgrimage to his Admor's court, even if it was thousands of miles away. The highlight of the Hasid's week is the “Tisch” meal (tisch means “table” in Yiddish), which is held on Friday night, during which the Hasidim gather around their Rebbe and lose themselves in ecstatic songs that drove them to spiritual elation.
According to the basic views of Hasidism, joy is the root of the soul. This view is expressed in the famous saying by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, that “There is no despair in the world at all.” Other key concepts of Hasidism are love of one's fellow man, abolition of classes and removal of barriers. These humane principles are beautifully captured in a prayer composed by the Admor Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk:
“Furthermore, give to our hearts to each see our friends' advantages and not their shortcomings, that we may each speak to each other honestly and pleasingly to you, and let no hate arise in our hearts from one to another, Heaven forbid, and strengthen our love for you, for it is known that all is to please you, Amen so be thy will.”

1804 | Improving The Jew

13 years after the Jews of France were granted equality, Russia passed the “Edicts of 1804”, whose stated goal was to “improve the Jews” and integrate them into the economic and social fabric of the Czarist Empire.
Like many other episodes in Jewish history, the attempt to “correct the situation of the Jews” was attended by purist justifications and religious condescension meant to legitimize the hostility directed at them. While the edicts reflected the liberal approach of the early reign of Czar Alexander I, allowing Jews to attend any Russian institute of higher learning, at the same time Jews were required to “purify their religion of the fanaticism and prejudices which are so detrimental to their happiness”, seeing as “under no regime has [the Jew] reached proper education, and has hitherto maintained an Asiatic idleness alongside a revolting lack of cleanliness.” And yet, the Edicts of 1804 state that the nature of the Jews stems from their financial insecurity, due to which they are forced “to consent to any demand, if only it should benefit them in any way”.
Despite the fact that the Edicts of 1804 were tainted with anti-Semitism, eventually they benefited the Jews. The “Pale of Settlement” was redefined and expanded, with new territories added to it; Jews who chose to engage in farming were awarded land and tax relief; and rich Jews who opened workshops received orders from the state.

1844 – Shtetl, The Jewish Town

For hundreds of years, the shtetl – the Jewish town in Eastern Europe – was a sort of closed autonomous Jewish microcosm. Yiddish was the prevailing language, and the community institutions – the charity, the religious trust, the religious courts and the community council – ran the public life. Figures such as the gabbay (who collected payments for the synagogue and managed its funds), the shamash (the custodian of the synagogue and its upkeep), the butcher and others populated its alleys alongside the town idiot, the aguna (a woman whose husband has either disappeared without proof of death or is refusing to divorce her, leaving her unable to remarry) and the beit midrash loafer. The only contact between shtetl Jews and their gentile neighbors took place at country fairs and the Sunday market, usually held in the main square of the town.
The penetration of Enlightenment (and its Jewish variant, Haskala) and modernism into the Jewish town throughout the 19th century ate away at the traditional structure of the shtetl. Many young Jews removed themselves from the home, the family and the familiar surroundings. Some of them, including Abraham Mapu, Sh.Y. Abramowitz (known by his pseudonym “Mendele Mocher Sforim”) and Shalom Aleichem were to become the pioneers of the Haskala literature. In their descriptions, which ranged from nostalgia to biting satire, they painted the Jewish township and its characters, streets and institutions, at times castigating the town and at times painting it in rosy, yearning colors.
The traditional structure of the town was attacked not only from the inside, but from without as well. In 1827 Czar Nikolai I issued an edict requiring every Jewish community to supply a certain quota of young men, age 12-25, to the Russian army for a period of 25 years. When the community didn't meet its quote, the Czar sent men to lie in wait for the children and kidnap them away from their families and schools. These children were sent to distant location, where they were handed over to gentile farmers for reeducation until they reached the age of enlistment. The “Cantonists Edict”, as the Czar's decree was known, divided the community, which was forced again and again to decide which children shall suffer the horrible fate.
In 1835 the Czar's government issued laws forcing the Jews to wear special clothing, banning them from distributing “harmful” books in Yiddish and Hebrew and distinguishing between “useful” and “un-useful” Jews. Another nail in the coffin of the shtetl was driven in 1844, when the “kahal” system, which was the self-administration mechanism of the Jewish community for many years, was abolished.

1860 | Odessa – Non-Stop City

It is well known that language creates consciousness and consciousness creates reality. An example of this is the policy of Alexander II, who sought to reward “good Jews”, unlike his father Nikolai, who chose to punish “bad Jews”.
The Jews seized upon Alexander's reforms with great gusto. Figures such as Adolph Rothstein, the great financial wizard, the Polyakov Family, who covered the soil of the empire in railroad tracks, and Baron Joseph Gunzburg, who established a large banking network throughout Russia, are but a few prominent examples of Jews whose talent took great advantage of Alexander II's liberal policies.
The atmosphere of liberalism spread to the world of publishing as well, with Jewish periodicals popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, including “HaMagid” (1856), “HaMelitz” (1860) and “HaCarmel” (1860).
From the mid 19th century the city of Odessa, on the shore of the Black Sea, became a Jewish intellectual and literary hub. The cosmopolitan city was home to Greek merchants, Turkish barkeeps and Russian intellectuals, who all delighted in Odessa's air of freedom and libertine mores, of which the wits of the time joked that “Hell burns for a hundred miles around it.”
The combination of innovation, globalism and a lifestyle unencumbered by the weight of the past made the city a lodestone for Jews, who flocked to it in droves from all over the Pale of Settlement – Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and elsewhere as well. To illustrate: In 1841 there were 8,000 Jews living in Odessa, but in 1873 that number reached 51,837.
In the 1860s many intellectuals gathered in Odessa, among them Peretz Smolenskin, Alexander Zederbaum, Israel Aksenfeld, and Y.Y. Lerner. Years later other influential figures were active in Odessa, among them Mendele Mocher Sforim, Achad Ha'am and Chaim Nachman Bialik. In Odessa they could live unencumbered by religious restrictions, exchange views freely, make pilgrimage to an admired writer's court and carouse together, without feeling guilty for wasting time that should be spent studying Torah.
At that time some Jews, mostly the richest, began to settle outside the Pale of Settlement as well – in Moscow and St. Petersburg. This in addition to a small Jewish community living in central Russia, in the Caucasus Lands.

1881 | Greasing the Wheels of the Revolution

The Jews' hopes to integrate into Russian society and be, as the revered Jewish poet Judah Leib Gordon put it, “A human being when you go out and a Jew in your own tent” was smashed against the rock of modern anti-Semitism, which reared its ugly head in 1880.
Dazzled by Czar Alexander II's reforms and their accelerated integration in the economic, cultural and academic life of the country, the Jews ignored the anti-Semitic coverage growing more and more prevalent in the Russian press and literature, consistently describing the Jewish “plot” to take over Russia and dispossess the simple farmer of his land.
Author Fyodor Mikhailovich Reshetnikov, for instance, described in his books how Jews buy young Russian men and women and abuse them like slaves. Not to be undone was Dostoyevsky, who in his masterpiece “The Brothers Karamazov” describes a Jew crucifying a four year-old against a wall and delighting in his dying.
Such descriptions and others trickled into the consciousness of the masses and farmers, who sought for someone to blame for their failure to compete in the free market, which appeared following the abolition of serfdom in 1861.
The pogroms of 1881, dubbed “Storms in the South”, left the Jews stricken with grief and astonishment. Great disappointment was caused by the silence of the Russian intellectuals, which at best kept their mouths shut, at worst encouraged the rioters, and at their most cynical regarded the Jews as “grease on the wheels of the revolution,” a metaphor common among Russian socialist revolutionaries. These reactions sharpened the bitter realization for many Jews that whether they joined the local national forces, assimilated or adopted socialist views, they would always be seen as unwanted foreigners and be treated with suspicion and violence.

1884 | Get Thee Out Of Thy Country

Nietzsche's statement that “Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the existence of suffering” may be pessimistic in sentiment, but is most apt to describe the lot of the Jews in Russia in the 1880s. The “Storms in the South” pogroms that broke out in 1881 and the anti-Semitic climate that grew even stronger in their wake with the passage of the “May Laws” and the “Numerus Clausus” laws limiting the number of Jews who could enroll in universities, led the Jews to realize that waiting for emancipation would only prolong their suffering.
From 1881 to the outbreak of WW1 in 1914 some two million Jews left the Pale of Settlement, mostly to the United States and some to Argentina, Britain, South Africa, Australia and the Land of Israel.
The myth of America as “Di goldene medina” (country of gold, in Yiddish) drew the migrants like magic. Reality was less romantic. Upon arrival in America the immigrants huddled in small neighborhoods and suffered from poverty and severe hygiene conditions, which only improved after a generation or two.
At the same time, anti-Semitism in Russia led to a revival of Jewish national sentiments, which manifested in the foundation of Hibat Zion in 1884 in the city of Katowice. One of the ideological leaders of the movement was Leon (Yehudah Leib) Pinsker, author of the manifesto “Auto-emancipation”.
To describe the relations between the Jews and the general society Pinsker used the image of the “jilted lover”: Like a lover courting his beloved only to be rejected again and again, so the Jew tries incessantly to win the love of the Russian, but in vain. The only solution, according to Pinsker, was to establish a national political framework in Israel, the land of our fathers.
The accepted verdict among scholars is that Hibat Zion failed as a movement, but succeeded as an idea. And indeed, the First Aliyah, organized under this movement, was the first of several waves that followed.

1897 | Jews Of The World, Unite!

Dates sometimes have a life of their own. Thus, for example, the muse of history chose 1897 as the official date of birth for two parallel and highly influential Jewish schools of thought were born: The World Zionist Organization and the Bund Movement, the labor party of Russia's Jews.
While the first Zionist Congress convened in the glittering casino hall in Basel, the Bund, as befits a labor movement, was founded in an attic of a house on the outskirts of Vilnius. The Bund received its ideology from Marxist-Socialist sources, and as a result abhorred anything bourgeoisie, all religions and hierarchical social structures. The party called for the abolition of all holidays except for May Day, the holiday on which, the party leaders thundered, “the evil bourgeoisie with their arrogant, rapacious eyes shall shiver in fear.” The Bund opposed Zionism and called on Jews to establish “A social-democratic association of the Jewish proletariat, unfettered in its actions by regional boundaries.”
This should not be understood to mean that the members of the Bund renounced their Jewish identity. On the contrary: The Bund taught its members to be proud of who they were, to refuse to accept the pogroms and to actively react to any injustice and discrimination. The youngsters of the movement even called upon their brethren to take their fates into their own hands.
In the socialist climate spreading rapidly throughout Eastern Europe at the time, the Bund became highly successful, but in the test of history it was the parallel movement, Zionism, that held the winning hand.

1903 | None But Ourselves

In the same year that saw the distribution throughout Russia of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” - possibly the most prevalent anti-Semitic document in the world to this day – a young man was sent to report on the riots that had broken out in the city of Kishinev, later to be known as the “Kishinev Pogrom”. The horrors encountered by this man, poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, were transformed by his razor-sharp quill into one of the most devastating poems in the Hebrew language, “In The City Of Slaughter”. This poem is considered a scathing rebuke of Jewish society, and it wounded the souls of many readers. The dishonor of the Jews, who cowered in their hiding holes praying that evil should not reach them, while their mothers, wives and daughters were raped and murdered before their eyes, was exposed in clear, harsh words.
Bialik's words struck deep, and roused many of Russia's Jews to vengeance and a deep desire to do something, rather than wait in hiding for the killers to come. Many Jews took the realization to heart that a Jew must defend himself, or he was lost.
This was a true revolution of mind. The Jews, who until then were used to the status of a minority in need of another's protection, were forced to grow an awareness of brawn out of thin air. The poems of Bialik and the writings of Berdichevsky may have roused their souls, but the reticence of violence was burned deep in their collective consciousness. Most of them were drawn to the moderate, reserved approach of Achad Ha'am than to that of the tumultuous and combative Yosef Chaim Brener, and yet, many historians mark the Kishinev Pogrom as a watershed line; a formative moment when the collective psychic frequency switched from “None but Him [can save us]” to “None but ourselves.”

1917 | The Global International

Upon the end of WW1, in which tens of thousands of Jewish soldiers died on Mother Russia's altar, a new era began in the land of the Czars, which now became the land of the hammer and sickle. The monopoly on power, which for four hundred years resided exclusively in the hands of the legendary House of Romanov, devolved to the people. Equality became the highest value, and the simple working man was (supposedly) no longer anyone's exploited victim.
For four years civil war raged in Russia, claiming the lives of 15 million people, among them some 100,000 Ukrainian Jews slaughtered by the anti-Semitic White forces. However, the triumph of the revolution and the overthrow of the Czarist regime instantly released immense forces in Russia's large Jewish community.
No-one believed that change would be so swift, as a mere five years before the “Beilis Trial” was held – an infamous blood libel in which the authorities accused a Jew named Menachem Mendel Beilis of baking matza with the blood of Christians, sending anti-Semitism skyrocketing to new heights.
Most of the change happened on the national level. Representative and democratic Jewish communities organized throughout Russia, and attempts to establish an all-Russian Jewish representation began to take shape. The telegraph lines flooded the newsrooms with reports of the Balfour Declaration, promising a national home to the Jewish people, which was the product of efforts by a Jew born in the Pale of Settlement, Chaim Weizmann. All these increased the confidence of the national Jewish circles that their hour of victory was at hand.
And yet, as the Bolshevik revolution grew stronger, the national motivations subsided in favor of the universal ones. Drunk on equality, the Jews embraced the prophecy of Isiah, “For mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people,” and determined that this was a messianic hour of grace, a time to shed the national trappings and unite with the workers of the world, without regard to faith, nation or sex.
It is difficult to overstate the stamp placed by Jews on the face of Russia in the years following the revolution, whether as heads of government and of the Communist Party, as thinkers or as military leaders. In all these fields and many others the Jews played a central part, out of all proportion to their share of the population.
But was it indeed springtime for the People of Abraham? Let the annals of the Jews of the Soviet Union answer this question.

Written by researchers of ANU Museum of the Jewish People