From Shtetl to Self-Empowerment

Trip Start Jul 21, 2013
Trip End Aug 05, 2013

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Flag of Russia  , North-West Russia,
Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What a Difference a Hundred Years Make!

For all the European sophistication and military glory of the rulers of Russia and their willingness to assimilate nobility from all over Europe into their royal court, they had a dark side.

They not only ruled through terror and intimidation, they also maintained slavery (serfdom) and harbored a fear and hatred of the Jews.

When, in 1770, Catherine the Great expanded on the Polish territories that Peter the Great had first conquered, she found herself with Jewish subjects for the first time.

For hundreds of years, European Jews had found refuge and relative tolerance in Poland after a history of Crusade, Inquisition, ghettoization, massacre, and expulsion.

But, the Russian royal court and the Russian Orthodox Church had a different attitude towards Jews.

Catherine promptly banned Jews from St. Petersburg and Moscow and she established the "Pale of Settlement," an area at the Western end of the empire that was the only place Jews could live. It was a vast territory that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and eventually encompassed 5 million Jews – 2/3rds of European Jewry and home to the great centers of Jewish Talmudic and Chassidic life.

At the time, Jews were living a life apart in Poland, with nearly 90% speaking Yiddish as their primary, or only spoken language.

Jews were not allowed to go to university, join the government, do business in the major Russian cities, or join the Russian Army.

By the mid 1800's, the ideas of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and “the rights of man” began to permeate Western Europe and a Jewish emancipation began. But in Russia, only a trickle of “useful” Jews were allowed in. Prostitutes, doctors and industrialists could buy their way into the cities and by the 1870’s the first Jewish cemetery was established in Moscow. A few grand “choral” synagogues were allowed to be built – as long as they were neither anywhere near a church or a road that was ever used by a Tsar.

Tsar Nicholas I (who ruled from 1825 to 1855) decided that it would be useful to further integrate his Jewish subjects so he decreed that a quota of Jewish boys from 9 to 12 years old be conscripted into the Russian army for 25 year terms. They were educated in Russian, often baptized and, in most cases, never saw their families again. To the Jews of the Pale of Settlement this was nearly equivalent to Pharoah’s decree of killing every first born male.

Also, from the 1880-1914 period, vicious anti-Semitics acts and libels were state sponsored including the arrest of Jews accused of murdering Christian children to use their blood for matzoh (the blood libels), The Protocol of the Elders of Zion was published (accusing Jews of a global conspiracy to take over the world), and regular progroms, followed by the hardships of World War I and the Russian Revolution convinced over 2 million Jews from this area of Europe to settle in the United States and 150,000 Jews made their way to Palestine. Now these two areas are the birthplaces for 90% of Jews born today. Needless to say, we thank G-d everyday that our grandparents made the choices they did, enduring the hardships of displacement, poverty and “otherness” so that we could avoid what was the next chapter of Russian Jewish history – genocide and the obliteration of Judaism.

We will be spending the next few days exploring the life of the Russian Jews in the pre-Soviet period and what Jewish renewal means today.
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