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HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN RUSSIA AND POLAND - S.M. Dubnow




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HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN RUSSIA AND POLAND

FROM THE DEATH OF ALEXANDER I UNTIL THE DEATH OF ALEXANDER III

by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook

CHAPTER XX



THE INNER LIFE OF RUSSIAN JEWRY DURING THE REIGN OF ALEXANDER II.

1. THE RUSSIFICATION OF THE JEWISH INTELLIGENZIA

In the inner, cultural life of Russian Jewry a radical break took place during this period. True, the change did not affect the rank and file of Russian Jewry, being rather confined to its upper layers, to Jewish "society," or the so-called _intelligenzia._ But as far as the latter circles are concerned, the rapidity and intensity of their spiritual transformation may well be compared with the stormy eve of Jewish emancipation in Germany. This wild rush for spiritual regeneration was out of all proportion to the snail-like tardiness and piecemeal character of civil emancipation in Russia. However, the modern history of Western Europe has shown more than once that such pre-emancipation periods, including those that evidently prove abortive, offer the most favorable conditions for all kinds of mental and cultural revolutions. Liberty as a hope invariably arouses greater enthusiasm for self-rejuvenation, than liberty as a fact, when the romanticism of the unknown has vanished.

Hurled into the abyss of despair by the last events of Nicholas' regime, the Russian Jews suddenly received what may be called an earnest of civil emancipation. The Jewish "Pale" knew but vaguely what was taking place in the recesses of the St. Petersburg chancelleries during the decade of reforms, but that a striking change in the attitude of the Government had taken place was seen and felt by all. Freedom had been granted to the victims of the military inquisition, the cantonists. The gates of the Russian interior had been opened to Jews possessing certain qualifications with regard to property, education, or labor. The educated Jews, in particular, were smiled upon benevolently "from above": they were regarded by the Government as a factor making for assimilation and as a connecting link with the lower Jewish classes. The vernal sun of Russian liberty, which flooded with its rays the social life of the whole country, just then emerging from serfdom, shone also for the hapless Jewish people, and filled their hearts with cheer and hope. The blasts of the reveille which had been sounded in the best circles of Russian society by such humanitarians as Pirogov, [1] and such champions of liberty as Hertzen, [2] Chernyshevski, [3] and Dobrolubov, [4] were carried through the air into the huge Jewish ghetto of Russia. True, the Jewish question received, during the decade of reforms, but scanty attention in the Russian press, but the little that was said about it was permeated by a friendly spirit. The former habit of making sport of the Zhyd was energetically repudiated.

[Footnote 1: Nicholas Pirogov (1810-1881), famous as pedagogue and administrator. He was a staunch friend of the Jews, and was deeply interested in their cultural aspirations.]

[Footnote 2: See above, p. 24, n. 1.]

[Footnote 3: Famous publicist and author, died 1889.]

[Footnote 4: A famous literary critic, died 1861.]

This change of attitude may well be illustrated by the following incident. In 1858 the magazine _Illustratzia_ ("Illustration") of St. Petersburg published an anti-Semitic article on "the Zhyds of the Russian West." The article was answered by two cultured Jews, Chatzkin and Horvitz, in the influential periodicals _Russki Vyestnik_ ("The Russian Herald") and _Atyeney_ ("Athenaeum"). In reply to this refutation, the _Illustratzia_ showered a torrent of abuse upon the two authors who were contemptuously styled "Reb Chatzkin" and "Reb Horvitz," and whose pro-Jewish attitude was explained by motives of avarice. The action of the anti-Semitic journal aroused a storm of indignation in the literary circles of both capitals. The conduct of the _Illustratzia_ was condemned in a public protest which bore the signatures of 140 writers, including some of the most illustrious names in the Russian literary world. The protest declared that "in the persons of Horvitz and Chatzkin an insult has been offered to the entire (Russian) people, to all Russian literature," which has no right to let "naked slander" pass under the disguise of polemics.

Though the protesting writers were wholly actuated by the desire to protect the moral purity of Russian literature and did not at all touch upon the Jewish question, the Jewish public workers were nevertheless enchanted by this declaration of literary Russia, and were deeply gratified by the implied assumption that the Jews of Russia formed part of the Russian people.

Several sympathetic articles in influential periodicals, advocating the necessity of Jewish emancipation, seemed to complete the happiness of the progressive section of Russian Jewry. Even the Slavophile publicist Ivan Aksakov, who subsequently joined the ranks of Jew-baiters, recognized at that time, in 1862, the need of a certain measure of emancipation for the Jews. The only thing that worried him was the danger that the admission of the Jews to the Russian civil service "in all departments," might result "in filling with Jews" the Senate and Council of State, not excluding the possibility of a Jew occupying the post of Procurator-General of the Holy Synod. Unshakable in his friendship for the Jews was the physician and humanitarian N. Pirogov, [1] who, in his capacity of superintendent of the Odessa School District, was largely instrumental in encouraging the Jewish youth in their pursuit of general culture and in creating a Russian Jewish press.

[Footnote 1: See above, p. 207, n. 1.]

The most efficient factor of cultural regeneration was the secular school, both the general Russian and the Jewish Crown school. A flood of young men, lured by the rosy prospects of a free human existence in the midst of a free Russian people, rushed from the farthermost nooks and corners of the Pale into the _gymnazia_ and universities whose doors were kept wide open for the Jews. Many children of the ghetto rapidly enlisted under the banner of the Russian youth, and became intoxicated with the luxuriant growth of Russian literature which carried to them the intellectual gifts of the contemporary European writers. The masters of thought in that generation, Chernyshevski, Dobrolubov, Pisaryev, Buckle, Darwin, Spencer, became also the idols of the Jewish youth. The heads which had but recently been bending over the Talmud folios in the stuffy atmosphere of the heders and yeshibahs were now crammed with the ideas of positivism, evolution, and socialism. Sharp and sudden was the transition from rabbinic scholasticism and soporific hasidic mysticism to this new world of ideas, flooded with the light of science, to these new revelations announcing the glad tidings of the freedom of thought, of the demolition of all traditional fetters, of the annihilation of all religious and national barriers, of the brotherhood of all mankind. The Jewish youth began to shatter the old idols, disregarding the outcry of the masses that had bowed down before them. A tragic war ensued between "fathers and children," [1] a war of annihilation, for the belligerent parties were extreme obscurantism and fanaticism, on the one hand, and the negation of all historic forms of Judaism, both religious and national, on the other.

[Footnote 1: The title of a famous novel by Turgenieff, written in 1862, depicting the break between the old and the new generation.]

In the middle between these two extremes stood the men of the transitional period, the adepts of Haskalah, those "lovers of enlightenment" who had in younger years suffered for their convictions at the hands of fanatics and now came forward to make peace between religion and culture. Encouraged by the success of the new ideas, the Maskilim became more aggressive in their struggle with obscurantism. They ventured to expose the Tzaddiks who scattered the seeds of superstition, to ridicule the ignorance and credulity of the masses, and occasionally went so far as to complain of the burdensome ceremonial discipline, hinting at the need of moderate religious reforms. Their principal task, however, was the cultivation of the Neo-Hebraic literary style and the rejuvenation of the content of that literature. They were willing to pursue the road of the emancipated Jewry of Western Europe, but only to a certain limit, refusing to cut themselves adrift from the national language or the religious and national ideals.

On the other hand, that section of the young generation which had passed through a Russian school refused to recognize any such barriers, and rushed with elemental force on the road of self-annihilation. _Russification_ became the war cry of these Jewish circles, as it had long been the watchword of the Government. The one side was anxious to Russify, the other was equally anxious to be Russified, and the natural result was an _entente cordiale_ between the new Jewish _intelligenzia_ and the Government.

The ideal of Russification was marked by different stages, beginning with the harmless acquisition of the Russian language, and culminating in a complete identification with Russian culture and Russian national ideals, involving the renunciation of the religious and national traditions of Judaism. The advocates of moderate Russification did not foresee that the latter was bound, by the force of circumstances, to assume a radical form, while the champions of extreme Russification saw no harm for Jewry in following the example of complete assimilation set by Western Europe. To the former all that Russification implied was the removal of the obnoxious excrescences of Judaism but not the demolition of the national organism itself. Progressive Jewry was rightly incensed against the obsolete forms of Jewish life which obstructed all healthy development; against the fierce superstition of the hasidic environment, against the charlatanism of degenerating Tzaddikism, against the impenetrable religious fanaticism which was throttling the noblest strivings of the Jewish mind. But this struggle for freedom of thought should have been fought out within the confines of Judaism, by means of a thorough-going cultural self-improvement, and not on the soil of assimilation, nor in alliance with the powers that be, which were aiming not at the rejuvenation but at the obliteration of Judaism, in accordance with the official program of "fusion."

At any rate, the league between the new Jewish _intelligenzia_ and the Government was an undeniable fact. The "Crown rabbis" [1] and school teachers from among the graduates of the rabbinical schools of Vilna and Zhitomir played the role of Government agents who were apt to resort to police force in their fight against orthodoxy. Feeling secure beneath the protecting wings of the Russian authorities, they often went out of their way to hurt the susceptibilities of the masses by their ostentatious disregard of the Jewish religious ceremonies. When the communities refused to appoint rabbis of this class, the latter obtained their posts either by direct appointment from the Government or by bringing the pressure of the provincial administration to bear upon the electors.

[Footnote 1: See above, p. 176, n. 1.]

Needless to say, the "enlightenment" propagated by these Government underlings did not win the confidence of the orthodox masses who remembered vividly how official enlightenment was disseminated by the Government of Nicholas I. during the era of juvenile conscription.

The new Jewish _intelligenzia_ showed utter indifference to the sentiments of the Jewish masses, and did not hesitate to induce the Government to interfere in the affairs of inner Jewish life. Thus by a regulation issued in 1864 all hasidic books were subjected to a most rigorous censorship, and Jewish printing-presses were placed under a more vigilant supervision than theretofore. The Tzaddiks were barred from visiting their parishes for the purpose of "working miracles" and "collecting tribute," a measure which only served to surround the hasidic chieftains with a halo of martyrdom and resulted in the pilgrimage of vast numbers of Hasidim to the "holy places," the "capitals" of the Tzaddiks. All this only went to intensify the distrust of the masses toward the college-bred, officially hall-marked Jewish intellectuals and to lower their moral prestige, to the detriment of the cause of enlightenment of which they professed to be the missionaries.

A peculiar variety of assimilationist tendencies sprang up among the upper class of Jews in the Kingdom of Poland, more especially in Warsaw. It was a most repellent variety of assimilation, exhibiting more flunkeyism than pursuit of culture. The "Poles of the Mosaic Persuasion," as these assimilationists styled themselves, had long been begging for admission into Polish society, though rudely repulsed by it. During the insurrection of 1861-1863, when they were graciously received as useful allies, they were indefatigable in parading their Polish patriotism. In the Polish Jewish weekly, _Jutrzenka_, [1] "The Dawn," the organ of these assimilationists, the trite West-European theory, which looks upon Judaism as a religious sect and not as a national community, was repeated _ad nauseam_. One of the most prominent contributors to that journal, Ludwig Gumplovich, the author of a monograph on the history of the Jews in Poland, who subsequently made a name for himself as a sociologist, and, after his conversion to Christianity, received a professorship at an Austrian university, opened his series of articles on Polish-Jewish history with the following observation: "The fact that the Jews had a history was their misfortune in Europe.... For their history inevitably presupposes an isolated life severed from that of the other nations. It is just this which constitutes the misfortune alluded to."

[Footnote 1: Pronounce _Yutzhenka_.]

After the insurrection, the Polonization of the Jewish population assumed menacing proportions. The upper layer of Polish Jewry consisted exclusively of "Poles of the Mosaic Persuasion" who rejected all elements of Jewish culture, while the broad masses, following blindly the mandates of their Tzaddiks, rejected fanatically even the most indispensable elements of European civilization. Riven between such monstrous extremes, Polish Jewry was unable to attain even to a semblance of normal development.



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