No Cover Image

Russia's First Modern Jews: The Jews of Shklov

Copyright Date: 1995
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 212
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Russia's First Modern Jews
    Book Description:

    Long before there were Jewish communities in the land of the tsars, Jews inhabited a region which they called medinat rusiya, the land of Russia. Prior to its annexation by Russia, the land of Russia was not a center of rabbinic culture. But in 1772, with its annexation by Tsarist Russia, this remote region was severed from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; its 65,000 Jews were thus cut off from the heartland of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Forced into independence, these Jews set about forging a community with its own religious leadership and institutions. The three great intellectual currents in East European Jewry--Hasidism, Rabbinic Mitnagdism, and Haskalah--all converged on Eastern Belorussia, where they clashed and competed. In the course of a generation, the community of Shklov - the most prominent of the towns in the area - witnessed an explosion of intellectual and cultural activity. Focusing on the social and intellectual odysseys of merchants, maskilim, and rabbis, and their varied attempts to combine Judaism and European culture, David Fishman here chronicles the remarkable story of these first modern Jews of Russia.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2886-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. A Note on Transliteration
    (pp. xiii-xiii)
  6. [Maps]
    (pp. xiv-xvi)
  7. Introduction: The Jews in the “Land of Russia”
    (pp. 1-6)

    Long before there were Jewish communities in the land of the Tsars, Jews inhabited a region which they calledmedinat rusiya,“the land of Russia.” Situated along the banks of the Dniepr and Dvina rivers, “the land of Russia” occupied the far eastern corner of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and corresponded to the Mohylew, Mtsislavl, and Witebsk districts of the Lithuanian Grand-Duchy.

    In this region of what is today eastern Belarus, most of the Christian inhabitants were followers of the Orthodox church, and spoke a Slavic dialect much closer to Russian than to either Polish or Ukrainian. Commerce with Smolensk and...

  8. CHAPTER I The Great Divide: Hasidim and Mitnagdim
    (pp. 7-21)

    When the Jews of eastern Byelorussia came under the control of the Tsarist Empire, in August of 1772, they were in the throws of a tense and volatile internal religious conflict. The “land of Russia” was the birthplace of the struggle between Hasidim and Mitnagdim; a conflict which spread from Shklov to Vilna, and from Vilna to the rest of Jewish Eastern Europe. The division between the two camps became the defining cultural feature of Jewish life in Russia for several decades to come.¹

    In the years immediately prior to the partition, the “land of Russia” was a center of...

  9. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  10. CHAPTER 2 From Byelorussia to Prussia: The Odyssey of Rabbi Barukh Schick
    (pp. 22-45)

    The name of Rabbi Barukh Schick of Shklov (1744–1808) has survived in historical memory thanks to a few lines in the introduction to one of his books, a Hebrew translation of Euclid’sElements,in which he related remarks made to him by the Vilna Gaon in February 1778 in support of the study of science. “I heard from his holy tongue” wrote Schick, “that for every deficiency of knowledge a man has in the sciences [hokhmah], he will have ten deficiencies of knowledge in the science of the Torah; for Torah and science are closely related. And he commanded me...

  11. CHAPTER 3 New Social and Cultural Horizons
    (pp. 46-63)

    During the first years after Russia’s annexation of eastern Byelorussia, several of the territory’s largest estates were confiscated from their Polish and Lithuanian landlords, who refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Empire, and granted by Empress Catherine the Great to Russian officials and dignitaries. Among the recipients of Catherine’s largesse were her close personal companion and political adviser Count Grigorii Potemkin (1739–91), who received the Krichev district in January 1776, and Major-General Count Semion Gavrilovich Zorich (1745–99), who received Shklov and its estates in September 1777. Zorich, a celebrated hero of the first Russian-Turkish war, was Catherine’s...

  12. CHAPTER 4 Ideological and Literary Ferment
    (pp. 64-79)

    In eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, the contours of Jewish literature mirrored the religious values of Jewish society. Literary creativity in Hebrew fell overwhelmingly into three broad categories—halakhah, homiletics, and Kabbalah. Only at the turn of the nineteenth century did Hebrew authors appear in Eastern Europe who challenged traditional beliefs and values, and called for the reform and renewal of Jewish culture. They produced works whose subject matter, form, ideas, and style were a bold departure from traditional Jewish literature.

    The most famous pioneer of Haskalah literature in Eastern Europe was Menahem Mendl Lefin (1749–1826), who produced numerous works of...

  13. CHAPTER 5 Struggles for Emancipation
    (pp. 80-100)

    In the spring of 1787, Empress Catherine stopped off in Shklov while en route to Kiev, and received ten leaders of its Jewish community in an official audience. After the formalities and niceties, such as kissing the Empress’s hand, the leaders, who must have included Notkin and Zeitlin, submitted a petition requesting that Jews no longer be referred to in official parlance by the derogatory termzhidy,and that they henceforth be called by the more lofty biblical termevrei(Hebrews). Catherine agreed, and issued a directive to that effect. The HamburgStaats-und Gelehrte Zeitung,which reported the event, explained...

  14. CHAPTER 6 Rabbinic Accommodation
    (pp. 101-121)

    One striking feature of the Shklov Jewish community in the late eighteenth century is the conspicuous absence of rejectionism toward enlightenment and acculturation by its rabbinic leadership. There were no calls by the rabbis of the community to beware of Gentile science and languages, of rationalism and heresy. While the Maskil Naftali Hirtz Schulman encountered staunch opposition in Vilna (in the 1790s, and again in the 1810s), he published his Maskilic works freely in Shklov, with letters of approbation from the town’s communal rabbis.¹

    Indeed, the Shklov community’s recognized social and political leaders—Notkin and Zeitlin—were themselves strongly identified...

  15. CHAPTER 7 Decline and Dissolution
    (pp. 122-132)

    The growth and flourishing of Shklov as a Jewish cultural center was the result of a confluence of factors: the severing of the Mogilev province from Poland—and its annexation by Russia—in 1772, the town's emergence as one of Russia’s commercial windows on the West, the concentration of a group of disciples of the Vilna Gaon in Shklov, and the establishment of Count Semion Zorich’s court there in 1778. The town’s subsequent decline was likewise the product of several interrelated processes.

    Shklov’s prominence as a commercial center began to decline after the second and third partitions of Poland, in...

  16. Conclusion
    (pp. 133-136)

    During the historical interlude between the first and last partition of Poland, and, arguably, for a decade thereafter, the Byelorussian town of Shklov was the foremost center of Jewish cultural, intellectual, and political activity in the Russian Empire. The “Sages of Shklov” consolidated and strengthened traditional rabbinism in their city and province, and conducted a successful campaign to prevent the spread of the Hasidic movement into their region; the local disciples of the Vilna Gaon transmitted their master’s teachings, and were the driving force behind the publication of his works; Shklov’s Hebrew printing presses were the most prolific in the...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 137-168)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 169-180)
  19. Index
    (pp. 181-196)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 197-197)