Lost & Found

Scenes of Jewish Life in Imperial Russia

What was Jewish life like in Russia in the years before the revolution? It certainly did not take place in an unchanging shtetl, as historians of the period have repeatedly reminded anyone who was listening. But even those who know a great deal about the enormous economic, social, religious, and political changes Russian Jewry was then undergoing may not have much of a feel for what this meant in the everyday lives of Russian Jews. With the publication of a new anthology, ChaeRan Y. Freeze and Jay M. Harris have opened many long-shuttered windows onto the vanished courtyards of a world in transition. What they display to us are not trends and movements but individuals facing and coping with a variety of new problems as the ground shifts beneath them. 

In the first of three excerpts from Everyday Jewish Life in Imperial Russia (Brandeis University Press), an abundantly annotated 600-page sourcebook, we hear Ita Kalish’s reminiscences about the way in which her Uncle Bunem spied on a prospective groom at the behest of her father, the Hasidic Rebbe of Vurke. What kind of medicine was the young man really taking while staying at a luxurious kosher pension?

In the second excerpt, Avraam Uri Kovner (himself somewhat infamous for having been convicted of embezzlement and corresponding with Dostoevsky from jail) describes his brother’s success in one of the first government-run Russian Jewish schools with a modern curriculum. When he delivered a fine speech in Russian, the district supervisor at first couldn’t believe that a Jewish boy could do such a thing and then smothered him in kisses.

This article is locked

Subscribe now for immediate and unlimited access to Web + Print + App + Archive
  • Already a subscriber? Log in to continue reading.
  • Not quite ready to subscribe? Register now for your choice of 3 FREE articles per quarter.
  • Already a registered user? Log in here.

About the Author

ChaeRan Y. Freeze is a professor in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of several books, including Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia (Brandeis University Press). Jay M. Harris is the Harry Austryn Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies and dean of undergraduate education at Harvard University. He is the editor of Maimonides after 800 Years: Essays on Maimonides and His Influence (Harvard University Press).


Martin Berman-Gorvine on December 6, 2013 at 4:51 pm
Fascinating! How wonderful that our "foremothers" were no shrinking violets, but forces to be reckoned with in their own right!

Want to post a comment? Please register or log in.

Most Read

What Jesus Wasn’t: Zealot

When Fox News' Lauren Green asked Reza. . .

Conservative Judaism: A Requiem

In 1971, 41 percent of American Jews. . .

Editors' Picks

Our Master, May He Live

Rashi's commentary on the Chumash isn't. . .

Law in the Desert

Studying the weekly portion with Jerome,. . .

Posthumous Prophecy

Milton Steinberg's unpublished novel. . .

In The Next JRB

Non-Rabbanut Weddings in Israel

Alan Mintz on the Novels of Maya Arad

Jay Lefkowitz on Dennis Ross and the Middle East

Stuart Schoffman on Robert Capa's Israel Photographs

And more . . .

Copyright © 2015 Jewish Review of Books. All Rights Reserved. | Site by W&B