Jewish Review of Books

Scenes of Jewish Life in Imperial Russia

By ChaeRan Y. Freeze, Jay M. Harris
Winter 2014

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.

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