How Many Tears?

I don’t know what the word “lachrymose” brings to most people’s minds, if anything, but for just about every Jewish historian in the world, it immediately conjures up the name of the great 20th-century scholar Salo Baron and his criticism of what, in less grandiose language, might be called the tearful approach to Jewish history. Baron made his first disparaging reference to the “lachrymose theory” of premodern Jewish history in 1928. Nine years later, in his three-volume Social and Religious History of the Jews,he discussed and criticized at greater length what he now called the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” which viewed “the destinies of the Jews in the Diaspora as a sheer succession of miseries and persecutions.” The year 1937 may not have been the most auspicious year for a historian born in Poland to accentuate the positive aspects of diaspora existence, but that’s what he did, and, timing notwithstanding, his argument had a deep influence on the field.

Map showing Jewish medieval migration. (Courtesy of S. Daniel/Starshell Maps, 1997.)

“For Baron in 1937 and subsequently,” Robert Chazan observes in Refugees or Migrants, “the diverse periods of the Jewish past were to be portrayed in nuanced fashion, without attributing overall well-being or suffering to them.” As Chazan also notes, Baron’s general approach, which found its fullest expression in the slowly accruing, eventually massive, and never finished second edition of his Social and Religious History of the Jews, has had little influence on the Jewish public, but it has had a profound impact on modern Jewish scholarship. It certainly informs Chazan’s new, lucid, and thought-provoking study of Jewish population movement throughout the ages. Chazan’s broad-ranging effort to show that forced expulsions and anti-Jewish violence did less to motivate Jewish migration than social and economic opportunity is nothing if not Baronian.

Needless to say, Chazan does not deny that expulsions took place. But he shows that there just weren’t that many of them, and for a very long stretch of time—from the Babylonian banishment of the Jews from Judea in the early 6th century BCE to the European expulsions beginning in the late 12th century, more than 1,750 years—there were none. What about the Romans, you might ask, who destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE? “Traditional Jewish thinking,” Chazan writes, “posits three exiles from the Promised Land . . . the third as the result of parallel Roman imperial reaction to the failed Jewish revolt of 66.” But in fact, “loss of life and deportation notwithstanding, the bulk of the Jewish population of Palestine remained in place following the year 70.” Even after the defeat of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, in 135, “Palestinian Jewry remained the demographic center of worldwide Jewish life for yet a number of centuries.”

Quickly reviewing the ensuing 1,100 years, Chazan finds migration, of course, but no real expulsions to report. In medieval Europe, however, there did eventually emerge “a new set of expulsions of Jews.” Chazan, perhaps the world’s leading historian of medieval European Jewry, knows as much about these expulsions as anyone else, and he knows better than most how to sum them up concisely. He doesn’t understate their severity and makes it clear that their effect in the Iberian Peninsula, in particular, was devastating. But he does stress that the ones in northern Europe strengthened the eastern part of this region (especially Poland) even as they drained its western part (including England and France) and thus “did not appreciably detract from the growing size and strength of this still young Jewry.”

Forced displacements of Jews, whether by outright expulsion or through violence, were only part of the story. Chazan devotes the largest part of his book to discussing the other frequently overlooked aspect of Jewish population movement: voluntary migration in search of better circumstances. In his review of the ebb and flow of Jewish movement from antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages, he either implies—when the facts aren’t known—or demonstrates—when they are—that a search for greater opportunity and a better quality of life was the major cause of Jewish migration. Eventually, he explains, as the effect of the Enlightenment made itself felt and conditions improved in the countries transformed by it, “Jews mired in the backwardness of northeastern Europe began to sense the option of moving back in a westerly direction.” Slow at first, this population shift eventually became “the largest migration of Jews in history.”

Unlike some earlier historians, Chazan does not connect the beginnings of this migration to the deadly attacks perpetrated by the forces of the Cossack rebel Bogdan Khmelnitsky in Ukraine in 1648–1649. Relying on the careful scholarship of Shaul Stampfer, Chazan estimates the Jewish death toll from these events as between 18,000 and 20,000 and notes how quickly the afflicted communities rebounded and expanded. “The violence of 1648–1649, as horrific as it was, by no means sparked a permanent exodus of Jews out of Ukraine. Once again, a severe crisis does not seem to have provoked significant Jewish demographic displacement,” he writes.

Chazan devotes only a page to the Khmelnitsky massacres, but they are the subject of Adam Teller’s large and important new volume, Rescue the Surviving Souls. Like Chazan, however, Teller’s primary concern is not with the mid-17th-century attacks upon the Jews but with their consequences. And like Chazan, he has Salo Baron’s attack on the “lachrymose conception” on his mind. However, he is disturbed, as he informs us in his introduction, by Baron’s sharp distinction between “the ordinary flow of life,” which was uneventful and even tranquil, and episodic outbreaks of extraordinary anti-Jewish violence. Baron, according to Teller, was “correct when he argued that violence and suffering should not be seen as the only, or even the major, moving force in Jewish history.” However, in arguing “that persecution and its effects were not a part of ‘normal’ Jewish life, he was unable to see what significance they did have.” To this dry-eyed approach, Teller wishes to offer “a nuanced corrective.” He maintains that “a return, albeit in limited form, to ‘the lachrymose conception’ is not only justified but actually an essential tool for understanding the Jewish past.”

Bogdan Khmelnitsky leads the reunification of Ukraine with Russia at the Pereyaslav Rada, 1654. (Painting by Mikhail Khmelko, Museum of Ukrainian Visual Art, Kiev.)

This is not to say that Teller’s book is a tearjerker. He does depict, to be sure, the horrific miseries inflicted by Khmelnitsky, his hordes, and the peasants who followed their lead on their Jewish victims in the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth’s Ukrainian territory. Teller cites, for instance, a Jewish woman’s tale in the late 1660s of how roughly 20 years earlier, “the Cossacks came to Nemyriv and took about 150 Jewish householders from the town to a courtyard where they locked them in. Then they dug a very big, deep pit in the courtyard and killed the Jews as they were standing at its edge. As he was killed, each one fell into that deep pit. The first to be killed was her husband, who fell straight in.”

Teller provides similarly grim descriptions of what happened to the victims of the slightly later Russian and Swedish invasions of Poland and Lithuania. However, his real aim, he tells us, is to describe not the violence but the refugee crisis it produced and to analyze “its causes, its development.” He wants to tell “in human terms” what it meant for its victims as well as the Jewish communities elsewhere that organized to help their fellow Jews. Ultimately, he intends to show that the mid-17th-century violence against the Jews “sparked . . . significant, sometimes long-term, processes of social, cultural, and religious change,” which affected “the development of Jewish life in the decades, even the centuries, to come.”

In 1648–1649, Khmelnitsky’s Cossacks—celebrated as Ukrainian national heroes to this day—primarily targeted the Polish noble landowners who harshly oppressed them. For the rebels, “[a]ttacking the Jews,” who were so often the nobles’ right-hand men, “took second place,” but they were still in their sights. The peasants who joined the uprising after it took off, however, “harbored enormous hatred of the Jews, whom they blamed for all their day-to-day problems,” and they were only too happy to murder them. Khmelnitsky’s Tatar allies, for their part, held no particular hatred for the Jews, but they were perfectly ready to seize and sell them into slavery in Turkey if they seemed marketable.

The reassertion of Polish-Lithuanian power in the early 1650s gave the Jews some respite, but a second wave of wars began when the Cossacks allied with Russia and pushed deep into Lithuania in 1655. In the same year, Sweden piled on, capturing several of Poland’s major cities. The Cossacks and the Russians treated the Jews far more brutally than the Swedes, but they were trouble too. The successful Polish counterattack against Swedish forces was also disastrous for the Jews, who were accused of treacherously assisting them. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews were killed, and a mass exodus began.”

How many Jews were killed or uprooted during these years? Relying, like Chazan, on the research of Shaul Stampfer, Teller reports that of the 40,000 Jews in Ukraine, some 18,000 died between 1648 and 1654, in addition to an indeterminable number of others who were massacred in other parts of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. Refugees who remained within the borders of the Commonwealth must have numbered at least 15,000, and another 10,000 seem to have migrated beyond them. Contemporary but unreliable reports refer to 20,000 to 30,000 Jews who were sold or redeemed in Istanbul, yet “the best we can say is that many thousands of Jews were captured and swept up in the slave trade” between 1648 and 1667.

The overall numbers may seem small by modern standards, but they weren’t then. The total world Jewish population at the time numbered only around one million. Jews in other parts of the world collected money to care for the newly homeless and ransom the captives. For the Lithuanian communities outside Khmelnitsky’s reach, already in 1651 the burden was huge, “and under its pressure, communal organizations began to unravel.” Refugees were lodged in private homes, whose owners had to feed and care for them at their own expense. “Some communities even closed down the local yeshiva to save money.” In the wealthy and prosperous community of Krakow, the situation was soon aggravated by an outbreak of the plague. Its leaders swallowed their pride and requested aid from Central and Western Europe, which they seem to have received in considerable, if not sufficient, measure.

The Jews of Istanbul had been ransoming small but mounting numbers of Polish Jews from the Tatars for decades, but when the numbers skyrocketed in the summer of 1648, they had to resort to new measures. The Jewish women of the city, Teller informs us, sold their rings and earrings, while the rabbis reached out to the Karaites, who promised substantial help to “our Rabbanite brothers.” They also contacted Eastern European Jewish communities, who sent money—but too little. The funds from Lithuania totaled only one thousand thalers, “not enough to ransom even three captives.”

More money was needed, but the task of raising it was complicated by a prior agreement among the leaders of the vast Sephardi ransoming network to make the Black Sea region the sole responsibility of Istanbul. The leadership in Istanbul consequently dispatched a fundraiser named Rabbi David Carcassonne to the network’s center in Venice. He was well received by the prestigious rabbis of the city, who recommended him (less than effusively) to the leaders of other Sephardi communities in Italy and Amsterdam, but the net results of his years-long enterprise were only “the ransom price of about 17 captives.” Why so little? Partly, Teller tells us, it was because many of the Italian communities had already donated significant amounts to other unauthorized representatives of Polish Jewry. But it was also because Carcassonne’s cause “was an Ashkenazi rather than a Sephardi or an Italian one, and while the Jews of Italy were certainly willing to help their Ashkenazi brethren, this was presumably not their highest priority.”

How much the Jews of Italy gave, in the end, to assist the Polish Jews is unclear, but despite Carcassonne’s failure, Teller is prepared to say that “it must have been a significant amount.” Still, he continues, even if we knew more:

it would still be impossible to assess the real significance of this financial aid for either the Jews of Italy who gave it or for the Jews of Poland who received it. The best that can be said is that Polish Jews and their problems never really left the philanthropic agenda of the Italian Jewish communities for a period of almost twenty-five years after 1648. That, in itself, is no small thing.

On the very next page after uttering this faint praise, however, Teller portrays things somewhat more favorably. The duration and consistency of the the Italian communities’ assistance, he now says, amounted to “an astonishing, quarter-of-a-century-long display of enormous generosity.” He concludes that this solidarity is best understood as a reflection of their sense of belonging, despite all the differences between them and Polish Jews, “to a single, religiously defined people, chosen by God and forged by the experience at Mount Sinai, that allowed the Jews of the seventeenth century to feel connected with each other over great distances.” But whatever the Jews of Italy and the rest of Europe may have contributed to the redemption of the Polish prisoners in the Ottoman Empire, “the lion’s share of the ransom money seems to have come” from the Jews of Istanbul alone.

In the Holy Roman Empire, the local German Jewish communities did a great deal to help the Polish Jews who flooded into their country to rebuild their lives. Teller notes that even those who were less than generous toward the refugees in their midst seemed “to have been quite willing to help relieve the suffering of Polish Jews outside the empire, whether in the Commonwealth itself or in the slave markets of Istanbul.” He doesn’t see German Jewish prejudice against Polish Jews as having been a factor then, but he does argue that the crisis lies at the root of the later “negative German Jewish view of the Jew from eastern Europe” as troublesome and uncouth beggars.

The wealthy Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam, Teller informs us, responded to the plight of Polish Jewry “at a level unmatched by any other European community.” Among other things, they lavished “a princely sum” on the Istanbul emissary David Carcassonne (which is a little hard to reconcile with his earlier report that the total sum he collected was only enough to ransom 17 captives). However, they were less hospitable to the roughly 1,500 refugees who showed up in Amsterdam. “The community seems to have been concerned not just about the drain on its resources . . . but also about the possible reaction of the non-Jewish authorities to a significant growth in the indigent Jewish population.” Hundreds of the newcomers were shipped back to Poland or elsewhere.

Adam Teller’s rich account of this dismal period extends to non-European cities as distant as Jerusalem and New Amsterdam (where Asser Levy, who seems to have fled Lithuania, famously tangled with Peter Stuyvesant over Jewish rights). He meticulously reports the damage and strain suffered by Jewish communities, but he also makes clear its limits. In his conclusion, he underscores the fact that most survivors either remained in their home country or ultimately returned to it—including “the vast majority of those ransomed in the Ottoman Empire”—and he notes that the devastated Jewish communities soon recovered and even expanded. In other words, Chazan was right when he said that the violence “does not seem to have provoked significant Jewish demographic displacement.” That doesn’t mean, however, that it didn’t have a significant demographic impact. It did, above all, in the Holy Roman Empire, though it is hard to say how great it was since “it is difficult to isolate the proportion of refugees in the wave of migration that soon followed their flight.”

In Teller’s eyes, however, the long-term significance of the refugee crisis lies mostly in the way the Jewish world responded to it: strengthening intercommunal connections, improving channels of communications, and expanding the range of Jewish philanthropy. In addition to these positive developments, the crisis also contributed to the centuries-long tension between German Jews and their coreligionists to the east. None of these developments, Teller emphasizes in his conclusion, were “truly transformative.” As he writes, “Rather than putting Jewish society on an entirely new track, the pressures unleashed by so many communities having to relieve so much suffering in such a short time acted to reinforce and reorient a whole series of preexisting trends.”

Does such a measured judgment really weigh that heavily against Salo Baron? After Teller’s introduction, where Baron looms large, there is no further mention of the lachrymose conception, and Baron’s name doesn’t resurface either, not even in the book’s 13-page conclusion. It seems to me that Baron himself could easily have endorsed this conclusion without modifying his rejection of the notion that Jewish history has been a long march through the valley of tears.


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