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April 17, 2014 / 17 Nisan, 5774
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Jews of Pinsk

The myth about the idyllic Jewish life if the ghettos of the East is dishonest, manipulative, and a betrayal of the memory of those who lived through it.
Jewish soup kitchen in Pinsk during the first World War.

Jewish soup kitchen in Pinsk during the first World War.
Photo Credit: Eilat Gordin Levitan

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Under the Czars, the struggle for Jewish survival became a daily test. Hundreds of thousands emigrated. Amongst those who stayed, resistance to the regime in various ways led to serious fissures within communities. Radicals, socialists, and Bundists saw the future only in terms of liberation from class oppression and religious narrowmindedness. Secular Zionists dreamed of salvation in establishing a new Jewish ethos based on labor in the Land of Israel. Different groups competed, fought, and provoked each other. This roiling competitive atmosphere produced great literature in Hebrew and Yiddish, a flourishing cultural life, schools, and youth movements.

The religious too were divided, not just between Chasidim and Mitnagdim but between Zionist and anti-Zionist. The very tensions we find today in Jewish life, particularly in Israel, could already be found in Pinsk towards the end of the nineteenth century.

These tensions of wealth and ideology continued through the disastrous Polish regime after the First World War, where occasionally only American intervention stemmed rising anti-Semitism, made worse by the fact that Jews were prominent on both political sides and were blamed for everything, as always. It all deteriorates as the German Nazis and their Eastern European sympathizers brought catastrophe to Jewish life. That anything survived at all was a miracle.

The myth currently cultivated in certain religious circles about the idyllic Jewish life if the ghettos of the East is dishonest, manipulative, and a betrayal of the memory of those who lived through it. Unless you were rich it was insufferable and painful a life. Your wealth could disappear overnight. The relatively few students of yeshivas, even the great Lithuanian ones, often went barefoot, coatless, and hungry in winter. Even the numbers studying Torah full time were a fraction of those supported by Israel today, let alone the USA. There were indeed great rabbis and leaders, and Pinsk attracted and nurtured some of the greatest. But for the masses it was Hell on Earth.

The comparison with Israel today is compelling. Whether secular or religious, financial or political, regardless of all its troubles and tensions, Israel is a flourishing of Jewish life in the widest sense that puts even Pinsk in the shade. Whether the researchers had an agenda or not, the facts speak for themselves. The pretense that it was better then, is, as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, “not a very clever thing to say.”

It’s a sad story of the disappearance of yet another once-great Jewish center. But Professors Mirsky and Rosman deserve gratitude for bringing this important work to the English speaking world. We can rejoice in the fact that we have survived and thrived.

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About the Author: Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi, author, and lecturer, and the congregational rabbi of the Persian Jewish Center of New York. He is best known for advocating an approach to Jewish life that is open to the benefits of modernity and tolerant of individual variations while remaining committed to halacha (Jewish law). His articles and weekly column appear in publications in several countries, including the Jewish Telegraph and the London Jewish News, and he often comments on religious issues on the BBC.


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7 Responses to “Jews of Pinsk”

  1. Any society can be tough, but idyllic among gentiles—I would never believe it.

  2. Ch Hoffman says:

    Pinsk was on the border of Catholic Poland and Orthodox Russia, and the two sects competed in how much antisemitism they could contribute.

  3. when my grandmother escaped to the united states at the endof the 19th century carrying my then one year old uncle, she made sure not to forget to spit on the ground. no immigrants ever loved a country more than those Jews.

  4. when my grandmother escaped to the united states at the endof the 19th century carrying my then one year old uncle, she made sure not to forget to spit on the ground. no immigrants ever loved a country more than those Jews.

  5. Anonymous says:

    When I first became aware of the fraud and subsequent cover-up at the Jewish Claims Conference I couldn’t believe it was possible, but now I understand. Chairman Julius Berman has kept the majority of his board members in the dark and the ones that do know how he has operated are just happy to serve and will not rock the boat. It’s every Jew’s responsibility to go on record and take a stand against the desperate actions of Mr. Berman. The Board members who sit back and condone this behavior are just as guilty. I commend Jerusalem based columnist Isi Leibler and Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg of Edison, NJ for having the guts to step up and expose Mr. Berman’s desperation to hang on to his powerful and influential position. Rabbi Rosenberg has been an advocate for Holocaust survivors for many years and to my knowledge is the only rabbi to publicly criticize the Conference. Mr. Leibler has refused to back down despite threats of legal action.

    Any person with a conscience must stand behind Rabbi Rosenberg and Mr. Leibler in fighting for the elderly Jewish survivors. In a few years these witnesses to man's inhumanity to man will be gone. Therefore it's every Jew's responsibility to see that they are treated with dignity in their twilight years. I urge you to let the Claims Conference leadership know that their actions are an embarrassment to world Jewry.

    Sincerely,

    Barry P. Resnick

  6. Yechiel Baum says:

    Ben Gurion is from Pinsk having lived through the pogroms and anti-Semitism of the believers of Jesus and knowing such hatred understood that the haters from Islam is no better and declared the JEWISH State of Israel. Time to ship Kerry there and send Netanyahu for a speed course of growing up in Galut with anti-Semitism to get some JEwish pride and balls.

  7. Yechiel Baum says:

    Ben Gurion is from Pinsk having lived through the pogroms and anti-Semitism of the believers of Jesus and knowing such hatred understood that the haters from Islam is no better and declared the JEWISH State of Israel. Time to ship Kerry there and send Netanyahu for a speed course of growing up in Galut with anti-Semitism to get some JEwish pride and balls.

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