What’s in a phrase? The familiar “beyond the pale” has an interesting history that may surprise many Jews whose families came from Eastern Europe. While today it means “outside agreed-upon standards of decency,” in the past it meant, literally, to be outside the area accepted as “home” or “civilization.” A pale was a stake or pointed piece of wood that was often used to build a fence. Inside the fence was the safety of one’s known world. Beyond the palings was the great unknown.
An early political use of the word was the Pale in Ireland, also known as the English Pale. Within the boundaries of this medieval Pale located in eastern Ireland, English law was the rule. But perhaps the most famous Pale was the one founded by the Russian ruler Catherine the Great in 1791 to deal with her “Jewish problem.” After this Pale was established, the vast majority of the Russian Empire’s Jews were forced to live within its boundaries, and at its peak the Pale was home to about five million Jews, about 40 percent of world Jewry at the time.
Among those who suddenly found themselves confined within the Pale were Ukraine’s Jews. But this end-of-the-century edict was just the last blow in what had been a tumultuous century, an era that began with edicts of expulsion, including one signed by an earlier empress who was also named Catherine.
Beyond the Mists of Time
Although Jews came to some parts of Russian lands during the period of the Babylonian Exile, they were relative latecomers to Ukraine. It’s thought that they first arrived during the eighth century, when some settled in the Khazar Kingdom, which controlled lucrative trade routes. In addition to being known for their wealth, the Khazar royal family and many members of the kingdom’s elite made history when they converted to Judaism towards the end of that century. But by the tenth century this unusual Jewish kingdom was on the wan and Kievan Rus was on the rise.
The Rus were also enthusiastic traders, and Kiev became the most important city in their sprawling empire. Naturally, Jews were invited to help expand the trade routes, but not much is known about this early community, except that Kiev did have a Jewish Quarter and a Jewish Gate.
Like the Khazars before them, Kievan Rus’s empire lasted just a few centuries. It was then conquered by the Tartars. The cycle of conquest and fall continued when the Lithuanians rose to power and gained control of the area. Throughout all the political upheavals, the fortunes of Ukraine’s Jews rose and fell with the other groups living in these lands. Since times were relatively good under the Lithuanian rulers, many Jews who lived in the Rhineland during the period of the Crusades fled their homes and sought refuge further east.
In 1569, Poland unified with Lithuania and Ukraine came under Polish control. The Polish nobles needed someone to manage their large estates and perform other administrative duties, so they invited Jews to settle in the area. Managing a large estate for an absentee Polish landlord was often a lucrative position, especially when the Jewish manager also received the exclusive right to distill and sell alcohol.
Jews also worked as artisans and merchants, and small towns – or shtetls – began to spring up. Although we tend to think of the shtetl as being quite poor, during this period some of them were very prosperous.
With time, Ukrainian peasants began to resent the taxes they had to pay to their absentee landlords – and the Jews who acted as the landlords’ agents. That resentment came to a terrifying climax in 1648, when Bogdan Chmielnicki, a leader of the Cossack army, led a revolt against Poland. During the two years of the revolt, approximately 300 kehillos were totally destroyed and 100,000 Jews were massacred, often in very cruel ways. Most Jews who survived fled westward, often with little more than the clothes on their back.