History informs my life.
It informs all of our lives, whether consciously or not. Perhaps it is in the family stories our grandmothers tell, or the chronicles of historic atrocities that galvanize us, or the various powerful tales of greatness that act as a thick frosting on the Jewish Diaspora experience.
Whichever pathway it takes, its soft tread is always trailing behind us, or marching before us, informing our decisions, guiding our choices.
Therefore, the study of it is always potent, always valuable, always powerful.
While our history is rife with complexity and mystery, the story of 19th century Jewry is perhaps most mysterious of all.
It presents one of the most startling questions for any student of history, but perceiving the question requires an understanding of medieval Jewry (1000-1500), a story of its own.
The medieval Ashkenazic Jew was an astonishing creature.
It’s easy to aggrandize people and times, to muffle the flaws and amplify the virtues. Of course, no generation has merited the ultimate redemption, and no generation is without its weaknesses, as the glaring rebuke of the nevi’im and rabbinic authorities attests. As for medieval Jewry, it had its share of ugly divorces, infighting, power games and politics, laxity in religious practice, and all the mundane behavior that graces many histories.
However, there is something truly celestial about this people, this era.
Amidst this most dramatic period of our 2,000 year exile, this medieval Ashkenazic Jew has somehow retained his sense of purpose, his own internal value, and his unbreakable bond.
He has seen it all.
He has survived the bloody, murderous Crusades.
He has weathered vicious, fantastical blood libels.
He has suffered numerous expulsions and relocations.
He has endured accusations of poisoning wells and the subsequent burnings of his community.
He has watched helplessly as fanatical monks called for his blood in exchange for the savior’s, which they claim he had shed.
He has worn his identifying Jew badge or Jew hat with fortitude.
He has walked the streets of his town and suffered the mockery of the gentiles. He has heard them say that his “Jew stench” is polluting the street, and that his mother had dipped him into a latrine to achieve the effect.
He has paid his rapacious Jew tax and many another spontaneous taxes that have nearly ruined him.
He has endured the malicious written propaganda from Chaucer to Martin Luther.
He has born the indignities of being denied a respectable profession and the consequential stereotyping of his greedy usury.
He has watched the burnings of his beloved Talmud, painstakingly crafted and copied for posterity.
He has undergone the crowding and filth of the ghettos and the restrictions on where he can bury his dead so that the bodies are piled two or three atop each other.
He has sought innovative ways to maintain his hygiene despite laws restricting his bathing with gentiles.
He has been degraded, demeaned, humiliated and abused. He has been slaughtered, burned, executed and expelled.
And still, he is.
This is perhaps the most befuddling story in our long and mysterious history – how did the Jew resist the one way out – the one concession that would have made his sufferings evaporate?
All the blood libels, expulsions, taxes, restrictions, massacres, burnings, degradations and atrocities were often contingent on that one demand, that one payment in a currency the Jew did not carry – conversion, often dangled by the Church as a way out once Jews were in some of the most desperate circumstances. Their lands were returned to them if they submitted.
As one 12th century chronicler wrote of the First Crusade: “[In the city of Worms], the Jews, inspired by the valor of their brethren, similarly chose to be slain in order to sanctify the Name before the eyes of all, and exposed their throats for their heads to be severed for the glory of the Creator. There were also those who took their own lives (rather than be taken to convents and monasteries)… Fathers fell upon their sons, being slaughtered upon one another, and they slew one another – each man his kin, his wife and children, bridegrooms slew their betrothed, and merciful women their own children. They all accepted the divine decree wholeheartedly and, as they yielded their souls to the Creator, cried out: “Hear, o Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One.”
This medieval Jewess has thrown herself off of buildings, leapt willingly into the fires, slaughtered her own children, slit her own throat, to deliver her family from forced baptism, conversion, and monastic/convent life.
She has packed her bags and relocated to new lands and new trials.
She has flung her hardly-earned coins at the crown to pay her tax and fill its empty coffers so the royals could go on to build abbeys and fund wars by her sweat. (Historians describe Westminster abbey being rebuilt through Jewish money.)
She has supported the relentless production of Torah writings that offer virtually no gaps despite concentrated periods of oppression.
She is the “seasoned veteran of history” as Rabbi Berel Wein describes, cynically aware of the church’s empty promises and false future.
And she is the Jewess that graces our story for much of this tumultuous period – fierce and formidable.
And then the whole story begins to change.
Fast-forward to the late 1800s.
Toleration, Emancipation and Reformation are the workings of the day. The Jew is virtually free. The ghetto has fallen. The university is his new home. The halls of parliaments feel his tread. The old cries of oppression have faded. (In Western Europe more so than Eastern Europe)
And suddenly, the Jew of old, whom one secular historian described as being “in love with his religion,” cannot seem to flee that very religion fast enough.
Fifty percent of Berlin Jewry converts to Christianity. Sixty-five percent of Prague male Jewry are uncircumcised. Fifty percent of Eastern European Jewry is assimilated.
Suddenly, the Jew is writing his own anti-Semitic propaganda. The religious Jew is his target, and the old ways his greatest opponent.
Of this period, the Chofetz Chaim writes: “in our days there have increased many disbelievers and heretics, misleaders and false persuaders… our Torah is torn to pieces… There has developed a great increase in scoffers against the Torah and its mitzvos who are prevalent among our people, and there is no house without a dead one.”
(One of the most astonishing questions about 19th century Jewry is how religious Jews withstood the pressures and abuses of this period. Those who remained religious had unique strength of character and conviction, being that they were maligned by both gentile and Jewish society, a subject that will be further explored in later sections.)
And Rav Reuven Grozovsky describes the city of Minsk in the late 1800s:
“These political movements and various cultural trends with their songs took by storm the heart of the animated youth, in whose mouths was the song of the New Life. Against this storm of irreligious trends, the traditional Judaism stood powerless. It made no attempt to fight back. It had no means of defense, no political organization, periodicals, or literature. The last fortresses, the yeshivos, began to totter from the trumpet blasts and din of the conquering secularism.”
Where is the medieval Jew, the medieval Jewess, that quicker slaughtered her own children than shave off an inch of her majestic heritage?
And this is the question that will guide our discussion for the next few months, as we try to understand this fascinatingly devastating period that witnessed the spiraling deterioration of a once unflappable, unyielding people, a people “in love with its religion.”
What happened to 19th century Jewry?
What happened to the Jew that was?
Edited by Shlomo Eidelberg The Jews and the Crusades (Ktav, Hoboken) 1996
Israel Abrahams Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (Jewish Publication Society of America) 1896
Berel Wein Herald of Destiny (Shaar Press) 1996
(Printed posthumously) Rav Avigdor Miller The Divine Madness 2013
Edited by Paul Mendez-Flohr & Jehuda Reinharz The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History (Oxford University Press, New York) 1995
Jacob Rader Marcus The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook (Hebrew Union College Press) 1999