Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The story of Eastern European Haskalah as compared to Western European Haskalah was different in structure, yet similar in tone. While it was less focused on the dominant gentile culture, it was just as persistent in its efforts to root out traditional Jewish culture. As for that dominant gentile culture, there was not much to aspire to in the Polish peasants or the Russian proletariat. Jewish socialist and communist factions did emerge, but they were primarily focused on political rights, although social integration was of assumed benefit as well in order to service the primary goal.

The factionalism within Haskalah points to a phenomenon we all know so well: when the Jewish soul is not preoccupied with its ultimate life’s mission – service of G-d – it is frenzied and displaced, and therefore absorbed with another mission, service of causes.


19th century Eastern European Jewry was absorbed in sundry movements from historical societies to political crusading, from social restructuring to Zionism, from educational reform to culture shaping. The tortured Jewish inclination to fix, to build, to innovate is on full display during the period.

This is as true today as it was then. While many secular Jews are absorbed with medical breakthroughs, political endeavors and scientific advancement, a great deal of our non-religious brethren are at the forefront of questionable activism, like securing the monkey Naruto the rights to his own photograph, or writing long-suffering articles about the sexism of the term “hey guys.” Jewish restlessness is apparent everywhere. The deep desire for meaning pulsates through each appeal to protect the Amur Leopard and each protest for a parent’s right to choose a child’s gender.

As the Haskalah permeated even the most far-flung regions of Poland and Russia, the most insular communities became enraptured with the maskilic mystique. The Chofetz Chaim writes about this time: “There is no house without a dead one,” with a reference to the tenth plague in which each Egyptian family lost a child. For this era, there was no house without a proverbial “dead one.” One rabbinic figure describes how all of his siblings left the fortress of Torah observance. Another announces his decision to step down from his position as rav because his wife and children have all assimilated.

While the remaining courageous and committed Jews developed a keen sense of pride and stalwart dedication, which was needed to brave both the anti-Semitic forces without and the assimilating forces within, vast swaths of Jewry assimilated, quasi-assimilated, or simply converted during this period. Although it is difficult to properly assess, the numbers suggested are something like 50% assimilation rates in the East.

And now we return to the question we posed at the beginning of this series – “What happened to the Jew of old?” – when we wondered how the fierce and formidable Jew of our history, the Jew who withstood chronic oppression as well as sudden vicious bouts of this age-old historical malady, the Jew who had overcome countless efforts to convert and tame him, now submitted with barely a protest.

The answer is long and complex. It can be about urbanization patterns and political changes. It can be about social “acceptance” and the centralization of power. It can be about philosophical writings and morally bankrupt actors. It can be about emancipation efforts and educational achievements. In truth, we can hardly even assess it. It is a story too extraordinary to comprehend. We can only try to follow its maddening plot and glean what we can.

Perhaps that is best done through a personal account, which animates the actual deterioration, the messy intersection of variables so interwoven that it’s too reductionist to try and pull them apart for individual analysis. The story of the Haskalah is, ultimately, a human story, and therefore replete with multi-layered human behavior.

Pauline Wengeroff was born Pessele Epstein and grew up in a characteristic Jewish community in Russia. She describes her early childhood, in those insular days of the 1830s where, for shtetl Jewry, distance and the sluggish arrival of modernity preserved its isolation for but a few moments longer.

“At our home the time of day was referred to by the names of the three daily services,” she recounts in her memoir, Rememberings. The morning was referred to as “before the davenen,” afternoon was called “before or after Mincheh,” and dusk was “between Mincheh and Maariv.” With this she proudly illustrates her family’s Torah-centric existence. For her father, “of what importance was the life of the individual except as fruitful ground for Talmud study.” For her mother, life revolved around exacting fulfillment of every Torah regulation. “[my mother] gave a prize for every worm the women found [in the produce]. She lived in fear that their search would not be meticulous enough.”

She describes her father’s silken caftan with its velvet stripes topped off with his regal streimel for Shabbos. She describes her mother’s great joy at listening to the young men in the family immersed in their Talmud studies.

And then she describes the changes that swept through their little village, the enactment of all those abstract factors mentioned earlier. The shrinking of the Pale of Settlement that displaced her family and forced them to urbanize. The push from German Jews to educate the Russian-Jewish masses, the arrival of government authorities to enforce western costume amongst the “backward” Jews, and, of course, the proliferation of the written word – a literary onslaught. Rav Avigdor Miller describes: “Libraries have been written against the Jewish character by enemies of our people, and oceans of ink and hurricanes of speech have issued from the pens and mouths of the vilifiers of the Talmud.”

The propaganda of maskilic writing was to be found everywhere. In fables that used clever metaphors to disparage the traditional Jews; in fictional serials designed to cast the old, religious grandfather as the tyrannical dictator squelching the young and in philosophical essays drawing on the words of revered figures like Maimonides to “justify” the study of secular education and acculturation. The one thing the maskilim were not is ignorant. Manipulating Torah writings to support an assimilationist agenda, the Haskalah thinkers drew on their own wealth of Torah learning to achieve their ambitions: the radical restructuring of Jewish culture and tradition.

Rav Reuven Grozovksy describes how, “even in the yeshivos the haskalah made nests in the form of various clandestine groups and in the reading of outside literature the fire took hold even of the homes of the rabbis, where sets of Achad Ha’am’s works could now be found.” Achad Ha’am was a popular maskil.

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Pauline’s memoir documents how her brothers and brothers-in-law snuck novels and philosophy books into their Gemaras, taking great measures to read this material in the traditional singsong Talmudic chant so the parents would not catch on. “They studied Talmud and Schiller, and they studied Schiller using the Talmudic method. Every important sentence was studied and examined, debated and analyzed out loud… Fully grown men who, up until that moment, had led an almost ascetic life were blinded by the new ways… the Enlightenment shattered the sacredness… and destroyed many dear treasures,” she writes.

And then, with the big move to the city, Pauline describes the ultimate breakdown to the traditional Jewish family – the deterioration of parental authority. “Quite different times began,” she says. “Never again did we children come under our father’s unlimited power… we young people did not realize what the old people knew: that even the smallest change in external behavior would carry with it an inner revolution of the personality.”

She recounts a myriad of little things. Her sister deciding to walk outside with her husband, a behavior not acceptable in this Chassidic community, which urged a level of modesty and privacy in marriage that barred public displays. Another sister choosing to wear a hooped skirt which was the rage in the 1850s, one which their mother promptly disposed of within moments. She, Pauline, forgetting the propriety of her older sisters’ engagements, and spontaneously hugging her intended…

The incidents, which started small, spiraled into something big. Something huge. So that by the end of her life, Pauline finds herself an elderly woman who has slowly lost, willingly and unwillingly, the center fulcrum and also all the bits and pieces, the very essence of her Jewishness. She allowed her husband to convince her to dispose of her head coverings, her sheitlach, she brought treif food into her home, and ultimately, her children converted to Christianity. “The baptism of my children was the heaviest blow I suffered in my entire life. But the loving heart of a mother can bear much,” she writes. “I grieved not just as a mother, but as a Jew, for the entire Jewish people, which was losing so many of its strong members.”

Pauline’s is the tragic tale of countless European Jewry during this time of turmoil, excitement, hope and confusion, one which resulted in, as Pauline puts it, “the destruction of so many dear treasures.”

So what happened to the Jew of old?

So much happened to the Jew of old. So much, that it’s really impossible to say.


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