The Immigrant Jew in America

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The Jew in Russia*
by Peter Wiernik

From "The Immigrant Jew in America," issued by the National Liberal Immigration League, New York City, 1907.
Also issued in earlier 1905 edition of "The Russian Jew in the United States"
* This article was written prior to Kishinev riot of 1903.

There are Hebraists who believe that when the poet of the captivity made Israel exclaim, "Wo is me that I sojourn in Meshech," he had in mind the ancestors of the present Russian nation and a country which now forms part of Russian territory. This would bring the date when Israelite and Muscovite first came in contact back to Biblical times. It is, at any rate, not later than the eighth or ninth century. In the memorable letter written in the tenth century by Joseph, the Jewish king of the Khozars to Chasdai ibn Shaprut, the Jewish diplomatist of Abdul Rahman of Cordova, the Russians are first mentioned in connection with Jewish history, and moreover, as adversaries, being enumerated among the nations with whom he was constantly at war. The Russians ultimately overthrew the Khozar kingdom, and large numbers of Khozars and original Jews who were attracted to the Jewish state were dispersed in the Russian dominions. Jews were also found in the many places which one by one fell into Russia's hands in the course of its expansion. The aversion of the Russians to allowing Jews to dwell among them did not manifest itself apparently at this early period.

There are records of Jewish settlements in Kieff and other old towns and of independent communities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. There were also important Jewish communities in Little Russia and White Russia during the long periods when these provinces formed part of the Lithuanian or Polish dominions. Many Jews also came to Russia in the wake of the Tatar invasion in the thirteenth century, and occupied important positions, mostly as farmers of the revenue, a circumstance which contributed much to increase the sentiment against Jews among the Russians. But Russia proper, that is, modern, autocratic, Greek Catholic Russia, practically never admitted Jews within its boundaries.

Ivan IV, "The Terrible," flatly refused the request of Sigismund August, King of Poland, to allow Lithuanian Jews to trade in Russia. Alexis Michailovitch, the second of the Romanoffs, expelled the Jews from Mohilew when it fell into his hands. It was, therefore, after the acquisition of Lithuania and other parts of dismembered Poland that Russia found itself ruling over vast numbers of Jews whom it could not easily expel, and it is only since that time that the history of the Jews in Russia really commences.

The Polish and Lithuanian Jews whom we now call by the collective name of Jews of Russia are mostly of German extraction. Little is known of the Jews in Poland before the first Crusade at the end of the eleventh century. There is every reason to believe, however, that there were Jewish settlements in Poland before that Period and that its members, like the Jews of early Russia, spoke the Slavic language of their Gentile neighbors. But the steady influx of Jews from Germany after each of the long series of persecutions which began in that country with the first Crusade brought about a preponderance of the German element among the Jews of Poland, even to the extent of forcing the minority to adopt the language of the new arrivals. This is not the only instance of a foreign tongue being forced by a great mass of Jewish immigrants on small, indigenous Jewish communities. There are Jews in the Barbary states in northern Africa whose forefathers came there with their fierce countrymen at the time of the Mohammedan invasion, direct from the plains and deserts of Arabia. But the number of Spanish Jews who followed during the great persecutions of the fourteenth century, and after their expulsion at the end of the fifteenth century, so overwhelmed them in numbers and intelligence that we now find descendants of Arabian tribesmen who never set foot on the Pyrenean peninsula using as their mother tongue the corrupt Spanish dialect known as Ladino. So, too, we find in Russia, Jews descended from Khozars or from Babylonian Jews who came to their present abode by way of Persia and the Caucasus, from Turkestan or from Kurdistan, now speak­ing the imported mixed German dialect which for want of a better name we call Yiddish. The remnants of the Russian-speaking and Polish-speaking Jewish communities were rooted out during the terrible massacres at the time of the rising of the Haidomaki, or Cossacks, under Bogdan Chmielnicki in 1648-49, when entire communities were exterminated and nearly a quarter million Jews lost their lives. Allowing for local variations in the characteristics and the dialects of different provinces and for foreign influences in the border governments, the Yiddish-speaking, semi-Germanic, Polish, and Lithuanian Jews that came under Russian rule at the end of the eighteenth century formed an almost homogeneous entity.

This mass was a secluded and degraded middle class little in touch with the current of Polish national feeling; for the persecutions and restrictive measures of the last two centuries of Polish misrule reduced what was the happiest Jewry in Europe during the Middle Ages to the lowest depths of servility and stupor. Catharine II was too busy and Paul I too mad to take important steps to solve the Jewish problem, which now became one of the great problems of the empire. Alexander I was the first who seriously attempted to do something toward that end. He opened to the Jews what little educational facilities Russia had at that time, and he is reported to have said that he would be well satisfied, indeed, if all that was spent under him for Jewish education should contribute to the production of one man like Mendelssohn. The good monarch did not stop to consider that a nation must first be able to produce a Herder, a Lessing, a Kant, or a Lavater before a Mendelssohn could rise in its midst. Mendelssohn's greatness lay not in his philosophy. That part of Poland over which Alexander I ruled, produced, in the eighteenth century, a much profounder metaphysician than the sage of Dessau, namely, Salomon Maimon. But Mendelssohn, the polite scholar and man of the world, living among a nation that had already attained a high degree of culture and refinement, had only to teach his fellow Jews by example to adjust themselves to the surrounding circumstances, to learn the language and the manners of their Christian neighbors, so as to be fit for emancipation. True, it would greatly benefit the Jews of Russia if they adopted the Russian language as their mother tongue. But here the analogy ends. Bad as the condition of the Jews was then and is now--and were it even much worse,--it would still be a retrogressive step for them to pattern themselves after the Russians, that is, to place themselves on their low material or mental level.

This inferiority of the vast majority of the Russian people makes it difficult for outsiders to comprehend and for the government to solve the vexatious Jewish problem. A foreigner who takes a flying trip to Russia, stops at first-class hotels, converses in French with university-bred men, and beholds, figuratively speaking, through the window of his car or equipage, the thin veneer of civilization which can be imported for money, usually reaches the conclusion that Russia occupies as high a position in the scale of civilization as the United States, for example; perhaps a higher one. But the truth is that the Russians that is eighty-five or ninety per cent of them--are so much below everything we know here that we would have to go to the illiterate Southern negro for a familiar example of their mental capacity. The Russian may be styled the unhappy medium between the Asiatic and the European, possessing the low cunning of the former without his stoicism and the brutal aggressiveness of the other without his fairness or activity. Left to himself, the Russian is a most helpless human being and the willing slave of every one who wants to be his master. The percentage of Jews, Germans, Poles, and other non-Russians among the artists, scholars, merchants, and manufacturers, and even among the government employees of Russia, is so large, in spite of all the favors shown to Russians, and all the disadvantages under which the non-Russians have to labor, as almost to justify Pobiedonostseff's statement that the Jews must be discriminated against because the Russians are not able to compete with them on equal terms. This is the real cause of the persecutions and of the special laws, and it makes improvement of the Jews largely contingent on the improvement of the condition of the Russians.

Naturally, the government of Russia never admitted that it was the Russian and not the Jew who must be lifted up in order to bring about a solution of the problem. Its policy toward the Jews was, from the beginning, mostly in the direction of forcing him out of his natural position as the middleman, as the artisan-trader, and of turning him, often by the most cruel and violent means, into the ranks of the agricultural laborer, the journeyman, and the factory hand, positions for which he has no special aptitude. The well-meaning, but rather feeble, Alexander I, did not accomplish much, and his successor, the iron-willed and energetic Nicholas I, evinced such a strong desire to convert the Jews of his dominion to the Greek Catholic religion, that they looked with suspicion even on the efforts he earnestly made in other directions to improve their condition. His enterprises on behalf of Jewish education, which were made through his minister of education, the illustrious Count 0uvaroff, are especially interesting because they made a lasting impression on the development of Russo-Jewish intelligence, and are a fair sample of the method by which the Russian government deals with the Jews.

It was evident that the Jews were too much absorbed in the study of the Talmud and paid too little attention to secular education. But the knowledge of the Talmud in those days and, to some extent, even now, brought rich rewards in communal distinction and was considered the sine qua non of superiority. The Jewish opponents of the exclusive study of the Talmud were the small and uninfluential circles of maskilim, the devotees of the Mendelssohnian enlightenment which penetrated into Russia through the efforts of Mendelssohn's numerous Polish and Lithuanian pupils late in the eighteenth and early in the nineteenth century. These maskilim, "the friends of light," who believed in the regeneration of Israel by means of the knowledge of Hebrew and German, were made known to Ouvaroff by the late Dr. Lilienthal, who discovered them while traveling as the agent of the Russian government for the purpose of establishing elementary schools in the Jewish communities. Ouvaroff sided with the maskilim and was so much influenced by their opinions of what Russian Jews ought to study that he told Sir Moses Montefiore, when the latter visited St. Petersburg in 1846, of his efforts "to force the Jews to study their own language." The rabbinical schools or seminaries which were founded in Wilna and Zhitomir in 1848 were practically managed by the maskilim, and according to their ideas. But the new rabbis who were to influence the Jews to accept modern ideas and to become more Russianized lacked the chief requisite for the rabbinical office in Russia, the knowledge of the Talmud. The conservative masses never took kindly to these seminaries. The graduates, who had a good secular but a poor Jewish education, usually went to the universities and took up other professions; only a small portion became rabbis, and none obtained prominence as Talmudists. The seminaries continued for about a quarter century, when they were closed because they had failed to accomplish what was expected of them. An earlier attempt in Poland failed even more completely. The rabbinical school of Warsaw, which flourished under the auspices of the maskilim from 1825 to 1862, had the unique distinction that not one of its pupils ever became a rabbi--unless the "Rev." Christian David Ginsburg be considered one.

But the maskilim were not the only ones instrumental in the failure of the rabbinical schools to bring about better results. The government, by its efforts to convert the Jews to Christianity, by decreeing measures of persecution, like the expulsion of Jews from places within fifty versts of the frontier, at the time when privileges were granted to educated Jews, caused the religious masses to look with suspicion on the seminaries as on a veiled agency for converting them. The extortionate "candle tax," which supported the Jewish schools, was also very obnoxious, and helped to make the seminaries hated and despised. Still, had the maskilim of the period paid more deference to the prejudices of the conservative element, and had they recognized the necessity for a successful spiritual leader among the Jews of Russia to be a thorough Talmudist, the seminaries would most probably in time have survived the early prejudices against them, and the perplexing system of two rabbis for each community, one "government rabbi," a secular scholar who usually knows little or nothing about Judaism, and the other a communal rabbi, who is a Talmudist and knows little of worldly affairs, could have been dispensed with. The rabbinical question is now one of the most vexing that Russian Jewry was to contend with, and the closing by the government of the celebrated Yeshibah (Academy) of Volosin in 1892, after all its efforts to introduce in it the study of the Russian language had failed, augmented, rather than diminished, the difficulty. A sort of Chautauquan system of educating rabbis introduced by the late Rabbi Isaac Elchanan of Kovno, under which the so-called "Perushim of Kovno" studied--each by himself--has so far not proven very successful.

However, it was only from the religious point of view that the rabbinical seminaries failed to achieve their purpose. It cannot be denied that they did much good in a general way. The first fifteen years of the reign of Alexander II (1855-1870), the short so-called "Golden Age" of the Jews of Russia, offered many opportunities for the Jew with a Russian education, and it is no wonder that many of the abler pupils chose to enter careers which were far more promising than the rabbinate. The prejudice against secular education and the suspicion that it leads and is intended to lead to apostasy was still strong, when suddenly under the new liberal regulations, brilliant prospects for every Jew of ability were opened. When the professions and civil service positions were made accessible to Jews, the number of those who had the necessary Russian education to be able to avail themselves of the newly offered opportunities was comparatively small. Then came what may be termed a "rush" for education, but before the new generation had finished its course of studies the reaction set in and the opportunities were much diminished. However, the impetus then given is indicated by the desire for education which is one of the chief characteristics of the better class of Russian Jews. Parents who were at first opposed to the desires of their sons to become educated saw their folly and were compelled to admit that their conservatism deprived their children of the attainment of the affluence and distinction enjoyed by the children of the more lenient or the more progressive.

To obtain education and to enjoy the fruits thereof now meant a hard struggle, for only a very small number of Jews were admitted to the universities, and few positions were open for Jewish graduates. Fathers and mothers now seconded their children's desire for education, which was the more ardent the more difficult it became to obtain it. At present, the poorer classes have almost abandoned all hope of having their children educated, being unable to incur the expense necessary to secure one of the few seats reserved for Jews at the higher institutions of learning. It must be remembered that every public favor shown or honor conferred on a Jew in Russia reflects credit on the entire Jewish community. In Russia, as in all countries where the masses are steeped in ignorance, the educated classes form a sort of nobility and are considered much superior to the common people. The Jews, therefore, take pride in every one of their coreligionists who is added to the distinguished class, and this gives a patriotic tinge to the anxiety to become educated and be "an honor to Judaism." This view of education sometimes makes a ludicrous impression when brought over to this country. We often meet here enthusiastic young Russian Jews who fail to comprehend the vast difference between the circumstances of both countries, and continue to act and to speak as if they did a great favor to the Jewish community by taking up the study of law or of medicine.


The above incidents in the history of the development knowledge among the Jews of Russia may serve to show the haphazard and impractical way in which many projects of reform are undertaken in that country and why they so often miscarry. It is impossible to attempt within the short space allotted to this chapter to give even the faintest outline or the briefest resume of the immense mass of cruel, foolish, and often contradictory laws and regulations enacted by the Russian government in relation the Jews. Were it even possible to enumerate them, but an incorrect impression of the status of the Jews would remain, because every official interprets them in his own way or chooses to enforce what at the moment suits his object or his fancy. One may act in one way, while his colleague in a neighboring city may for the same reason decide in a diametrically opposite manner. The only tendency which may be noticed in the anti-Jewish laws the one mentioned above, to force Jews out of the middle class.  The law promulgated by Alexander II in 1865 permitting Jewish artisans to reside outside of the Pale of Settlement in all parts of the empire was probably the most beneficent measure ever enacted by Russia in favor the Jews.

photo: Map of the Pale of Settlement.  From Wikipedia

But it was rendered almost nugatory by the later interpretation that the handicraftsman residing outside the Pale is prohibited from "dealing" in his own products, and may only work to order or for other masters. The Jew was thus deprived of the possibility of becoming an artisan-trader and small merchant-manufacturer of Russia, and occupying a position for which he is well adapted. The last blow at the Jewish middlemen was delivered when the government created the whiskey monopoly, taking it into its own hands and thus depriving about thirty thousand Jewish, and several times as many non-Jewish, families of their means of livelihood. It is interesting to note that even the non-Jewish saloon keepers in Russia were but seldom Russians. The number of saloons in the Russian empire is much larger than the number of Russians who could keep sober if they happened to be the sole proprietors of bottles and barrels of vodka. In the localities where Jews are not permitted to engage in mercantile pursuits, the liquor business was usually in the hands of Germans, Letts, and other non-Russians. The liquor monopoly has not proven a success so far, but as very few Russians were ruined by it, the government may well think the experiment worth trying.

The economic condition of the Jewish class is probably worst in Lithuania. The Jews of this province, who are intellectually superior to those in other parts of Russia, have the most difficult struggle for existence. The land in Lithuania is poor, and the peasants are sunk in the lowest depths of ignorance and poverty. With the exception of those in Byalistock and a few other unimportant manufacturing centres, the province contains no industries worth speaking of. The "Litvaks," or Lithuanian Jews, are therefore thrown back on their ingenuity and Jewish learning for a living. They were the first immigrants who came to inner Russia, to Germany, to England, and to the United States. They supply the melammedim (teachers), the cantors, the schochetim (authorized slaughterers), and all other sorts of "reverends" for the Jews in the various countries. Probably two-thirds of the Russian Jews outside of Russia or in Russia outside of the Pale are from Lithuania. The most successful Jews in the interior of Russia and at the two capitals come from the same region.

The economic condition of the Jews in Southern Russia, which has Odessa as its centre, is better than in Lithuania, or at least, was better before the hard times which have prevailed there for the last few years. The fertile soil of that part of the country and the extensive commerce of Odessa contribute much to the prosperity of the district. Bessarabian Jews also had little to complain of until the recent famine which devastated the beautiful province. In Podolia, Volhynia, and the entire part of the country adjacent to the Austrian frontier, ignorance and poverty go hand in hand. In Courland, where the German influence strongly predominates and the Jews are, as a rule, highly intelligent, although little acquainted with Jewish learning, matters have of late been going from bad to worse. The Jews of Poland are probably in a better economic condition than those of any other part of the Russian empire. The government is not so solicitous of the welfare of the Polish peasant as it is of that of the Russian, and does not "protect" him as much from the Jewish exploiter. Thus left to themselves, both the Jews and the peasants are much more prosperous than in Russia. Up to the latest renewal of the government's attempt to Russianize
Poland in the most brutal way, Jews could acquire farms and country estates and were permitted to live in villages. In cities, too, they enjoy more privileges than in Russia proper. This does not at all hurt the Christian population, and Poland is today in a better economic condition than most parts of Russia. The exiled Jews from Moscow have so developed the industries of Poland, especially of Lodz, that the rapid growth of the population and wealth of the city strongly remind one of me of the most successful American business centres.

One of the most noteworthy contrasts between the economic condition of Russia and of this country is that whereas here extreme poverty is practically confined to the large cities and is almost unknown in small towns and villages, in Russia it is the reverse. The most abject poverty and squalor are to be found in the smaller towns and to move to a large city is considered a step forward, not only because of the opportunity of acquiring education and experience but also on account of the better economic advantages of the larger localities. The reason for this abnormal condition is, in all probability, the general poverty of the peasantry, which renders them small buyers, and the exorbitant taxation, which is very high in proportion to the earning and spending capacity of the people, and which usually oppresses the rural more than the urban population.

The intellectual condition of the Jews of Russia is, on the average, much higher than that of the Russians. There are practically no illiterate male Jews, and there is comparatively little illiteracy among the women, which means much in a country where the number of illiterates is so large. True, many know little more than to read the Hebrew prayer book, but the number of those who know lore, especially in Lithuania, is nevertheless quite considerable. Talmudic scholars of various degrees of eminence abound and are highly respected. The educated Jews, in the modern sense of the term, may be divided into two classes, the maskilim, and those who have the advantage of a Russian education. The first are mostly self-taught Hebraists with a leaning toward German culture. The latter are imbued with the love of the Russian nation and its literature and share that almost childish enthusiasm and impulsiveness which is characteristic of the Russian intelligent youth. In a country like Russia, where only a small number are educated and public opinion is not crystallized, no natural bond of sympathy exists between the higher and the lower classes. The wide gap between them causes the latter to appear more brutal and the former more intellectual, but in reality they are more impractical and given to abstract theorizing. The intelligent Russian is mostly an extremist in whatever views he may happen to entertain, and the Jew, who in all climes and under all conditions imitates the Christian, is no exception in this respect. The maskil, who is usually in­clined to abstractions and is interested in science and literature for their own sake is, as a rule, indifferent to the fate of the masses, condescending only to teach those who evince a desire to join the aristocracy of learning to which he belongs. The Russianized Jew, on the other hand, is more often the enthusiastic lover of the low and the downtrodden. By taking advantage of the welcome reception to all newcomers, given in the circles of the extremely radical, irrespective of faith or descent, he associates with Nihilists, and then tries, with that contempt for expediency and practicability which character­izes this class, to turn the half-savage, wretched Russian laborers into full fledged Socialists, with the result, in most cases, that they become more wretched and expose themselves to useless danger.                   

This impractical phase of the character of the Russian political radical can be traced to the chief source of Russia's mental weakness, the imitativeness of its genius; a high degree of scholarship and culture is attained by the upper classes, because in these matters it is possible to adopt foreign standards. The same may be said of the real progress Russia is making in the fields of industry and, to some extent, of art. Adaptation, adoption, and lack of originality are noticeable everywhere. This is why Russia is perplexed when it comes to problems which it will not or cannot solve according to foreign standards. It is the pitiful struggle of the unoriginal mind to assert itself in a way beyond its powers which makes the Russian's ideals so vague and indefinite. Perceiving that everything that is great and good and beautiful comes from abroad, the educated Russian is at variance with himself as to the question of civilization. He is attracted and at the same time repelled by the culture of the "rotten West," disliking it as an intruder but being unable to do without it or to substitute for it anything originally Russian. In spite of all, he remains mentally the slave of Western Europe, and is much more influenced by its opinions and its policies than is commonly supposed. The Russians' Pan-slavism and the Russian Jews' Zionism are but local manifestations of the German's Mordspatriotismus and the Frenchman's chauvinism. All that is necessary to bring about a reaction in favor of more liberal political ideas and of better treatment for the Jews is a reaction in the same direction in Germany and France, the countries which supply intellectual Russia with ideals and movements. As this is bound to come before very long, in spite of all the evil forebodings of the extreme nationalists among our friends or our enemies, the hope of the Russian Jew for better times at home is not so far from being realized as some pessimists seem to think. The autocracy itself came near being modified or rooted out before the present wave of reactionary nationalism  spread over Europe. When it will pass, as others before it have passed, and the liberal element will regain ascendancy, the condition of the Jews will be much improved. The great moral support actively and passively given by Germany, France, and Austria to the autocracy and to Jew-baiting in Russia is entirely unknown to the intelligent American to whom "Europe" often means Great Britain. Therefore, it is difficult to make him, or even the American Jew, believe that the persecutions of the Jews are not of a religious nature but a result of reactionary conservatism which degenerated into vicious tyranny, and for which there is no other remedy than the general advancement of liberal ideas in the countries which pretend, with some reason, to be more civilized than Russia. Russia will certainly follow suit and all its great problems, duding the Jewish problem, will be nearer (a) solution when will again try to deal with them in that spirit of liberalism which influenced its actions in the last generation.

Meanwhile, the outlook is not very promising. Although there can be no doubt of the ultimate prevalence of liberal principles, not even the most optimistic will dare to insist that their advent is imminent. Perhaps a great war which should result in the triumph of a free country would have the same beneficent results as the Crimean war, which preceded the good times under Alexander II. Until the arrival of a more liberal era, migration and emigration are the only palliatives. They cannot be considered remedies, for in spite of the great numbers forced to leave, the population of the Jews in the Pale is steadily increasing. Migration to the interior parts of Russia, which is allowed only to rich merchants and to skilled artisans, and is not burdened by the assistance of organized charities which give the schnorrer (beggar) an advantage over the meritorious, is contributing much to make the Jews and the Russians better acquainted, and is preparing both for friendlier intercourse under the improved conditions which are bound to come. Even now it helps to increase the number of Russianized Jews who are to be found in the front ranks of the better classes assisting in the noble work of advancing the material and mental interests of their country to the best of their abilities. The merchant and the mechanic are thus more practical than the enthusiastic student at home or abroad, who disdains the struggle for bourgeois or capitalistic liberal principles as being out of fashion and not sufficiently radical nowadays. The Jew, in spite of all restrictions, plays an important part in the rapid development of Russia, and when violence and malicious persecution will prove, as they have always proven, unable to suppress him, he will assume the place which belongs to him in the social structure of Russia, and which he occupies in all civilized countries. Persecution and poverty on the one hand, and mistaken benevolence on the other, may induce some Jews to become agricultural or other sorts of menial laborers. But in Russia, or out of it, the Jew, with the help of the fortitude, diligence, sobriety, and economy, which have served him through the darkest and bloodiest ages, will rise as soon as the opportunity offers itself, and will enter the middle and upper classes, to which he naturally belongs.

In conclusion, let us console ourselves with the knowledge that although the Jews of Russia suffer terribly, they do not suffer alone. All other non-Russian inhabitants are subject to more or less persecution and the entire population is oppressed and plundered to an extent which an American would consider impossible to endure. The only ray of hope at present is Russia's rapid material advance. The introduction of railroads and modern methods of production are doing much to raise the standard of living, to increase the number of the well-to-do and intelligent classes, and to make the country at large more susceptible to civilizing influences from abroad. When once a higher average is reached, Russia will deserve and possess a better government than now, and with it will become better laws and better treatment alike for Jew and Gentile.







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