Russian Jewish Life at the Turn of the 1900s

As mentioned in the previous installment, the Russian Jewish community lived under different conditions than other peoples of the Russian Empire. This distinction was a result of two factors: faith and geography. By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, these two factors mattered far less than in previous generations.

In the territory of the Russian Empire (formerly the territiory of the Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth) Jews communities (Shtetls) were isolated from the broader East Slavic peasant communities and Jewish religious practices meant that their communities were organized in a cooperative manner with a governing village body known as a Qahal. The Qahal had both religious and civil authority. For the Russian Empire, the Qahal was a liaison through which the government could extract resources (taxes, conscripts) without the burden of administering the territories itself. The Qahal’s dual nature caused some strain in the communities and by 1844 the civil authority of the Qahal was abolished and the resentment against the Qahal made Hassidic teachings more appealing which led to new developments in Jewish religious thought.

The Jewish population was initially confined to the Pale of Settlement, roughly the extent of their distribution under the previous Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth. By the late 1800s however, this territory was increasingly economically important to the Russian Empire and more and more economic migrants began pouring into the area and the high birthrate of the Slavic population meant that the Jewish communities were interacting more and more frequently with their Slavic neighbors. These interactions were either hostile (in the case of the pogroms) or cooperative (in the case of various left-wing political movements). The end of the relative autonomy of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe meant that a new direction had to be chosen for life in an industrializing world.

The three main courses of action advocated by Jews at this time were: emigration, Zionism, or Bundism.

Emigration was a pragmatic and (relatively) non-political option for Russian Jews. A high number of Jewish immigrants in the United States meant that there was a support network already in place for those seeking to move. It is estimated that about 2 million Jews left Russia between 1880 and 1920.

Zionism can be classified under emigration if not for its political goals of a Jewish state. Interestingly enough, the emigration of Jews to Palestine was supported by the Tsarist government and various private organizations were allowed to be registered for assisting Jewish emigrants settle in Palestine.

Bundism was a unique phenomenon in the Jewish community and it reflected the Russian Empire’s position as the foremost country of residence for the Jews. The goals of the General Jewish Labor Bund of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia were explicitly socialist and reflected the increasing influence that leftist thought had on the Russian population, Jews included. Bundists opposed Zionism and the Hebrew language as a weakening of Jewish culture as experienced by Russian Jews and supported Yiddish and Russian as the language of communication. Additionally, they advocated political and legal means of improving the quality of life for the Jewish population and stood for election in the Russian Duma (Parliament).