Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Heralding Unheralded Russian Jews

UPNE member Brandeis University Press just released Everyday Jewish Life in Imperial Russia, edited by Chaeran Y. Freeze and Jay M. Harris, which gathers what can accurately be called a treasure trove of documents—recently declassified Soviet Union archives, rabbinic sources, and previously untranslated memoirs—spanning the late 18th century through the first World War.

These documents come together to form a history-telling of czarist Russia as it is rarely told, giving voice and name to up-till-now voiceless, nameless, everyday Jewish citizens. Focusing on religion, family, health, sexuality, work, and politics, this collection provides an intimate portrait of the rich diversity of Jewish life. As the editors say in the preface, this book's occasion signals "a shift from the grand narratives of political history to the quotidian social experience of ordinary people."

Apart from the obvious value of these texts to scholars, it's hard to overlook even what they add to the realm of Ashkenazi Jewish genealogy, drawing lines to dozens of names and offering rather incredible, sometimes excruciating insight into not only their customs but how they affected them.

Some texts play out as full-fledged human dramas.

In "A Boy's Gymnasium Life: The Memoirs of Genrikh Sliozberg," Sliozberg chronicles with intimate detail his entrance into gymnasium—as arranged by his father, a local melamed, to the great consternation of the rest of his family. "They mourned my future apostasy," Sliozberg writes, "threatened God's retribution, appealed to father's conscience, and begged him not to destroy a Jewish soul."

Despite their pleas, with his father's promise that his education would not "affect [his] piety," Sliozberg arrived at the Poltava gymnasium for the first time to perform his entrance examinations, following a sleepless night "passed in dreams about the new life in store":
I remember the trembling that seized me when I appeared before the director of the gymnasium...[and] for the first time in my life I saw such a large building; the full-length portrait of the tsar, whom I had never seen before, created a huge impression on me...When I began to answer the examination questions, it seemed to me that the tsar himself was directing an inquisitive gaze at me. 
And how'd Sliozberg do? His Russian grammar scored excellently, but his spoken Russian was "incredibly poor"—something that amazed his examiners so much that they called the director in to tell him about "this phenomenal event."

Nevertheless, Sliozberg was admitted, and he goes on to describe his education, the classicism he was subjected to, and how he endured in the face of his family's bouts of illness and poverty, the latter of which was more or less a direct result of his being at gymnasium in the first place. His father's melamed career disappeared, nor did another line of work easily materialize. The family became terribly poor, and:
[in] November, when the time came for the final term payment (approximately fifteen rubles) for the right to study at the gymnasium, father—despite the impending cold—had to pawn his fur coat to the wife of a rich Jew..."
Memoirs like Sliozberg's and many of the stories and depositions in Everyday Jewish Life in Imperial Russia become extraordinary precisely because they're so—and often painfully—ordinary. Taken as a whole, these texts significantly deepen and enrich our understanding of this vanished society.


The Faith of Fallen Jews: Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi and the Writing of Jewish History, edited by David N. Myers and Alexander Kaye

Holocaust Mothers & Daughters: Family, History, and Trauma, by Federica K. Clementi