Jewish History Blog

The Cantonist Decree

During the reign of Czar Nicholas I, Jewish were required to fill a quota of boys aged between 12-25 (it was 18-35 for non-Jews) for the Russian army to serve for a period of 25 years. It was, in effect, a spiritual death sentence.

During the reign of Czar Nicholas I, Jewish were required to fill a quota of boys aged between 12-25 (it was 18-35 for non-Jews) for the Russian army to serve for a period of 25 years. It was, in effect, a spiritual death sentence.

The infamous Cantonist Decree by the Russia Czar was awful by itself. The decree was that Jewish children—some as young as eight years old, most at the age of 12—were taken from their homes and inducted in training camps in order to prepare them so that at the age of 18 they could begin the 25 years of service in the Russian army. But then the Czar did something which was emulated later by Hitler. He would have the Jews themselves choose their own victims, so that in effect he would morally destroy the Jewish people as well.

Every Jewish community had a quota to fill. If the quota was not filled, there were various methods to ensure that it would be filled. One method was that members of the families of the community leaders would be taken, or that they would be exiled to Siberia, which in many cases was certain death. Or, the entire town would be exiled and destroyed.

These draconian measures put the authority of the Jewish establishment in that town in a dilemma from which there was no escape. Imagine a decree which ordered the local authorities to deliver 300 children. Which 300? How does one choose them?

Certain communities chose them by lot, as terrible as that sounds. Other communities sent the sick, infirm, orphaned or the children of the poor—those who had no defense. There arose within the Jewish community an underworld of gangsters who were called chappers (“grabbers”). They were kidnappers who would take children off the street to fill the quota. If parents sent a child to school in the morning, they were not sure if the child would return home at night.

Wealthy Jews of the towns, even if their children were taken, would bribe the Russian officials to have their children released. The Russian officials always were corrupt. The poor people, though, had no way out. Therefore, the division in the Jewish community between the poor and the wealthy was no longer just a question of money, but of blood. (more…)

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Posted in:
European Jewish History
by
Berel Wein
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  • February 17, 2014

Czarist Attempts At Converting Jews

Czar Alexander gave Jews incentives to convert. But during his incentive period more Russians converted to Judaism than Jewish to Russian Orthodoxy!

Czar Alexander gave Jews incentives to convert. But during his incentive period more Russians converted to Judaism than Jewish to Russian Orthodoxy!

In 1817, Czar Alexander was convinced by the Holy Synod of the Russian Church that his ticket to heaven was to convert all the Jews in Russia to Russian Orthodoxy. He therefore attempted to do so by granting special privileges to those Jews who would convert. They would live outside the Pale of Settlement, be entitled to freedom from taxes and other privileges. Stubborn Jews who remained Jewish would have everything taken away from them.

In order to make conversion more attractive, remaining a Jew had to be made more distasteful. Toward that end Alexander banned the Jews from having distilleries, which was traditionally a Jewish business. He also did not allow them to be landlords’ agents for the collection of rents, another traditional Jewish line of work. He granted these rights to the converts. He established an organization called “The Society of Jewish Christians” of which he was the patron.

One of the ironies of history is that if you try to make Jews good they are stubborn and if you try to make them bad they are stubborn. From 1817 to 1850, more Russians converted to Judaism than Jews converted to Christianity! (more…)

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Posted in:
Biographies, European Jewish History
by
Berel Wein
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  • February 3, 2014

Urbanization of Jews

Baron Maurice (Zvi) de Hirsch (1831–1896), who built the Russian railway system, was an example of the new Jew in the rapidly urbanizing Russia: upwardly mobile but an increasing source of anti-Semitism.

Baron Maurice (Zvi) de Hirsch (1831–1896), who built the Russian railway system, was an example of the new Jew in the rapidly urbanizing Russia: upwardly mobile but an increasing source of anti-Semitism.

Throughout the 1400s, 1500s, 1600s, and most of the 1700s, Jews lived in small, isolated communities—villages, farms, rural areas—as an agricultural-based people who lived among the peasants of Russia and Poland. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the Jews were transformed from an agricultural people to an urban one. This urbanization was taking place among all the peoples of Europe. However the Jews seemed to adapt quicker and more naturally – for better or worse.

For the first time, in the Diaspora at least, there was a substantial entrepreneurial class of Jews for whom other Jews worked. This was the beginnings of what would almost become class warfare among Jews, because the owners naturally saw things one way and the workers saw them another way. The workers saw themselves as being exploited under terrible conditions. Trapped in the middle would be the religious authorities, who somehow would have to make this decision who was right based upon the hard economic realities that they could not control. (more…)

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Biographies
by
Berel Wein
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  • January 27, 2014

The Name Game Among Jews

Certain Jewish communities would copy every name from the tombstones in the cemetery, and when the government came to town looking for people, they would tell the officials the person they wanted was dead. Then they would take them to the cemetery to prove it. In one town, everybody was dead. The next town over had tombstones without graves.

Certain Jewish communities would copy every name from the tombstones in the cemetery, and when the government came to town looking for people, they would tell the officials the person they wanted was dead. Then they would take them to the cemetery to prove it. In one town, everybody was dead. The next town over had tombstones without graves.

In 1835, one of the anti-Semitic decrees of the Czar was that everyone had to take a last name. Jews never had last names. Today last names are the norm, but until 1835 in Russia, Jews did not have them. This decree by the Czar specifically was meant to identify and control the Jews.

Jews took names, but many of the names were of the cities in which they lived. Other names were based on Cohen (the priestly class) or Levy (from the Levite class). All the names that ended with “owitz” or “ovich” meant “the son of.” Thus, Rabinovich meant “son of a Rabbi.” Kaganovich meant “son of a Cohen.”

Many Jews took more than one last name, because they did not want to be identified. For instance, there was a rule in the Russian army that it never took a boy who was an only child or only son.  A Jew who had four sons gave each of his four sons a different last name. Each brother had an entirely different family name. That way each was an “only son.”

A last name meant nothing to the Jews. It could be changed like a piece of clothing. Many people never knew what their last name was. Jews went to great length to avoid registration, to avoid being identified.

Many of the Jewish names in the United States were given by immigration officers on Ellis Island. Some are humorous. The famous Rabbi Nesanel Quinn, zt”l, of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas was a Cohen and told that to the immigration officer, who wrote it down as “Quinn.” There are some more medical names that we cannot discuss which were given. (more…)

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Posted in:
European Jewish History
by
Berel Wein
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  • January 9, 2014

Napoleon’s Sanhedrin

In 1807, Napoleon attempted to revive the Great Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of the Jewish people in Biblical and Talmudic times, but which had been disbanded centuries earlier due to persecution. Preparatory to its convening, Napoleon convened a “Council of Notables.” He put before this Jews “Council of Notables” a series of 12 questions:

  1. Is it lawful for Jews to have more than one wife?
  2. 2.      Is divorce allowed in the Jewish religion, and if it is, is it allowed even in contradiction to the codes of French law?
  3. 3.      Does Jewish law permit a Jewess to marry a Christian man, or a Jew to marry a Christian woman, or may they marry only other Jews?
  4. In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen who are not Jewish, considered to be their brethren or strangers?
  5. What type of conduct does Jewish law prescribe toward non-Jewish Frenchmen?
  6. 6.      Do the Jews who are born in France, and have been granted citizenship by the laws of France, truly acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it, to follow its laws, to follow the directions of the civil and court authorities of France?
  7. 7.      Who elects rabbis?
  8. What kind of judicial power do rabbis exercise over the Jews?
  9. 9.      If there is rabbinical jurisdiction over the Jews, is it regulated by the laws of the Jewish religion or is it merely a custom existing among Jews?
  10. 10.  Are there professions from which Jews are excluded by Jewish law?
  11. 11.  Does Jewish law prohibit Jews from taking usury from other Jews?
  12. 12.  Does Jewish law prohibit Jews from taking usury from non-Jews?

Napoleon did not just have a passing interest in these questions or the Jews under his control. He had a program of assimilation for the Jews and expected the Council to provide him with pat answers that would make it seem as if they were agreeing with his program. The Council, indeed, prepared answers in keeping with Napoleon’s wishes. They were not about to risk their necks. Additionally, many of them truly believed in Napoleon’s program to assimilate the Jews. (more…)

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Posted in:
Biographies, European Jewish History
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Berel Wein
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  • December 16, 2013

Reviving the Messiah

Among its revolutionary changes, the Chassidic movement reawakened within the Jewish people the tremendous longings for the Messiah and the Messianic era. After the debacles of Shabbetai Tzvi, Jacob Frank and other false messiahs there was a strong negative approach toward any messianic ideas. There is a great saying in Yiddish: “If you burn yourself on hot soup, you’ll blow even on a cold drink.”

Even though Jews believed in the Messiah and the rabbis certainly preached belief, they had ceased preaching – or toned down considerably — that his arrival was imminent or even feasible in the here and now. Rather, they postponed the Messiah in the minds of people, because they were afraid that one more disappointment, one more charlatan, one more disaster, would be a calamitous blow from which the Jews could not recover.

Chassidus was able to revive the belief in the Messiah…. There are legends about Rebbes convening to bring the Messiah, but something always interfered with the successful completion of their mission, because Heaven did not want it to occur.

Chassidus was able to revive the belief in the Messiah…. There are legends about Rebbes convening to bring the Messiah, but something always interfered with the successful completion of their mission, because Heaven did not want it to occur.

Therefore, during the entire 1700s, the idea of the Messiah was cooled among the Jews. This is seen in the writings and sermons of the time. The Noda B’Yehudah, Rav Yechezkel Halevi Landau, was the Chief Rabbi of Prague and one of the greatest scholars of all time. He bitterly opposed the Chassidim. He gave a sermon about a verse in Hosea (14:10), “The ways of God are straight and the righteous walk in them, but the sinners stumble in them.” The righteous go on the straight path and are successful, but the sinners, even if they go on the right road, will fall. Rabbi Landau was so anti-Chassidim that he substituted the word “Chassidim” for “sinners.” He was anti-Chassidic because he was afraid, as he wrote to his son once, of the Messianic quality of it. The Jews could not afford another false Messiah. (more…)

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European Jewish History
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Berel Wein
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  • December 2, 2013

Two Legacies of the Hasmoneans

Remains of one of the many fortifications built by the Hasmonean kings. In the end, internal strife rendered the great defensive armaments useless.

Remains of one of the many fortifications built by the Hasmonean kings. In the end, internal strife rendered the great defensive armaments useless.

At the end of the Jewish quarter, there are ruins of a Hasmonean fortress tower that apparently marked the western border of Jerusalem in the second century before the Common Era. The Hasmonean kings were vitally and understandably interested in fortifying Jerusalem. The Syrian Greeks who were defeated by the Hasmoneans in the Chanukah war did not disappear and remained a threat to the Jewish kingdom. The new and powerful Roman Empire loomed as a threat to the small state. Fortifications and defense measures, security concerns and other arrangements were certainly in order.

Looking at the massive foundation of stones of the Hasmonean tower, one wonders what really brought down the Hasmonean kingdom and led to the destruction of the Second Temple and the loss of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel for almost two millennia? The true cause had little to do with the strength of the fortifications or the solidity of the defensive towers.

The Hasmonean kingdom fell because of its internal divisions. The civil war between the two Hasmonean brothers – Hyrkanos and Aristobulus – over the right of succession to their father’s throne, the prejudice against the Torah scholars (official policy of the previous Hasmonean rulers), the mistaken belief in the mass conversion of thousands of Idumeans who were not really committed to living a Jewish lifestyle, and the misplaced and fatally erroneous policy of trusting Rome to protect Jewish interests and independence in the Land of Israel all conspired to bring down the Hasmoneans.

The Hasmoneans who triumphed because of faith and loyalty to the Torah and Jewish values fell when they deserted those causes and cast their lot with the then-prevailing cultures and societal norms. (more…)

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Posted in:
Ancient Jewish History, Bible/ Tanach, Medieval Jewish History
by
Berel Wein
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  • November 28, 2013

Rav Ovadia Yosef

On October 7, 2013, Rabbi Chaim Ovadia Yosef passed away. By some estimates, one million people attended his funeral. 93-years-old at the time of his passing, he was the undisputed leader of Sefardic Jewry, and one of the greatest Torah scholars of his generation. He was also one of the great heroes of the century and to a certain extent he revitalized Sefardic Jewry. His motto was lehachazir atara l’yoshna, “restore the crown [of Torah] to its original glory.”

Rav Ovadia Yosef was one of the great heroes of the century and to a certain extent he revitalized Sefardic Jewry.

Rav Ovadia Yosef was one of the great heroes of the century and to a certain extent he revitalized Sefardic Jewry.

In the long history of the Jewish people, the Sefardim and the Ashkenazim have not often met. However, when they did meet, the Sefardim usually became “Ashkenized,” i.e. they took on the customs and lifestyle of Central and Eastern European Jews. For instance, there is a proportion of the Lithuanian Jewry who really is Sefardic. After the expulsion from Spain in 1492, some Sefardim ended up in Lithuania and became known as “Litvaks” (Lithuanian Jews). There was a great Lithuanian rabbi, Don Yichye in the 19th century, whose family originated from Spain. Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein – a great early 20th century scholar whose works on Jewish law are seminal – wrote that anyone whose name is Epstein and is a Levi, is really named Benveniste, originating from a famous Sefardic family. The reason they are called Epstein is that on the way from Cordova to Vilna, they stopped in the German city of Eppstein and became “Epstein.”

Contemporary Jewish historian Rabbi Berel Wein comes from a line of seven generations of rabbis from a small town in Lithuania, but the family also originated from Spain. The name Wein is really Vien because on the way from Spain to Lithuania they stopped in Vienna and became Vien. Basically, that is how Sefardim became “Ashkenized.” (more…)

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Posted in:
Biographies, Sephardic Jewish History
by
Berel Wein
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  • November 12, 2013

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev

Tomb of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok, the Chassidic Rebbe who became famous for always defending otherwise indefensible Jews and see the good in every situation. His tomb is still visited today by thousands of admirers and followers.

Tomb of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok, the Chassidic Rebbe who became famous for always defending otherwise indefensible Jews and see the good in every situation. His tomb is still visited today by thousands of admirers and followers.

When the Chassidic Movement burst onto the Jewish scene in the mid-1700s it changed the face of Jewry. Among its many catalyzing elements were a series of ideas. For the most part, these were not so much new ideas as a new emphasis on ideas already extant in Judaism. Nevertheless, their impact was no less earth shattering.

One of the ideas that Chassidism introduced was the idea that evil is necessarily not all bad. One of the great philosophical problems is to explain how evil exists in a world created by God, who is all good and all powerful. One of the attempted answers is that what we think is evil is not really evil. It is an imperfect form of good that requires greater refinement; with work it will eventually become good.

The founder of Chassidism, the Baal Shem Tov, said that evil is the seat of good; good rests upon it. In other words, it is a necessary ingredient somehow in the process of human life. In evil itself there are many heavenly sparks that are covered and hidden. The righteous person is able to recognize and elevate those sparks, and therefore draw forth good even from evil. Consequently, the attitude of Chassidism – in its early revolutionary stage at least – was much more tolerant toward backsliding Jews. They saw the good sparks even in those “bad” Jews.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740–1809), one of the renowned Chassidic masters, became famous for this. For instance, the story goes, he once saw a Jew adorned with his prayer shawl and tefillin as he was greasing the wheels to his wagon. Someone remarked, “Look at that fool. He dresses in piety while he dirties himself with work.”

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok responded, “Look at that holy person. Even while greasing his wagon he is wearing his prayer shawl and tefillin.” (more…)

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Posted in:
Biographies, European Jewish History
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Berel Wein
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  • November 5, 2013

Jewish Self-Hatred And Ignorance

The title of the book is naturally taken from the Pesach Seder’s scenario of the four sons of the Jewish people and their attitudes towards Pesach particularly and the Jewish people generally. It is a polemic against Jewish self-hatred and Jewish Israel bashing from the self-appointed Leftist self-righteous denizens of academia and the media world. It is a powerful book and Mamet takes no prisoners.

The title of the book is naturally taken from the Pesach Seder’s scenario of the four sons of the Jewish people and their attitudes towards Pesach particularly and the Jewish people generally. It is a polemic against Jewish self-hatred and Jewish Israel bashing from the self-appointed Leftist self-righteous denizens of academia and the media world. It is a powerful book and Mamet takes no prisoners.

David Mamet is a Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway playwright as well as a well-established Hollywood movie script writer. His book, “The Wicked Son – Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred and the Jews,” is a polemic against Jewish self-hatred. It is a powerful book and Mamet takes no prisoners.

He states his case as follows: “To the Jews who, in the sixties, envied the Black Power Movement; who in the nineties envied the Palestinians; who weep at Exodus but jeer at the Israel Defense Forces; who nod when Tevye praises tradition but fidget through the Seder; who might take your curiosity to a dogfight, to a bordello or an opium den, but find ludicrous the notion of a visit to the synagogue; whose favorite Jew is Anne Frank and whose second favorite does not exist; who are humble in their desire to learn about Kwanzaa and proud of their ignorance of Tu Bishvat; who dread endogamy more than incest; who bow their heads reverently at a baptism and have never attended a bris – to you, who find your religion and race repulsive, your ignorance of history a satisfaction, here is a book from your brother.”

Mamet recognizes that there is no one book that will convince these people of their recklessness, self-hatred and apostasy. He writes: “It is unlikely that any self-professed antagonist to Israel, and so to the Jews, can be brought by force of outside reason to recognize and correct their self-serving apostasy.”

But Mamet writes for the committed Jew and for the millions of Jews who like to be Jewish but just don’t know how to go about it. The remedy that he himself espouses is ritual observance and thus belonging to a large and ancient people who have an unbroken chain of tradition and historic achievements. No people can satisfactorily survive without a ritual and sense of belonging. (more…)

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Posted in:
American Jewish history, Biographies, Modern Jewish History
by
Berel Wein
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  • July 29, 2013