My father’s side of the family is from Russia. As a child, I loved hearing stories of how my Pappa Shel left home in his late teens with hopes of finding new opportunities and a better life for his family. His search took him first to Palestine and then to the United States of America. He then returned to Russia to bring his family to the Americas. Some settled with him in the United States, while his brothers settled in Argentina.
My grandfather’s story is the story that so many American Jews share. It is the classic immigrant story which defines our Jewish American heritage, and when we look back at the long history of our ancestral roots, it is extremely helpful in enabling us to understand the Judaism we practice today.
The Jewish presence in the European part of Russia can be traced back to the seventh century CE. As a result of our long presence in that region a culture and a community unlike any in the history of our faith evolved amidst extremely stressful circumstances. For centuries we were the victims of some of the worst atrocities in our history, and yet, perhaps out of necessity, some of the most lasting institutions of our heritage emerged from the shtetls of this region (referred to as the Pale).
At the turn of the twentieth century, over forty percent of the world’s Jews lived within the Russian Empire, almost all in the Pale of Settlement. From the Baltic to the Black Sea, the Jews of the Pale created a distinctive way of life. They had their own language, Yiddish. They had their own systems of governance, rooted in the laws of the Torah. They were also afforded a significant amount of autonomy, as long as they remained within their closed communities called shtetls.
Jewish life in the shtetls of the Pale of Settlement was hard and poverty-stricken, but the laws of the Torah dictated a sense of communal responsibility. Tzedakah (Jewsih charity) was at the heart of a very sophisticated welfare system which sought to meet the needs of the population. Various organizations supplied clothing, food and supplies to ensure that no family, however poor they may have been, lived in squander.
One of the most enduring institutions to emerge from the shtetl was the modern yeshiva system. Until the beginning of the 19th century, each town supported its own advanced students who learned in the local synagogue with the rabbinical head of the community. These learning communities continue today and operate virtually unchanged in parts of New York, Jerusalem and other large cities around the world.
Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement was immortalized through the writings of Yiddish authors such as Sholom Aleichem, whose stories of Tevye of Anatevka formed the basis of Fiddler on the Roof. Because of the harsh conditions of day-to-day life in the Pale, some 2 million Jews emigrated from there between 1881 and 1914, mainly to the United States. Among them was my grandfather.
With them came a rich cultural heritage and a deep love of Judaism. The music and the food of the Jews of Russia and the Pale Settlement will be the focus of our March Got Shabbat.