Russian Jews Essay, Research Paper
To Russian Jews, the synagogue was the center of religion and religion
was the most important thing in their lives. The rabbi was their leader, they
came to him with every problem they had. Jews were poor, but they all gave
tzedakah. It was said that even the poorest Jews could find someone poorer to
help and give money to. According to the Jewish religion, tzedakah is one of
the most important mitzvahs you can do. The same could be said about the Jewish
holidays. They were observed very strictly, but Shabbat was the most welcomed.
In order to teach the importance of Jewish law, they started their own schools,
their own courts of law, and their own burial societies. even though there were
pogroms, religious persecution forced the Jews to create stronger communities
and made them more united.
In the beginning of the 1800s, Alexander I ruled Russia. He promised
the Jews that they could become farmers, could live in two districts, and could
buy unoccupied land. Although Alexander was kind and helped the Jews, the tax
they were forced to pay, stayed. before he died in 1825, the Jewish situation
became hard for them to bare. They lived in poverty in small and crowded places
and were oppressed. For hundreds of years, Jews lived these ways in two
communities – the ghetto and the shtetl. To keep out thieves and rioters from
coming in, they built walls around their section of town. When they did this,
the government and churches got an idea, they would use the walls that the Jews
built, to lock them in.
These walls were located near a foundry that made cannons, so they named
it ?ghetto? which means “foundry”. They would close the gates every night and
the Jews would be locked in until daybreak. The word of the ghettos quickly
spread, soon there were ghettos all over Europe. The Jews were all treated the
same in every ghetto that was in Europe, according the government and churches,
the Jews had no rights. They were no allowed to own land, join crafts guilds,
or do any kind of work that Christians got to do. In some ghettos, they were
even forced to wear badges so anyone who saw them would know they were Jewish.
The badge was usually a Star of David. For many years, the government took
copies of the Talmud, and burnt them. Also the government forced the Jews to
listen to long Christian sermons. Even though all these terrible things took
place and the government was not good to the Jews, the ghettos seemed to be a
better place for most Jews than the outside. The rich helped the poor and even
the poorest Jew was treated with respect because of what the Jewish law said.
Though their living conditions were not the best, the Jews all worked, studied,
celebrated, and prayed together. They also tried to make life as worthwhile as
During the period that ghettos were spreading and becoming more well-
known, shtetls, which mean “little towns”, were beginning to take shape. Many
of the Jews settled outside the main cities, this is where they formed their
shtetls. Unlike ghettos, the shtetls were protected by the government because
the Jews served the nobles as bankers, tax collectors, and farm managers. Also,
there were no walls surrounding it to keep out thieves and rioters. In the
center of the shtetl stood the synagogue, and at the center of life of the
synagogue, was the rabbi. Jews thought being rich was nice but being a good
student was better. Each shtetl contained a population of between 1,000 to
20,000 Jews. The Jewish community in Russia extends back about ten centuries in
history. Until the middle of the 18th century, Russia did not have any Jews in
it. At that time, the Jews were granted a permission to their own council of
four lands: Great Poland, Little Poland, ?Russia?, and Volhynia. They excised
religious, economic, and political control over the Jews. In1812, Napoleon
invaded Russia and in 1827, the Czar said that the Jews had to serve in the army
for a term of 25 years. He hoped that in that period many of them would change
their religion. Very often, the poor were forced to starve while the rich
managed not to.
Around the middle of the 1800s, the Haskalah movement formed in Russia,
it was different from the enlightenment movement in the rest of Europe. It
promoted intellectual and social awareness of Russian Jewry. They used Hebrew
and Yiddish literature to reach the masses.
In 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated. Once this happened,
Alexander III took over the throne. That year in April, Anti-Jewish riots or
pogroms broke out, it involved looting, property damage, and personal injury.
In 1882, under the May Laws, Jews could no longer settle in rural villages. If
they left their towns, they were not allowed to come back in. They were
forbidden to trade on Sundays and Christians holidays, did not have access to
universities, and they could not work in all professions. The Jews were
constantly harassed by the police and were forced to get out of their homes.
The czarist government made it clear that the Jews had no true home in Russia.
The pressure increased in each passing year. The expulsion of Moscow’s 35,000
Jews began in 1891. This situation caused many young Russians to go to other
countries for a higher education. They developed their own Revolutionary ideas,
it was called Zionism.
Jews who did not want to fight for the Czar and wanted to escape the
pogroms started to immigrate out of Russia. Each year between 1881 and 1899
nearly 23,000 Jews left Russia. Some came to the U.S, some remained in Europe,
and some made the journey to Palestine.
The economic condition in Russia under the Czar was very bad. At times,
food and money were scarce. Mobs would be invading ghettos and shtetls often,
looting and burning leaving the Jews with nothing. When one house caught on
fire, it was not unusual for the whole street to burn down since all of the
homes were made of wood and their houses were built very close together. This
left the whole community without shelter, food, or anymore clothing than they
had on them at the time. They would have to go to the forest and start to chop
all new wood so they could rebuild their homes and start all over again. When
doing this, they were limited to whatever tools they had, which was not much
because they could not afford to buy a lot of tools. Meanwhile, There were some
basic economical and social changes in Europe, which forever changed the life of
all men. The Industrial Resolution started to take shape. Industry moved out
of the home and into the factories. Small towns grew in population to become
big cities and brought comforts and luxuries to the common man. Most of all,
production increased and the whole world became the manufacturer’s market. many
people were eager to invest their savings, including the Jews, in factories,
mines, workshops, railroads, and steamships. Thousands of daring investors
became rich and they gained enormous economic power. In this period, Jews found
remarkable opportunities to improve their lives. All factories and industries
which needed investors and workers, did not check for religion or a social
background of those who could supply them with what they needed. They did not
stop to examine the racial background of those who were willing hands and who
could be of service. To them, profits were the most important thing. These
economic changes helped to bring equality to the Jews. Some Jewish families
became very powerful like the Rothchilds family. Usually when Jews obtain
financial strength, they turned to help other Jews who were not as fortunate.
By 1875, Jewish political equality had been won in most of Europe. All of these
changes, however, in reality, did not stop Anti-Semitism. In the early 20th
century, Russia was still Anti-Jewish as they were during the middle ages. At
this period, the Zionist movement had been founded. Many Jews decided to leave
Russia while they could, seek a better life, and better opportunities elsewhere.