Fam­i­lies, Rab­bis, and Edu­ca­tion: Tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish Soci­ety in Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry East­ern Europe

Shaul Stampfer

  • Review
By – August 29, 2011

Jew­ish life in East­ern Europe wasn’t all fid­dlers and rooftops, yeshi­va boys and stur­dy women in bucol­ic coun­try­side shtetls. As we learn from Shaul Stampfer’s acces­si­ble and live­ly book, life for Jews was often char­ac­ter­ized by inse­cu­ri­ty about per­son­al safe­ty and eco­nom­ic wel­fare. In chap­ters about ear­ly mar­riage and fam­i­ly life, we learn that boys and girls often were arranged to be mar­ried and liv­ing togeth­er by the time they reached their ear­ly teens, and we learn about why men and women may have been sig­nif­i­cant­ly less demon­stra­tive in their love for one anoth­er than they may have been toward their chil­dren. The divorce rate in 19th cen­tu­ry East­ern Europe was high­er than we might imag­ine, prob­a­bly because Jew­ish women had more pow­er than we might have thought: ide­al Jew­ish women were phys­i­cal­ly robust, skilled in shop-keep­ing math, and adept at super­vis­ing chil­dren and house­hold affairs in full accor­dance with Jew­ish law. Jew­ish men often were inessen­tial to a house­hold because they lived a more schol­ar­ly life, set apart from world­ly affairs.

In the book’s chap­ters on edu­ca­tion, Stampfer traces the devel­op­ment of the hed­er, that unique insti­tu­tion of Jew­ish learn­ing in which young peo­ple stud­ied with insuf­fi­cient­ly trained and insuf­fi­cient­ly engag­ing teach­ers, and where read­ing” meant pro­nounc­ing words with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly under­stand­ing what they meant. In oth­er chap­ters in the book on lit­er­a­cy, ques­tion­ing, the pushke (char­i­ty box) and the rab­binate, we can see the extent to which Jew­ish learn­ing nev­er stopped for young peo­ple; much of that cul­ture has not yet dis­si­pat­ed, though we are sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions away from the East­ern Euro­pean con­text. This book is a good read not only for schol­ars, but also for gen­er­al read­ers inter­est­ed in see­ing just how far we have come from that van­ished world.

Judd Kruger Lev­ingston, Ph.D. and rab­bi, serves as Direc­tor of Jew­ish Stud­ies at Jack M. Bar­rack Hebrew Acad­e­my in the Philadel­phia area. Lev­ingston is the author of Sow­ing the Seeds of Char­ac­ter: The Moral Edu­ca­tion of Ado­les­cents in Pub­lic and Pri­vate Schools (Praeger, 2009).

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