Kiev: Jew­ish Metrop­o­lis. A His­to­ry, 1859 – 1914

Natan M. Meir

  • Review
By – December 21, 2011

This well-writ­ten, engag­ing book seeks to recon­struct the fab­ric of Jew­ish dai­ly life in the dynam­ic city of Kiev, known as the moth­er of Russ­ian Ortho­dox cities. Banned from liv­ing in Kiev since the 17th cen­tu­ry, small num­bers of Jews were ini­tial­ly allowed to obtain res­i­dence per­mits in 1859, with more Jews enter­ing both legal­ly and ille­gal­ly. The peri­od between 1859 and 1914 was one of tremen­dous eco­nom­ic and demo­graph­ic growth and cul­tur­al change, espe­cial­ly for Russia’s Jews, who were large­ly restrict­ed to the noto­ri­ous Pale of Settlement. 

Most­ly impov­er­ished Jews poured into Kiev from the eco­nom­i­cal­ly stunt­ed and con­ser­v­a­tive small mar­ket towns or shtetlekh. Like Jews who made the trans-Atlantic voy­age to Amer­i­ca, many Jews in Kiev felt con­strained to give up aspects of tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish life, cus­toms, and rit­u­al, such as the Sab­bath, kosher food, and reg­u­lar syn­a­gogue atten­dance, in order to make a liv­ing and suc­ceed mate­ri­al­ly. For many young Jews, Kiev was a place to forge a new assim­i­lat­ed Rus­si­fied iden­ti­ty, which para­dox­i­cal­ly trig­gered fear of hid­den Jew­ish dom­i­nance of Kiev.

The author makes cre­ative use of a broad range of pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources in many lan­guages, found in libraries and archives in Rus­sia, Ukraine, Israel, and the US. Diaries, mem­oirs, court records, peti­tions, news­pa­per arti­cles, and adver­tise­ments are used to recon­struct threads of his­to­ry, in addi­tion to short sto­ries, nov­els, and poet­ry. The book exam­ines how the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty was orga­nized and looks at the dynam­ic change in Russ­ian and Russ­ian-Jew­ish civ­il soci­ety dur­ing the final decade before the First World War. 

Robert Moses Shapiro teach­es mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Holo­caust stud­ies, and Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­lyn Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. His most recent book is The War­saw Ghet­to Oyneg Shabes-Ringel­blum Archive: Cat­a­log and Guide (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press in asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Library and the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw, 2009). He is cur­rent­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing Pol­ish and Yid­dish diaries from the Łódź ghet­to and the Yid­dish Son­derkom­man­do doc­u­ments found buried in the ash pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Discussion Questions