Mem­oirs of a Grand­moth­er: Scenes from the Cul­tur­al His­to­ry of the Jews of Rus­sia in the Nine­teenth Century

Pauline Wengeroff; Shu­lamit S. Mag­nus, trans. with notes and commentary
  • Review
By – September 12, 2011
Why did Euro­pean Jews begin to fall away from reli­gion in the 18th cen­tu­ry? The con­ven­tion­al expla­na­tion is that the Enlight­en­ment drew Jews away from the parochial­ism of Ortho­doxy with its cos­mopoli­tan ideas about sci­ence, ratio­nal­i­ty, and indi­vid­ual con­science. In his third book of schol­ar­ship about the Haskala, the Jew­ish Enlight­en­ment, Shmuel Fein­er doc­u­ments how plen­ty of Jews became lax about reli­gious oblig­a­tions, and some­times open­ly scorn­ful of rab­bini­cal author­i­ty, out of per­son­al dis­af­fec­tion rather than ide­o­log­i­cal con­vic­tion.

Fein­er shows how Jews’ per­son­al and social behav­ior began to change well before Moses Mendelssohn pro­posed a Jew­ish ver­sion of the Enlight­en­ment. Jews influ­enced by the wider cul­ture through busi­ness and social inter­ac­tions sought out the plea­sures of tav­erns and the the­ater, even on the Sab­bath. Rab­bis attacked them as heretics, but that descrip­tion tells us more about the author­i­ties’ fears than about the true moti­va­tions of nonob­ser­vant Jews. 

Of course there were real heretics too. The idea of redemp­tion through sin,” a lega­cy of Shab­be­tai Zevi’s move­ment and the relat­ed group led by Jacob Frank, pro­vid­ed a ratio­nal­iza­tion for over­turn­ing reli­gious pro­hi­bi­tions as well as chal­leng­ing the author­i­ty of the Tal­mud and the rab­bis who taught it. Spinoza’s 17th cen­tu­ry chal­lenge to both doc­trine and author­i­ty also served as an exam­ple to dis­af­fect­ed Jews of a lat­er era. 

At a time when debates raged about rev­e­la­tion and God’s prov­i­dence, the mask­il­im— the pro­po­nents of the Jew­ish Enlight­en­ment — tried to steer a mid­dle course. They reject­ed Ashke­nazi rab­bis’ dis­taste for sci­ence and phi­los­o­phy, but also opposed the deist notion of a Cre­ator who is no longer active in the world. Despite their promi­nence in his­tor­i­cal accounts, how­ev­er, they did not cre­ate a mass move­ment. In the end, indi­vid­ual Jews adapt­ed their behav­ior and beliefs to their own par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tions accord­ing to their own needs. 

Shmuel Fein­er blends cor­re­spon­dence and eye­wit­ness accounts of indi­vid­ual Jews with a mas­ter­ful sur­vey of the period’s social, intel­lec­tu­al, and reli­gious cur­rents. His low-key, rea­son­able tone belies the breath­tak­ing orig­i­nal­i­ty of his work. Emi­nent­ly read­able and instant­ly author­i­ta­tive, his book is a boon to schol­ar­ship and to gen­er­al read­ers alike. 

The haskala came lat­er to Rus­sia than to West­ern Europe. Pauline Wengeroff wit­nessed its effects grow­ing up in a wealthy, reli­gious fam­i­ly in Bobruisk and Brisk in the first half of the 19th cen­tu­ry, and recalled her ear­ly life in a mem­oir some six­ty years lat­er. On one lev­el it rich­ly describes hol­i­day rit­u­als famil­iar to Ortho­dox Jews today, with evoca­tive obser­va­tions about spe­cif­ic culi­nary details and local cus­toms. More impor­tant­ly, Wengeroff also acute­ly and ambiva­lent­ly records the inroads of the Enlight­en­ment from above and below. 

She vivid­ly evokes the grow­ing appeal to Jews of Euro­pean cul­ture, and wel­comes the dras­tic reform of Jew­ish edu­ca­tion imposed by the Tsarist author­i­ties. Wengeroff won­der­ful­ly cap­tures the covert intel­lec­tu­al excite­ment of a group of yeshi­va stu­dents who dis­guise a dis­cus­sion of Schiller’s Don Car­los by con­duct­ing the con­ver­sa­tion in Tal­mu­dic singsong. She approves of young men whose cos­mopoli­tan cul­ti­va­tion and breadth of knowl­edge would once have been unimag­in­able, yet lat­er she deplores how the obse­quious­ness we show our chil­dren turns them into ego­ists and tyrants over us.” 

Shu­lamit Magnus’s intro­duc­to­ry essay, which is more than half as long as Wengeroff’s own text, impos­es a ten­den­tious analy­sis based on class and gen­der which the mem­oir only inter­mit­tent­ly sup­ports. Mag­nus strains to find instances of women’s autonomous or col­lec­tive agency, not always per­sua­sive­ly, and appar­ent­ly finds it remark­able and dis­ap­point­ing that her 19th cen­tu­ry sub­ject lacked a gen­dered sense of self.” Some read­ers may pre­fer to begin with Wengeroff’s own words while con­sult­ing Magnus’s invalu­able end­notes, which con­stant­ly illu­mi­nate the text with a trea­sury of his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion and expla­na­tions of Jew­ish law and cus­toms. 

Shmuel Feiner’s next book in his series takes the his­to­ry of the Enlight­en­ment into the 19th cen­tu­ry. It was pub­lished in Hebrew as Mil­hemet Tar­but—“Cul­ture War,” or Kul­turkampf — in late 2010. Its appear­ance in Eng­lish trans­la­tion, prob­a­bly still a cou­ple of years off, is an event to be eager­ly antic­i­pat­ed.

Addi­tion­al books fea­tured in this review

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