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

Stanford University Press  2010

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rejected Ashkenazi rabbis’ distaste for science and philosophy, but also opposed the deist notion of a Creator who is no longer active in the world.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.

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