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Comparative Studies in Society and History 2008;50(2):509 –534.

0010-4175/08 $15.00 # 2008 Society for Comparative Study of Society and History
doi: 10.1017/S0010417508000224

Classless: On the Social Status of Jews

in Russia and Eastern Europe in the
Late Nineteenth Century
Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry of The Hebrew University
of Jerusalem

In this paper I examine the economic and political factors that undermined the
social class structure in an ethnic community—the Jews of Russia and eastern
Europe at the end of the nineteenth century.1 Compared with the documented
rise and articulation of working classes in non-Jewish society in that region,
Jews were caught in an opposite process, largely owing to discriminatory
state policies and social pressures: Among Jews, artisans and petty merchants
were increasingly reduced to a single, caste-like status. A Jewish middle class
of significant size did not emerge from the petty trade sector and no significant
industrial working class emerged from the crafts sector. Historians have largely
overlooked the significance of these facts, in part because they have viewed this
east European situation as a mere preamble to more sophisticated, modern class
formation processes among immigrant Jews in Western societies, particularly in
light of the long-term middle-class trajectory of their children. Those historians
interested in labor history have mainly shown interest in such continuity as they
could infer from the self-narratives of the Jewish labor movement, and have thus
overstated the case for a long-standing Jewish “proletarian” tradition. In reasses-
sing the historical record, I wish to put the Jewish social and economic situation
in eastern Europe into better perspective by looking at the overall social
and economic situation, rather than at incipient worker organizations alone.
I also query whether a developing class culture, along the lines suggested by

Acknowledgments: I want to thank the three anonymous CSSH readers whose suggestions and
questions were very helpful in reworking an earlier draft of this essay. All translations are mine
unless otherwise stated.
Throughout this paper, I use “eastern Europe” and “Russia” almost interchangeably, despite
differences in legal, political, and economic status that obtained across the region. I do so partly
for convenience, given the Russian Empire’s domination over 80 percent of east European
Jewry. In addition, my use of “eastern Europe” underscores that “Russian” Jews did not actually
live in “Russia,” per se, but in lands that were ethnically Polish, Lithuanian, Belorussian, Ukrainian,
and Moldavian (among others).


E. P. Thompson, was at all in evidence before Jewish mass emigration. This

paper is thus a contribution to the history of labor—rather than organized
labor—as well as a discussion of the roots of ethnic economic identity.
In addition, a reexamination of the economic background of the east Euro-
pean Jews who migrated in mass to the West suggests that theories of self-
selection among the migrating population, which ostensibly favored those
from the light-manufacturing sector, overstate the case for individual agency
in the migration process, and the neat “fit” between Old World and New
World occupational structures.
Finally, conventional “ethnic” histories of Jews in the United States have
largely focused on cultural transmission issues. I hope to reintroduce the econ-
omic factor into the discussion. In that sense, this paper argues for a more rig-
orous comparison between the status of pre-migration east European Jewry and
that of post-migration communities in the United States. It forms the first part of
a longer work in progress on Jewish immigrant life in America and the pro-
cesses of economic integration.

Some five million Jews—nearly half of the world total—lived under Russian
imperial rule at the end of the nineteenth century. (These included 1.3
million who lived within the Kingdom of Poland.) As of 1910, an additional
850,000 were living in Habsburg Galicia and some 400,000 were spread
throughout southeastern Europe (chiefly in the Balkans and Romania), bringing
the total Jewish population for all of eastern Europe to 6.25 million. Nearly
one-third, or about two million, of these immigrated to the United States
over a fifty-year period, beginning in the 1870s and peaking between 1905
and the First World War.2 This mass outpouring ended in the 1920s when
the U. S. government instituted country-of-origin-based immigration quotas
weighted against east European countries.
The emigration of one-third of a population in so short a time-span is rare
(only the mass out-migrations of the Irish or the Norwegians come to mind
as comparable), and it has aroused interest about the conditions that spurred
such an exodus. Jewish immigrants comprised about 11 percent of total Amer-
ican immigrants between 1899 and 1914, and 14 percent of those who
remained permanently (i.e., net immigration). Jews made up one-quarter of
the immigrants from southern, central, and eastern Europe.3

Evyatar Friesel, Atlas of Modern Jewish History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990),
10–15, 32–36; Simon Kuznets, “Immigration of Russian Jews to the United States: Background
and Structure,” Perspectives in American History 9 (1975): 38, Table 1; Isaac M. Rubinow, “Econ-
omic Conditions of the Jews in Russia,” Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor, No. 72 (Washington, D.C.:
Department of Commerce and Labor, 1907; repr. New York: Arno Press, 1975), 495– 96.
Niles Carpenter, Immigrants and Their Children, 1920. Census Monographs, vol. 7 (Washing-
ton, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1927), 344, Table 158; Joel Perlmann,
S O C I A L S TAT U S O F J E W S 511

Research on the causes and the timing of the Jewish immigration has dwelt
upon both the social-political element (persecutions) and on economic elements
(socioeconomic deprivation). Mob violence against Jews and Jewish
property—“pogroms,” a Russian word coined expressly for this case—broke
out in the Pale of Settlement in the spring of 1881, following the assassination
of the tsar, Alexander II, and this is often considered to be the spark that
touched off the large-scale exodus. The question is far from settled, and is
far more complex than it would appear, for several reasons: (a) The migration
actually began, albeit on a smaller scale, in the 1870s; (b) scholars have shown
that the 1881-era immigrants came initially from centers of Jewish population
hardest hit by poverty more than from those areas directly affected by the
pogroms4; (c) the migration was selective—migration was much higher
among younger, working-age people, and did not represent a cross-section of
the Jewish population—and was responsive to business cycles in the American
economy; and (d) although Jews were, like other migrating groups, clearly
economically motivated, they did emigrate more than non-Jews. Jews com-
prised over two-fifths of all Russian emigrants between 1890 and 1915, and
they tended to bring more dependent family members with them, thus
placing themselves at an initial economic disadvantage in adjusting to their
new home. These two idiosyncratic factors—more intensive out-migration

Italians Then, Mexicans Now. Immigrant Origins and Second-Generation Progress, 1890– 2000
(New York: Russell Sage Foundation and the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, 2005),
11– 12. For the general literature, see Walter Nugent, Crossings: The Great Transatlantic
Migrations, 1870–1914 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992); Alan M. Kraut, The
Huddled Masses: The Immigrant in American Society, 1880–1921 (Arlington Heights, Ill.:
Harlan Davidson, 1982); Salo W. Baron, “United States 1880– 1914,” in Steeled By Adversity.
Essays and Addresses on American Jewish Life (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of
America, 1971), 269– 414; Liebman Hersch, “International Migration of the Jews,” in Imre Fer-
enczi and Walter F. Willcox, eds., International Migrations (New York: National Bureau of Econ-
omic Research, 1931), vol. 2, 471–520; and idem, “Jewish Migrations during the Last Hundred
Years,” in The Jewish People Past and Present (New York: Jewish Encyclopedic Handbooks,
Central Yiddish Culture Organization [CYCO], 1946), vol. I, 407 –30; Samuel Joseph, Jewish
Immigration to the United States from 1881 to 1910 (New York: Arno, 1969; repr. of 1914 ed.,
New York: Longmans, Green).
Kuznets, “Immigration”: 116– 19; Shaul Stampfer, “The Geographic Background of East
European Jewish Migration to the United States before World War I,” in, Ira A. Glazier and
Luigi De Rosa, eds., Migration across Time and Nations: Population Mobility in Historical Con-
texts (New York and London: Holmes and Meier, 1986), 227– 28; idem, “Patterns of Internal Jewish
Migration in the Russian Empire,” in, Yaacov Ro’i, ed., Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the
Soviet Union (Ilford, Essex: Frank Cass, 1995), 37; Rubinow, “Economic Conditions,” 491–92,
495– 96, 502. On the pogroms see: I. Michael Aronson, Troubled Waters: The Origins of the
1881 Anti-Jewish Pogroms in Russia (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990); Jonathan
Frankel, “The Crisis of 1881–82 as a Turning Point in Modern Jewish History,” in, David Berger,
ed., The Legacy of Jewish Migration: 1881 and Its Impact (New York: Columbia University Press,
1983), 9– 22; Shlomo Lambroza and John Klier, eds., Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern
Russian History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

and higher family migration—may attest to the added motivating “push” of a

particularly harsh political situation for Jews.5
We can assume, then, that both economic and other historical causes served
as “push” factors in the emigration of east European Jews, and that political
oppression and economic causes were interrelated. The following discussion
is intended to delineate briefly just how that was so.
By Western standards, Russia was a poor, mainly agrarian country. Urbaniz-
ation did set in at a rapid pace after the 1860s, but by 1897, only 13 to 15
percent of the Russian population was classified as urban. Twenty years
later, the figure stood at only 18 percent and the agricultural sector still
accounted for over half of the work force. Despite its predominant role, agricul-
ture suffered from low productivity and slow modernization. It was only in the
1880s that agricultural production began to grow appreciably.6 On the eve of
World War I, Russia’s per capita national income approached only one-tenth
that of the United States, one-third that of Germany, and half that of Italy.7
Manufacturing and trade were established sectors in the Russian economy
alongside agriculture, but as with increases in farm production, true industrial
modernization did not strike root until the 1880s and 1890s.8 Development was
most noticeable in heavy industry and railroad building: Coal, iron, and oil
were crucial in this regard, though the largest single employment sector
among the manufacturing branches was the textiles industry.9

Carpenter, Immigrants, 173, Table 78. Cf. Kuznets, “Immigration of Russian Jews”: 95,
Table 10; cf. Peter Gatrell, The Tsarist Economy, 1850–1917 (New York: St. Martin’s Press,
1986), 215; Joseph Kissman, “The Immigration of Rumanian Jews up to 1914,” YIVO Annual of
Jewish Social Science, 2–3 (1948): 177–78.
Arcadius Kahan, Russian Economic History: The Nineteenth Century, Roger Weiss, ed.
(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 10; Nicolas Spulber, Russia’s Economic
Transitions, From Late Tsarism to the New Millennium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2003), 84; Paul R. Gregory, Before Command: An Economic History of Russia from Emancipation
to the First Five-Year Plan (Princeton: University of Princeton Press, 1994); Gatrell, Tsarist
Economy; Michael F. Hamm, “The Modern Russian City, An Historiographical Analysis,”
Journal of Urban History 4, 1 (1977): 40–42.
Gatrell, Tsarist Economy, 32; M. E. Falkus, The Industrialisation of Russia, 1700–1914
(London: Macmillan/Economic History Society, 1972), 11– 12; Alexander Gerschenkron, Econ-
omic Backwardness in Historical Perspective (New York: Praeger, 1962), 138. Austrian Galicia,
the source of 236,500 Jewish emigrants between 1881 and 1910, was also chronically underdeve-
loped. See Georges Gliksman, L’Aspect économique de la question juive en pologne (Paris: Edi-
tions Rieder, 1929), 26– 29.
Kahan, Russian Economic History, 13; William L. Blackwell, The Beginnings of Russian
Industrialization, 1800– 1860 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968); Olga Crisp, Studies
in the Russian Economy before 1914 (London: Macmillan/New York: Harper and Row, 1976),
5 –54; Falkus, Industrialisation of Russia, 44– 75; Gatrell, Tsarist Economy, 67; Spulber,
Russia’s Economic Transitions, 85– 99; Gerschenkron, Economic Backwardness, 119–42.
Falkus, Industrialisation of Russia; Spulber, Russia’s Economic Transitions; Kahan, Russian
Economic History, ch. 2; Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian Empire, 1801–1917 (Oxford: Claren-
don Press, 1988 [1967]), 520–21.
S O C I A L S TAT U S O F J E W S 513

For our purposes, the relative slowness of modern economic development in

Russia and across the region in general is a relevant place to start, but still more
crucial was the retarded character of the economy of the so-called “Pale of
Settlement,” the region on the western border of the empire where the over-
whelming majority of Jews lived. Heavy industries were largely located
outside the Pale, and even the textile industry, though relatively well-developed
in Poland, was still centered eastward, beyond Moscow. In Russia as a whole,
by 1913, the yearly value per person of industrial production averaged thirty
rubles; within the Pale of Settlement it averaged only six rubles.10 “The
visitor to the late-nineteenth-century towns in the western provinces would
have been struck by the deprivation of their predominantly Jewish inhabitants,”
concludes one economic historian.11
Comparing Jewish and non-Jewish enterprises yields an even starker picture
of the relative underdevelopment of the Jewish economy. Jewish enterprises
had a lower capital endowment and fewer employees, on average.12 Jews
owned 37.8 percent of the factories in the Pale but employed only 27 percent
of the workers, while the value of products they manufactured was only 22.5
percent of the total value of manufactured products. These disproportions
were largely due to the preponderance in the Jewish sector of small plants
and non-mechanized manufacturing.13 In the textile-manufacturing center of
Łódz, Poland, Jews owned nearly 12 percent of the mills in the 1880s, but
the value of their products was but 9 percent of the city’s textile output.14 In
Poland as a whole, Jewish workers comprised nearly 44 percent of all
workers in non-mechanized factories but only 19 percent in mechanized
ones.15 Figures for Warsaw—a relatively well-developed city with a more
established middle class and highly developed industry—show that Jews
owned only 21 percent of its larger factories (those employing over twenty-five

Ezra Mendelsohn, Class Struggle in the Pale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1970), 17; Louis Greenberg, The Jews in Russia (New York: Schocken, 1976), vol. 1, 160–67;
Robert J. Brym, Jewish Intelligentsia and Russian Marxism (London: Macmillan, 1978), 26–28.
Gatrell, Tsarist Economy, 40.
Arcadius Kahan, “Impact of Industrialization on the Jews in Tsarist Russia,” in, Roger Weiss,
ed., Essays in Jewish Social and Economic History (Chicago and London: University of Chicago
Press, 1986), 3– 4.
Rubinow, “Economic Conditions,” 537.
Phillip Friedman, “Di industrializatsye un proletarizatsye fun lodzher yidn in di yorn 1860–
1914,” Lodzher visnshaftlekher shriftn 1 (1938): 76.
Yoav Peled and Gershon Shafir, “From Caste to Exclusion: The Dynamics of Modernization in
the Russian Pale of Settlement,” in, Ezra Mendelsohn, ed., Studies in Contemporary Jewry, Vol. 3:
Jews and Other Ethnic Groups in a Multi-Ethnic World (1987), 100–1.
In 1867, ninety-one Jewish-owned factories in Warsaw employed 1,761 workers (19.4 per
factory on average). For the Kingdom of Poland as a whole, 434 Jewish manufacturing enterprises
employed 11,539 workers (or an average of 26.6 workers per factory). Bernard Weinryb, Neueste
Wirtschaftsgeschichte der Juden in Russland un Polen: Von der I. Polnischen Teilung bis zum Tode

The concentration of Jewish artisans, journeymen, and industrial workers in

the smallest workshops, mills and factories, or home workshops had important
ramifications, for example in social and legal arenas. Russian labor legislation
began in 1882 to institute reforms such as reduction of working hours, control
or elimination of child-labor and night-shift hours for female workers, insti-
tution of written contracts for laborers, and the establishment of a system of
governmental factory inspection. These reforms (which were, in any case,
slow to be enforced) only applied to workplaces with over sixteen employees
and were, therefore, irrelevant for the bulk of Jewish workers. Even when Jews
worked alongside non-Jews in the same factory, a pattern of discrimination left
the Jewish workers with low-grade jobs, longer hours, and less pay. Their
youngsters stood less chance of obtaining formal vocational training, and
Jews as a group could not hope to participate in civic affairs. As one observer
has put it, “The Jewish laborer . . . lived and worked under conditions so
[adversely] different from the rest of the working class that they really were
a separate, inferior category unto themselves.”17
Jews were concomitantly over-represented among “clerks” in the private
sector, among those who provided religious services, and particularly in
trade (comprising over three-fourths of that sector). Fully 86 percent of
Warsaw’s street peddlers were Jews. A sizeable proportion of the Jewish
group (15 percent in 1897) were classified as common laborers, domestic ser-
vants, or apprentices (i.e., menial workshop assistants), or as having no known
Kahan’s estimate for a Jewish bourgeoisie, properly speaking, within the
Russian Pale came to about 16,850, or about 1 percent of economically
active Jews, based on 1897 figures. This category combined those with
titled ranks, honorary citizens, guild merchants, and people deriving income
from real estate and other forms of investment. If we add their family

Alexanders II (1772– 1881) (Hildesheim and New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1972 [Breslau: Verlag
M. & H. Marcus, 1934]), 75– 76.
Nearly two-thirds of all Jewish workers in Warsaw before World War I worked in shops
employing between one and ten people, and in such workplaces Jews constituted between 97
and 99 percent of all those so employed. Sixty-one percent worked in hand-operated, non-
mechanized workshops and factories, and only 39 percent in proper industrial plants. Among
non-Jews, the proportions were just the reverse. Bina Garncarska-Kadary, “Be’ayot matsavah
hahomri vehahevrati shel hàukhlusiyah hayehudit bevarshah beshanim 1862– 1914,” Gal-’Ed 1
(1973): 115, 118, 120, 128–30. Cf. Friedman, “Di Industrializatsye”: 81–82.
Stephen D. Corrsin, Warsaw before the First World War: Poles and Jews in the Third City of
the Russian Empire 1880– 1914 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 55–56, 145–58;
Bina Garncarska-Kadary, Helkam shel hayehudim behitpathut hata’asiyah shel varshah bashanim
1816/20– 1914 (Tel-Aviv: Tel-Aviv University Press, 1985), 245. Nationwide, 12 percent of the
Jewish population was classified as messengers, day laborers, employees in private service,
people of uncertain profession, or “unproductive.” See: Kahan, “Impact of Industrialization,”
S O C I A L S TAT U S O F J E W S 515

members, as well as 16,700 members of the legal and medical professions,

artists, writers, and scientists, along with those whose trade was in “luxury
items” (and their respective family members), we reach an estimate of some
65,000 people. This was just under 1.3 percent of the general Jewish popu-
lation. Regularly employed artisans numbered some 240,000, while factory
workers who could be considered the makings of a modernizing Jewish
working “class” likely numbered no more than some 40,000 throughout the
Pale of Settlement.19
Among Jewish craftsmen and petty tradespeople an undetermined proportion
were engaged in the repair and sale of used goods rather than the production or
sale of new commodities, while no more than 10 – 12 percent of Jewish crafts-
men worked in the high-quality or luxury goods market.20 Taking all these
considerations into account, we can estimate that perhaps as much as 70
percent of the Jewish labor force must be considered the “working poor,”
whether they worked at a manual trade or eked out a living in minor and ephem-
eral “businesses.”
Another aspect to factor in is the higher-than-average natural increase of the
Jewish population. From 1825 to 1880 the annual net increase among Jews was
over 1.5 percent, their numbers rising from 1.6 to 4 million in those years, and
growing to 5 million by 1897. By comparison, the non-Jewish population of
Russia experienced an annual net increase of about 1.1 percent. By the end
of the century, a quarter of the Jewish population was under ten years of age,
and half were under twenty.21 Given the large number of dependents, the gain-
fully employed Jewish population was limited to about 30 percent of the total
(about 1.5 out of 5 million in 1897). In certain cities, such as Warsaw, the rate of
labor force participation among Christians was twice that of the Jews!22 (By
comparison, U. S. figures for 1900 indicate a participation rate of 50.2

Kahan, “Impact of Industrialization,” 20– 21; Mendelsohn, Class Struggle, 67–68 (see n. 4
on p. 68, citing Akimov); Isaac Levitats, The Jewish Community in Russia, 1844– 1917 (Jerusalem:
Posner, 1981), 148; Gliksman, L’Aspect économique, 58. Jewish factory workers comprised only
1 percent of all Jewish wage earners, while Russian factory workers were 12.5 percent in the
urban population of European Russia. See Peled and Shafir, “From Caste to Exclusion,” 100.
Kahan, “Impact of Industrialization,” 16.
Kuznets, “Immigration”: 63, Table VI; Kahan, “Impact of Industrialization,” App. 50,
Table A2.
Kahan, “Impact of Industrialization,” 6– 8; Kuznets, “Immigration”: 62– 77, 101; Jacob
Lestchinsky, “Statistikah shel ‘ayarah ahat,” Hashiloah 12 (1903): 89; Garncarska-Kadary,
“Be’ayot matsavah hahomri”: 106–9; Friedman, “Industrializatsye”: 69. In 1897, according to
the Russian census, some 28 percent of the Jewish population was younger than ten years of
age. An additional 24 percent were aged ten to nineteen, and 1.4 percent over seventy. There
were 2.24 dependents to every Jew employed in the craft and industry sector; 3.16 dependents
for every person employed in trade; and over 3.3 per person in such service branches as religious
functionaries and transportation workers. Kahan, Essays in Jewish Social and Economic History,
56, Table A6; Gliksman, L’Aspect économique, 28.

percent.23) Viewed differently, however, the figure of 1.5 million economically

active people is statistically equivalent to almost 60 percent of all Jews aged
20– 59, plus a quarter of those aged 10– 19. We may take these figures on
labor force participation as a further indicator of how difficult it was for
Jewish breadwinners to support themselves and their families. This despite
widespread employment, if uncertain or part-time, and even though they
enjoyed certain social advantages: relative freedom to move around, location
primarily in towns and cities, and a 65 percent male literacy rate (33 percent
for females), comparatively high for Russia at the time.24 Historian Heinz-
Dietrich Löwe aptly referred to their situation as “urban poverty in an agrarian
society,” and explained that their socioeconomic profile (their livelihoods based
on commerce, crafts, and limited industry, along with relatively high literacy)
cannot be taken to imply that they were a vanguard of modernity in a backward
country. “Rather,” as he put it, “industrialization probably hit them harder than
any other section of the population [. . .]; at the same time they were excluded
from the opportunities it offered.”25
The social position of the Jewish population within east European society
has been a subject laden with considerable ideological and political freight.
Recent scholarship on Polish Jewry, for example, has taken a corrective attitude
and has tended to argue that Polish political, social, economic, and cultural
history is incomplete without merging the Polish and the Jewish narratives.26
Without prejudice to that particular argument, it is not farfetched to say that
by the end of the nineteenth century the position of the Jews was quite as
anomalous as that of the (formerly enserfed) peasantry, if not more so.
Their very existence and character appeared in the eyes of imperial Russian
officials as a persistent policy problem, or to use a blunter word, a ‘blight.’

U. S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States. Colonial Times to 1970
(Washington, D.C., 1975), 127.
Kuznets, “Immigration”: 80; cf. Shaul Stampfer, “Yedi’at kro ukhtov`etsel yehudei mizrah
eiropah batekufah hahadashah,” in, Shmuel Almog et al., eds., Temurot bahistoriah hayehudit
hahadashah: kovets màamarim shai le-Shmuel Ettinger (Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar,
1988), 459–83; Joel Perlmann, “Literacy among the Jews of Russia in 1897: A Reanalysis of
Census Data,” Working Paper no. 182 (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Levy Economics Institute,
Bard College, 1996). The general population in Russia was considerably less literate compared
with the Jewish population: in 1897, some 60 percent of Russia’s men and 83 percent of its
women could neither read nor write (Gatrell, Tsarist Economy, 35).
Heinz-Dietrich Löwe, The Tsars and the Jews: Reform, Reaction and Anti-Semitism in Imper-
ial Russia, 1772–1917 (Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1993), 96, and esp.
ch. 3.
Gershon David Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century. A Genealogy of
Modernity (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004); idem, “On the
Problem of Agency in 18th Century Jewish Society,” in, Adam Teller, ed., Studies in the History
of the Jews in Old Poland in Honor of Jacob Goldberg. Scripta Hierosolymitana, vol. 38 (Jerusa-
lem: Magnes Press, 1998), 82–89; M. J. Rosman, The Lords’ Jews: Magnate-Jewish Relations in
the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the 18th Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Uni-
versity Press, 1990).
S O C I A L S TAT U S O F J E W S 517

Jews seemed to be a vestige of the old-regime system that a modernizing state

was struggling to reconstruct, moving from inconsistent to draconian methods
in the transition to the 1880s. These new methods included rural expulsions,
wholesale expulsions from Moscow and St. Petersburg, exclusions from civil
service positions, quota limitations in secondary and higher education, and
repeal of residence licenses outside the Pale.27
From 1898 to 1902, the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA)—an import-
ant European Jewish philanthropic foundation established by Baron Maurice de
Hirsch—compiled a major report on the Jewish economic condition in Russia.
The following descriptions and data are among its representative findings:
(1) Master tailors in the Polish provinces might expect to earn as much as 6 rubles in
a good week, or nearly 300 rubles (about US$154.50) per year, but their average income
was likely to dip as low as 100 –120 rubles.28
(2) These, however, were the most fortunate among artisans and employees in light
industry. Tailors and shoemakers in the Polish town of Opole (Lublin province), for
example, worked sixteen-hour days in squalid and cramped conditions and could not
support themselves and their families due to chronic unemployment in the summer
season. Similarly, female lace-makers in Opatów, who were employed only intermit-
tently, could expect to earn no more than 45 rubles a year!
(3) In Gorkii (Mogilev province, White Russia/Belarus), the average artisan worked
only six to eight months out of the year. “All our correspondents affirm,” stated the
report, “that the Jewish artisan is . . . able to find work only for a particular part of the
year.” Little wonder, then, that the report also noted that artisans in that province
appeared most frequently among the applicants for poverty relief at Passover (a custom-
ary, institutionalized alms-giving season), while in the major port city of Odessa, in
1900, a municipal welfare committee recorded 1,427 Jewish artisans living in
extreme poverty amidst deplorable conditions.
(4) In Vilna, female knitting-loom operators worked fifteen-hour days and earned the
incredibly low wage of less than a ruble a week. Out of this miserly sum they also had to
“repay” their boss for providing light in the factory during the dark hours and for the oil
used in lubrication of the machines.
(5) So-called “independent” craftsmen had lost what control they might once have
had over their labor and profits. In reality, they worked as subcontractors for larger enter-
prises, with a status equal to that of any lowly employee working for a basic wage.
“What is saddest of all,” the report stated, “is [the artisan’s] inability to exert any
impact on his state of poverty through his own efforts.”29

One must not conclude that in the germinating “industrial revolution” of late
tsarist Russia conditions such as these were simply the social cost paid

H. Sliozberg, Politicheskii kharakter evreiskago voprosa (1907), 136ff.; John D. Klier, Imper-
ial Russia’s Jewish Question 1855– 1881 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Löwe,
Tsars and the Jews.
A ruble was roughly equivalent in value at the time to US$0.51. In terms of the local purchas-
ing power of the ruble in Russia, however, the ruble was comparable to the dollar in America.
Sbornik materialov ob ekonomicheskom polozhenie evreev v rossii (St. Petersburg: Jewish
Colonization Association, 1904), vol. 1, 220 –26, 245, 285– 86, 308. Cf. Mendelsohn, Class
Struggle, 11 –13; E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Victor
Gollancz, 1965), 250, 262, and esp. ch. 8: “Artisans and Others.”

disproportionately by those engaged in outmoded, handicraft labor, to the

overall benefit and progress of a modern industrial economy and its laboring
classes. Data show that higher output per worker (in terms of product value)
among Jews in late nineteenth century industrial plants simply meant that
they did more work for less pay.30 The miserable wages paid for factory
labor went hand in hand with the deterioration of skilled craft workshops
and the families that depended upon them.31 Their case is reminiscent of
English textile workers in England earlier in the century, about whom the
British labor historian E. P. Thompson wrote: “For the power loom masters
it was . . . a great convenience to have [domestic craft workers as] an auxiliary
cheap labour force as a stand-by in good times [for outsourced jobs] and as a
means of keeping down the wages of the women and girls who minded the
power-looms. Moreover, there was scarcely no ‘transfer to the factory.’”32
It is considerably more difficult to track the changing standard of living
among petty tradesmen, peddlers, “brokers,” jobbers, sales agents, and middle-
men of all types, who left less of a paper trail than the carefully recorded wage
scale in industry and crafts. However, much literary and documentary evidence
points to what can already be surmised from the foregoing discussion: In a
population of which over a third was pauperized, purchasing power was
obviously reduced to a minimum. The small retail tradesman, street hawker,
or market-stall keeper could not market his or her wares to any great advantage.
In any case, the wholesale trade, dependent on meager sources of credit, and
subject to business cycles and grain price fluctuations, could not remain inde-
pendent of the poor market situation. Some undoubtedly were helped through
temporary crises by Jewish free-loan societies and the web of unofficial mutual
aid mechanisms that proliferated in the synagogues of that era.33
Kahan, as we have seen, was able to identify a Jewish entrepreneurial bour-
geoisie within the Pale of Settlement, but given that it comprised only about
1 percent of the population, situated at its social apex, we can hardly dub it a
“middle class,” or even a “class.” Meanwhile, the great majority of people
whose occupational status placed them under the common rubric of “com-
merce” did not rise to the “middle” at all. The status line dividing manual
labor from commercial activity was thus rapidly growing thinner, if it was
not already meaningless.
Echoes of this ‘declassification’ of the Jewish population left their trace in
later memoirs, whose writers recalled parents’ desperate and often fruitless
compensatory efforts to cling to a last vestige of “dignity” and to uphold

Kahan, “Impact of Industrialization,” 21–22; Garncarska-Kadary, Helkam shel hayehudim,
184– 89; Mendelsohn, Class Struggle, 18, 23.
Kahan, “Impact of Industrialization,” 11.
Thompson, Making of the English Working Class, 312.
Levitats, Jewish Community, 153, 167, 169.
S O C I A L S TAT U S O F J E W S 519

a social demarcation that hardly reflected any economic difference of

Wives and daughters of artisans and petty tradesmen were routinely engaged
in breadwinning, mostly in small shops, inns, or market stalls. However, we
cannot regard this, as some recent historians have, as a sign of women’s “econ-
omic independence,” as a marker of their more “worldly” social role, or as
“grooming for a career in commerce.”35 In reality, it reflected the plight of a
petit-bourgeoisie ‘on the skids.’ Women’s employment became most wide-
spread in the most economically depressed parts of the Pale. Higher percen-
tages of women in the work force in those areas went hand in hand with
correspondingly high proportions of Jews working as draymen and porters,
domestic servants and unskilled labor.36 Ultimately, hard times for petty trades-
people and craftsmen led to the final resort and the ultimate hardship:
The prospect of emigration to the New World may have seemed especially
daunting to families who were dismayed that the move—and what might
await them or their loved ones on the other side—signaled a final surrender
to proletarization. In Marcus Ravage’s classic immigrant memoir, An American
in the Making, he recalls that as a young boy in Vaslui, Romania he had the
impression that America was a place for those who had gone into bankruptcy,
for deserting soldiers, absconding husbands and the like—“an exile which men
fled to only in preference to going to prison.” Ravage’s parents relinquished
him, albeit reluctantly, because their once middle-class standing had eroded
to something resembling genteel poverty. His father still made an effort to
send his boy on his way in some kind of self-respecting style, to keep up
appearances, though it took the sale of the family cow to do so.37
Lest accounts by Ravage and other memoirists be dismissed as suspect late
reconstructions, it is instructive to compare very similar accounts reported in
real-time proximity to the events by disinterested sources, which tend to corro-
borate memoiristic accounts. One such example occurs in a 1905 study con-
ducted by Emily Greene Balch, the American ethnographer, who did

Jocelyn Cohen and Daniel Soyer, eds. and trans., My Future Is in America. Autobiographies
of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants (New York and London: New York University Press, pub-
lished with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 2006), 36 (autobiography of Benjamin
Reisman: “Why I Came to America”).
Susan A. Glenn, Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation (Ithaca
and London: Cornell University Press, 1990), 15–16. Glenn writes that women willingly became
artisans and workers, citing for example, the lace-making trade; but lace-making was an extremely
low-paying type of work, barely providing any income at all. Glenn’s treatment omits such details
in favor of a thesis that emphasizes and valorizes women at work.
Moshe Mishkinsky, “Regional Factors in the Formation of the Jewish Labor Movement in
Czarist Russia,” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 14 (1969): 39.
Marcus E. Ravage, An American in the Making. The Life Story of an Immigrant (New York:
Dover, 1971 [Harper and Bros., 1917]), 9, 47–50, 53.

fieldwork in the Slovakian area of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Balch noted that the first Jew to emigrate from a town she visited was a Jewish
cloth merchant who had gone bankrupt.38 Likewise, in a social survey of a
shtetl in the Kiev Province (Ukraine), we read of an elderly storekeeper,
once quite well off, reduced to a hole-in-the-wall shop, selling goods on con-
signment for a larger firm. Apart from two spinster daughters who helped
out by sewing linens, all this man’s children and their families (twenty-five
people in all) had left for America within the space of six years. The money
they sent kept him going, for his earnings amounted only to some 50 rubles
a year. Altogether, nearly 400 (or 68 percent!) of the town’s Jewish petty trades-
men and their family members had emigrated overseas in the ten years from
1893 to 1902.39
Countless similar cases are routinely recorded in the ethnographic literature
on immigrants and their old-world background. One interviewed informant
reported that her father was a former melamed (teacher in a traditional school-
room for young children). In the period before the family’s migration, they
moved to a town where the father tried his luck at small-scale retailing, “but
he wasn’t a businessman and made hardly any money.” His older children
“used to do [common] labor . . . carry[ing] stones for new buildings. . ..
[M]other used to stay with father at the market all day and they would come
home with about twenty-five kopeks.”40 Similar circumstances are revealed
in letters written by Jews contemplating emigration, which were sent to a
Zionist information bureau in Jaffa in what was then Ottoman Palestine.41
Simon Kuznets argued that the Jewish commercial population was underre-
presented in the emigration because its human capital—market knowledge,
languages spoken, stock, and credit sources—was less transferable than mech-
anical skills, and thus tradespeople were deterred from taking such an uncertain
step. By the same token, he suggests, simpler transferability of skills would
explain the overrepresentation of “mechanic” workers of various types, and

Emily Greene Balch, Our Slavic Fellow Citizens (New York: Arno/New York Times, 1969
[New York: Charities Publication Committee, 1910]), 100–1.
Lestchinsky, “Statistikah”: 91, 94.
Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, Life Is with People (New York: Schocken, 1962
[1952]), 256. Life Is with People is notorious for its static, ahistorical, over-simplified, and uncritical
picture of shtetl society. When its authors lapsed into over-generalized, “thick descriptive” para-
phrase, purporting to characterize a sort of corporate Jewish mental attitude or ethic, they were
apt to fall short of historical accuracy, as illustrated in the following statement: “A good employer,
mindful of the evils of idleness, will keep his workers busy even in slack season” (240). This is at
odds with reported facts on the ground and clearly reflects a romanticized view of “folk” values. But
the book also contains some more credible verbatim quotes drawn from the interviews conducted by
the research team, reflecting the informants’ individual family experiences prior to their (or their
families’) emigration.
David Koheleth to Arthur Ruppin, 11 Nov. 1913, quoted in Gur Alroey, “Imigrantim”: haha-
girah hayehudit lèerez yisrael bereishit hamèah ha’esrim (Jerusalem: Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, 2004),
S O C I A L S TAT U S O F J E W S 521

tailors in particular.42 It is very likely, however, that the fluid movement

between petty trade and other types of work might help explain some of
these statistical distortions. Included among those categorized under “com-
merce” in the 1897 Russian census were a substantial number of people who
evidently intended to abandon trade for wage work in America, which led
them to declare a skilled or semi-skilled occupation upon arrival.43 They
either had given up hope of self-employment, or had been advised to do so
by those who preceded them across the ocean. In such case, the effect would
be to swell the proportion of “mechanics” in the immigrant stream.
Herman Frank, a contemporary observer of the Jewish immigration, stated
flatly, “The large majority of [Jewish immigrant] tailors had probably never
before held a needle and thread in their lives, but rather had been small shop-
keepers, teachers [melamdim], children from middle-class households, or had
had no steady job or trade. But they came here to their relatives, who were
already earning a living in the [tailoring] trade . . . and these new immigrants
hoped to master the tailoring skills quickly.” He compared data from Russia
and Galicia (for 1899 and 1900, respectively) with figures from the United
States (1900– 1925), and found there had been 162,860 Jewish tailors in the
“old country” at the turn of the century, and nearly twice that number in
America (306,672)!44
It has been argued that the underreporting of tradespeople in the immigrant
stream meant that, sooner or later, their past experience in trade came to the fore
as they readjusted to life in the New World, and that familiarity with an entre-
preneurial culture—buying and selling—was part of the human capital brought
by Jewish immigrants to America.45 I would not dispute the point entirely, but
rather qualify the issue in two ways. First, even peasants are familiar with
buying and selling, yet they are not considered middle class and do not
readily form a commercial class. The point is that the experience of the east

Kuznets, “Immigration”: 104– 7. Interestingly, Lestchinsky was persuaded that petty trades-
people from the Kiev area were more apt than artisans to go abroad to developed industrial
countries. He believed that in a more highly developed market they were liable to find a better
business situation, whereas artisans were far more likely to try migrating to a large city close at
hand, such as Odessa, Nikolaev, or Ekaterinoslav (Lestchinsky, “Statistikah”: 94).
One wonders, for example, how one would classify Minnie Goldstein’s father (see above), a
failed petty tradesman, who prior to his emigration told his wife: “That’s exactly what I want. I want
to go to a country where heavy labor is no disgrace. . . where I can work hard and make a living
for my wife and children and be equal to everyone” (Cohen and Soyer, eds., My Future Is in
America, 21).
Herman Frank, “Di yidishe treyd-yunion bavegung in amerike,” YIVO Yorbukh fun
am-opteyl 2 (1939): 104 –7.
Joel Perlmann, “Selective Migration as a Basis for Upward Mobility? The Occupations of the
Jewish Immigrants to the United States, ca. 1900,” Working Paper 172, The Levy Economics Insti-
tute of Bard College, Oct. 1996; and idem, “Which Immigrant Occupational Skills? Explanation of
Jewish Economic Mobility in the United States and New Evidence, 1910– 1920,” Working Paper
181, The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, Dec. 1996.

European Jewish petit bourgeoisie was one that impelled many of its members
to seek employment in manual trades, sometimes before migration, and over-
whelmingly so after migration. There is therefore little to sustain a “predisposi-
tion” argument. Subsequent developments in terms of second-generation
mobility patterns must not overshadow these basic facts.
Second, I am making the case for shifting our theoretical focus from “human
capital” to include “social capital.” That is, we need to look at the situation not
from the perspective of culturally recognized “skills” and “values,” but rather
from the aspect of the dynamics of real people’s economic relationships in
specific socio-economic contexts. The point here is that Jews from eastern
Europe emigrated when their social capital was reduced to almost nil,
tipping the balance of remaining at home versus migration, toward migration.

The “declassification” of eastern European Jewry (especially in Russia) toward

the end of the nineteenth century was the culmination of a process with roots
going back at least to the early 1850s: a progressive weakening of economic
and social distinctions between petty tradespeople and small artisans, and
between artisans and laborers.46 Simultaneously the gap widened between a
very small, favored minority at the top and, below them, a population of five
million of the underemployed, underfed, and un-statused. If the last years of
the century seem qualitatively different from what had come before, it is
because the cumulative result of decades of impoverishment, capped by new
governmental restrictions on the Jews’ residence rights, occupations, and edu-
cational opportunities was the loss of class itself. What is at stake is no less than
the recognition that Jews were being removed from what could be considered
“normal” economic development (even by eastern European standards), and
being reduced to the invidious position of a caste unto themselves.47
This state of affairs must be clearly distinguished from the relatively loose
Jewish social structure and the relative porousness of its internal boundaries,
which had prevailed long before the mid-nineteenth century. The social
pecking order among Jews in earlier eras was never truly comparable to
fixed, ascriptive divisions into hereditary estates.48 This was largely because
Jewry lacked most of the politicized functions of the social classes maintained
by other pre-modern societies. The separate feudal estates, generally speaking,
were a system of governance that found expression in the fixed arrangement of
rights, prerogatives, and mutual obligations attendant upon each superior or

Michael Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: The Transformation of Jewish Society in
Russia, 1825– 1855 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983), 170 –82.
Peled and Shafir, “From Caste to Exclusion,” 98.
Jacob Katz, Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages (New York:
Schocken, 1993), 170–79.
S O C I A L S TAT U S O F J E W S 523

subordinate rank, from the landowning aristocracy (who were servitors of king
and emperor as well as rulers over their own domains), right down to the enser-
fed tenant-peasantry (whose obligations always far outweighed their rights).
The landowner-tenant paradigm was clearly inapplicable to Jews, who were
never enserfed and, by and large, were always barred from land ownership.
Jews, moreover, had neither a church with property and income to be
managed, nor monastic orders to be housed and governed, nor bishops to be
chosen. For that matter, Jews had no established, elevated, or hierarchical
class of clergy. They were not integrated into any of these “normative” pre-
modern systems of governance, either secular or ecclesiastical.
Nonetheless, Jews did form a contractual part of the feudal system and, as
such, were not quite anomalous. As individuals, Jews were often leaseholders
of farm revenue from noblemen’s estates or were managers of concessions on
their properties (mills, timber, inns and taverns, and entire villages). As com-
munities, Jews obtained and lived under the terms of charters or “privileges”
granted by the ruler in royal or feudal towns. Continuing well into the nine-
teenth century (and in Russia, right through the century), Jews as a ‘nation’
were a legally separate sector within the larger polity. Special state laws
limited, or at times enabled their residential and occupational rights. Their
own judges and courts adjudicated their civil suits and legal documents.
They paid a separate, collective, per capita tax, along with other special
duties and taxes, such as a candle tax, and a meat tax—korobka—to finance
their local self-governing communal administration or kahal.49 Closely resem-
bling burgher communes, Jews of various economic stations were all subject to
the same codes of law, rabbinical courts, and standards of ethics, and could
move up and down the social ladder with no formal or arbitrary restrictions.50
Informal social distinctions, forming impediments to truly free social inter-
action and mobility, could therefore assume all the more significance—
perhaps, as one leading historian suggests, exaggeratedly so.51 Jewry always
possessed a social hierarchy composed of men, women, and children (age
and gender were “natural” status categories), divided among merchants, arti-
sans and laborers of varying stations and degrees, and supervised by oligarchic
communal boards. Social distinctions operated to determine such matters as the
selection of marriage partners for one’s children, the location of one’s seat in the
synagogue, the number of guests permitted at a circumcision celebration or
wedding, or the right to vote in the communal assembly. This situation

Isaiah Trunk, “The Council of the Province of White Russia,” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social
Science 11 (1956–1957), 203– 4; Levitats, Jewish Community, vol. 2, 23–33; cf. Chone Shmeruk,
“Mashma’utah hahevratit shel hashehitah hahasidit,” Ziyyon 20 (1955), repr. in David Assaf, ed.,
Zaddik va’edah: hebetim historiim vehevratiim beheker hahasidut (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar
Center, 2001), 169.
Jacob Katz, Tradition and Crisis.
Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania, 93.

remained stable over the course of long eras despite intervening changes of
regime or political boundaries. This was partly because Jews were largely
dependent for their collective security, and at times their very right of domicile,
on the wealthiest members of their group. The latter held extensive leasehold
rights and always managed the contractual, legal, and extra-legal relations
with the governing authorities. From this advantageous position, they also exer-
cised considerable internal authority and influence.52
On the other hand, the system possessed structural flexibility: A fortunate mar-
riage, lucky transaction, or, alternatively, a debilitating or fatal disease, could
cause a rapid reversal of fortune. This state of affairs precluded extremes of sub-
servience or permanent privilege, but also meant constant uncertainty and social
friction. To read into this pre-industrial social order the presence of actually
conscious and contentious “classes” would be as anachronistic as it is naı̈ve to
conceive of early modern Jewry in eastern Europe as an undifferentiated folk
society.53 It is more accurate to posit that Jewish society overall was characterized
by relatively greater internal mobility than was Christian society taken as a whole,
but not appreciably more so than contemporary Christian burgher communities.
The attenuated extremes of Jewish social-class relations (neither lord nor
serf) and their relative fluidity have prompted wide and speculative thinking
on the supposedly “inherent,” middle-class mentality among Jews, or contrari-
wise, the ostensibly long-standing history of internal social antagonism. The
thesis of choice has depended more or less on whether the thinker held a
middle-class or a Marxian point of view.
Reading Jewish social history “on the left” was once a more developed
branch of academic discourse, but since the 1980s relatively little new work
of this sort has been written, with a few notable exceptions.54 This is surely
a by-product of the steep decline of traditional socialist parties and the
demise of erstwhile communist regimes, and the ascendancy of postmodern-
ism, including its critique of older political, intellectual, and academic
schools of discourse. Still, the subject of internal social tension in Jewish
society, and how or whether this tension was negotiated or exacerbated
toward the end of the nineteenth century, is a necessary component of our
analysis here. It bears directly on the question of whether eastern European
Jewry was, as I suggest, in the throes of “declassification,” or instead was
re-emerging along the contours of modern, class-defined societies.
As for the ostensible Jewish “middle-class mentality” thesis, it has a
long and checkered past, ranging from the long-discredited work of Werner

Eli Lederhendler, The Road to Modern Jewish Politics (New York: Oxford University Press,
1989), ch. 1.
Theodore Bienenstock, “Social Life and Authority in the East European Jewish Shtetel [sic]
Community,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6 (1950): 239.
Tony Michels, A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 2005).
S O C I A L S TAT U S O F J E W S 525

Sombart55 to writings that are more reputable. It has played an increasing role,
especially since the end of the Second World War, in social-scientific attempts
to explain American Jews’ exceptional economic performance. As I have
explained at length elsewhere, these more recent efforts to identify middle-class
“values” in Jewish society that overlap with American values are over-
determined and fraught with conceptual issues.56
Here I can address these issues only partially and briefly. To assess under-
lying Jewish class structure and economic ideologies, it will be helpful to
focus on two topics: The first is the influences of and conflicts generated by
the Hasidic movement, the pietistic mystical trend in eastern European
Judaism dating from the second half of the eighteenth century that held sway
over extensive portions of eastern European Jewry. This sheds some light on
the question of Jewish “middle-class” values. The second is the dynamics of
artisan-journeyman relations in craft guilds and workingmen’s associations.

We have found suggestive analogies between the Jews’ experience in the birth
pangs of the industrial revolution in Poland and Russia and the earlier travails
of England’s incipient working class. In light of these, it is worth noting E. P.
Thompson’s view that Non-conformist or Dissenting Protestantism (in social
form, a type of religion not entirely unlike eastern European Hasidism) bore
relevance to subsequent social developments:

The very anarchy of Old Dissent, with its self-governing churches and its
schisms, meant that the most unexpected and unorthodox ideas might sud-
denly appear. . .. No easy summary can be offered as to the Dissenting
tradition. . .. It is its diversity which defies generalisation and yet which is,
in itself, its most important characteristic. In the complexity of competing
sects and seceding chapels we have a forcing-bed for the [many] variants
of 19th-century working class culture. . .. The countryside was ruled by
the gentry, the towns by corrupt corporations, the nation by the corruptest
corporation of all; but the chapel, the tavern and the home were their own.57

Hasidism was similarly diffuse in its organizational aspects, with feuding

and spontaneously dividing centers of leadership (about seventy Hasidic dynas-
ties proliferated in Poland and Russia),58 and is likewise difficult to reduce to a

Werner Sombart, Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben (Munich and Leipzig: Duncker and
Humblot, 1911), translated by M. Epstein as The Jews and the Rise of Modern Capitalism
(New York: 1951).
E. Lederhendler, “American Jews, American Capitalism, and the Politics of History,” in, Eli
Lederhendler and Jack Wertheimer, eds., Text and Context: Essays in Modern Jewish History in
Honor of Ismar Schorsch (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 2005), 504–46.
Thompson, Making of the English Working Class, 36, 51– 52.
Levitats, Jewish Community, 100.

single form or character. It was similar, also, in its fellowship-based rituals and
participatory enthusiasms. Hasidism, too, was mainly a small-town social
phenomenon right to the end of the nineteenth century. Finally, and not least,
it resembled the Dissenting tradition in that established elites received it with
hostility. Those hostile to the Hasidim from the standpoint of the then-regnant
orthodoxy felt quite the same way as did American preacher Ezra Stiles about
the evangelical “Great Awakening” in the mid-eighteenth century: “[Their] reli-
gion was made to consist in extravigancies [sic] and indecencies, which were
not according to the faith once delivered. Multitudes were seriously, soberly,
and solemnly out of their wits.”59
There have been interesting attempts in the past to characterize Hasidism as a
quasi-populist, anti-elitist, socio-religious protest against the regnant system of
social relations.60 Later historians have more or less refuted this view. They
have found that the founder of the Hasidic movement, Rabbi Israel the “Baal
Shem Tov,” was not the unassuming faith-healer-cum-backwoods-charismatic
depicted in popular lore, but rather an esteemed local figure financially sup-
ported by his community.61 Furthermore, the mixed social composition of
the early Hasidic groups and the inclusion of wealthy patrons as the movement
developed in the early nineteenth century seem to defy a deterministic identi-
fication of the pietists with social protest from “below.”62

Ezra Stiles, Discourse on the Christian Union (1760), quoted by Walter Nugent, Structures of
American Social History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), 46. On the early history
and social aspects of the Hasidic movement, see Ben-Zion Dinur, Bemifneh hadorot (Jerusalem:
Mosad Bialik, 1972), 131– 59; Haviva Pedaya, “Lehitpathuto shel hadegem hahevrati-dati-kalkali
bahasidut: hapidyon, hahavurah, veha’aliyah baregel,” in, Menahem Ben-Sasson, ed., Dat vekhalk-
alah, yahasei gomlin. Kovets màamarim shay le-Yaakov Katz (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center,
1995), 311 –71. Cf. David Assaf, ed., Zaddik va’edah; and Gershon David Hundert, “The Con-
ditions in Jewish Society in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Middle Decades of the
Eighteenth Century,” in, Ada Rapoport-Adler, ed., Hasidism Reappraised (London: Littman
Library of Jewish Civilization, 1996), 45.
Simon Dubnow, Toledot hahasidut (1944). See my translated sections of Dubnow: “The
Beginnings: The Baal Shem Tov (Besht) and the Center in Podolia,” and “The Maggid of Miedzyr-
zecz, His Associates, and the Center in Volhynia (1760–1772),” in, Gershon David Hundert, ed.,
Essential Papers on Hasidism: Origins to Present (New York and London: New York University
Press, 1991), esp. 26– 36, 40– 41, 71–73; and in the same volume, see my translated excerpts of
Dinur’s Bemifneh hadorot, ibid., 87– 89, 95– 159. Cf. Raphael Mahler, Hahasidut vehahaskalah
(Merhavya, Israel: Sifriat Poalim, 1961), ch. 1. On literary constructions of Hasidism as heroic
radicalism, see David G. Roskies, A Bridge of Longing. The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (Cam-
bridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), 115. Hundert dismisses any notion of class-based
“rebellions” or “class warfare” in the internal communal disputes that wracked some major Jewish
communities in Poland-Lithuania in the late eighteenth century (Hundert, Jews in
Poland-Lithuania, 110–18).
Moshe Rosman, “Mezhibozh verabbi yisrael ba’al shem tov,” Ziyyon 52 (1987): 177–89.
Glenn Dynner, “Merchant Princes and Tsadikim: The Patronage of Polish Hasidism,” Jewish
Social Studies, n.s. 12, 1 (2005): 64– 66; idem, Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish
Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Shmuel Ettinger, “Hasidism and the Kahal in
Eastern Europe,” in, Rapoport-Adler, ed., Hasidism Reappraised, 63–75; idem, “The Hasidic
Movement: Reality and Ideals,” in, Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson and Shmuel Ettinger, eds., Jewish
S O C I A L S TAT U S O F J E W S 527

Although we cannot call Hasidism a “forcing ground” of working class

culture in quite the same way as Thompson meant regarding Protestant Dissen-
ters, it did capture or heighten the value of certain non-utilitarian impulses
within pre-capitalist Jewish society. Its metaphysical, communitarian ideology
meant that members were to ‘check their social assets at the door.’ Among the
devotees who periodically flocked to their masters’ “courts,” wealthy men were
encouraged, even pressured, to extend their stay as long as possible (lengthen-
ing into months, rather than days or weeks). These served to attract and main-
tain many other followers who had scant means or no apparent livelihood and
who formed a constant retinue of pilgrims.63 In that limited and specific
manner, Hasidism offered an alternative, even provocative, egalitarianism.
That said, it would be simplistic to formulate the socio-economic impli-
cations of Hasidism as a matter of communitarian ideals alone. Looked at
more critically, the controversy over Hasidism in nineteenth-century eastern
Europe encapsulated a long-brewing Jewish conflict over political economy.
Using this perspective, it becomes possible to see that Jewish society was
never simply either proto-bourgeois, ‘endowed,’ as it were, by cultural and
social values with middle-class thought habits, or a ‘proto-proletarian,’ ple-
beian population being drawn inexorably into the class struggle. Rather,
while Jewry was indeed stratified vertically, it was also subdivided horizontally,
with ramifications for various issues related to class and ideology. The Hasidic
variant of Jewish communal patterns was one, widely diffused component of
this horizontal differentiation.
The Hasidic movement tended to establish sectarian Gemeinschaft around
rites of consumption and mutual dependence.64 The rebbe’s court, as we
have seen, assumed the character of a site of pilgrimage and, not coincidentally,
was a place where relatively large sums of cash and commodities changed

Society through the Ages (New York: Schocken, 1971), 251– 66; David Assaf, “‘Money for House-
hold Expenses’: Economic Aspects of the Hasidic Courts,” in, Adam Teller, ed, Studies in the
History of the Jews in Old Poland in Honor of Jacob Goldberg. Scripta Hierosolymitana,
vol. 38 (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1998), 14–50; Hundert, “Conditions in Jewish Society,”
45–50; Moshe J. Rosman, “Social Conflicts in Mie˛dzybóż in the Generation of the Besht,” in,
Ada Rapoport-Adler, ed., Hasidism Reappraised (London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization,
1996), 51– 62; Shmeruk, “Mashma’utah hahevratit,” 182–83.
Pedaya, “Lehitpathuto shel hadegem hahevrati,” 338–47; Immanuel Etkes, “The Early
Hasidic ‘Court,’” in, Eli Lederhendler and Jack Wertheimer, eds., Text and Context: Essays in
Modern Jewish History in Honor of Ismar Schorsch (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary,
2005), 176– 79.
These are performed around the common table (tish) of the rebbe, and generally focus on food
and drink. Further examples of spiritualized consumption among Hasidim would include an associ-
ation between tobacco use and spirituality, and the custom of marking the anniversary of a death in
the family by providing alcoholic drinks for those present at prayers. Mahler, Hahasidut vehahas-
kalah, 31–32; Aharon Wertheim, Halakhot vehalikhot bahasidut (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook,
1960), 221– 25.

hands.65 Some noblemen were reportedly eager to attract Hasidic leaders to

their domains because “it was good for business.”66 Yet, as much as the
Hasidic outlook was positively disposed toward societal welfare, it generally
looked askance at energies invested in securing anything more than a basic live-
lihood. It assigned greater significance to spiritual activity that might prompt
divine intervention in the mundane world, and ostensibly denied any direct
or necessary cause-and-effect relationship between human endeavor and econ-
omic success.67
Among Hasidim the object of individual as well as group devotions was to
attain genuine, sustained, and not always “planned” moments of spiritual hyper-
clarity. These ecstatic states of mind (hislahavus) served as the channel via
which they sought dveykus: to “cleave” unto the ultimate or divine realm. The
absolute supremacy of religious devotion in Hasidism required what one critical
scholar has called a “fundamental restriction” on the “rational use of time . . . for
practical purposes and for the realization of religious values,” extending, at its
logical extreme, to “the sanctification of idleness.”68
In the nominally “regular” orthodox or anti-sectarian (misnagdish) commu-
nity, where the priority of the spiritual and eternal over the temporal and
material was similarly encoded,69 the behavioral expression of these values
possessed a different twist. Societal productivity, not consumption, was
crucial to the legitimate order of life. One’s property, income, and line of
work (trading, handicrafts, or common labor) had a direct bearing on one’s
communal status. These matters of status, in turn, received religious recog-
nition and reinforcement. Thus, matrimonial preference for bridegrooms with
superior religious learning, and for brides from ‘proper’ backgrounds of
pious virtue (and handsome dowries), perpetuated a close association
between socioeconomic and religious attainments.
Nearly all of this, it is true, could be found within Hasidic society, but with
the crucial difference that Hasidism subordinated all these elements to eschato-
logical metaphysics and to charismatic communitarianism. The Hasidic world-
view, for example, went beyond the prevailing standards of the eastern
European Jewish tradition in its demarcation between the spiritual and the tem-
poral. The binary, essentialist division between these twin poles of existence
was easily projected in social form as a distinction between the two genders.
Men’s psychic life was celebrated as spiritual (though this spiritualism was
not of the ascetic variety), while women’s corporeality, while undeniably com-
pleting the mystical perfection obtainable through the combined spiritual/

Assaf, “Economic Aspects of the Hasidic Courts.”
Levitats, Jewish Community, 99.
Mordecai Levin, ’Erkei hevrah vekhalkalah bàideologiyah shel tekufat hahaskalah (Jerusa-
lem: Mosad Bialik, 1975), 17– 21; Mahler, Hahasidut vehahaskalah, 295–98.
Katz, Tradition and Crisis, 212.
Levin, ’Erkei hevrah vekhalkalah.
S O C I A L S TAT U S O F J E W S 529

temporal polarity, could almost never be considered anything but the mirror-
opposite of preferred male attributes.70 The Hasidic congregation was a
venue for male bonding, away from the demands of family life, with all of
its pragmatic negotiations over time and labor; there was no female counterpart
or ‘women’s auxiliary.’71
Regular orthodox (misnagdish, or so-called “Lithuanian”) opponents of
Hasidic Judaism generally couched their arguments against sectarianism in
purely religious terms, but they were clearly aware of the economic theme,
and viewed Hasidism with suspicion on these grounds as well. One early anti-
Hasidic tract pointed out that young men, “not yet twenty years of age,” were
enticed to join the sect by blandishments such as, “You will use the money
[pocket money offered to the new recruit] . . . and you will eat, there will be
no thought of fasts and deprivations, you will be only happy and of good
cheer.”72 In such critiques, the offending “consumerism” was compounded
by the idea that the impressionable young men in question, unable to exert
moral independence, were being seduced and led to abandon accepted
Jewish ethics.73
As Hasidism’s influence spread widely throughout the region, such objec-
tions carried less and less weight. But post-traditional maskilim (“Enlighten-
ers,” adherents of Haskalah: Enlightenment), who were similarly appalled by
the pietists, often continued to put their case in social and economic terms.
In a sense, we can regard them as the secularized, worldly counterparts of estab-
lished orthodoxy.74 They viewed Hasidism as a form of fanaticism that was
sapping Jewish society’s ability to support itself. The ‘scandal’ of Hasidism,
as they saw it, lay in its shameless social parasitism and its disingenuous
pose of otherworldliness.75

The gendering of all bi-polar relationships, including abstract representations of the cosmic
order, was typical of Jewish mystical thought. Human gendering (and human sexual union) was
therefore fraught with mimetic significance as it both reflected and enhanced the ‘cohabiting’
aspects of the divine order itself.
Katz, Tradition and Crisis, 212.
Etkes, “The Early Hasidic ‘Court,’” 178, cited from Shever posh’im, text in Mordecai
Wilensky, Hasidim umitnagdim (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1970), vol. 2, 172–73.
Stripped of the anti-Hasidic, polemical critique, however, the point that Hasidic life was apt to
offer material as well as spiritual sustenance does appear to be valid. See Reisman, “Why I Came to
America,” in, Cohen and Soyer, eds., My Future Is in America, 55.
There was some degree of continuity between Orthodox, proto-maskilic arguments and later
more radical writings. An early example of a would-be economic reformer was the Lithuanian
rabbi, Menashe of Ilya (1767–1831), author of Pesher davar (1804) and` Alfei Menashe (1822),
and particularly the brochure Shekel hakodesh (1823). These works stressed the importance of
rationalism, knowledge, the value of productive labor, and the need for socio-economic reform
in Jewish society “for the common good.” See Israel Zinberg, A History of Jewish Literature:
The Haskalah Movement in Russia (Cincinnati and New York: HUC Press/Ktav Publishing
House, 1978), vol. 11, 15.
Isaac Baer Levinson, Di hefker velt, printed in Shmuel Rozhansky, ed., Nusakh haskoleh
(Buenos Aires: Yivo, 1968), 64.

It is noteworthy in this regard that in their campaign against Hasidism, and

traditionalists in general, maskilic writers saw something very much awry in the
religious valorization and spiritualization of male consumption (connoting
passivity, and inevitably also implying erotic passivity) and the concomitant
relegation of women to the comparatively active realms of productivity and
corporeality. Part of their views on the need to “productivize” Jewish society
entailed a reorientation and rebalancing of gender relations: male productive
energy had to be privileged over spiritualized/feminized, passive consumption,
and female physical and mental drudgery had to give way to more uplifting,
spiritual, and aesthetic (“moral”) activities.76
Critical Jewish social thought in eastern Europe in the mid-nineteenth
century focused on these economically grounded issues. This discourse corre-
sponded to a social reality in which Jewish poverty and general ‘backwardness’
was a perennial concern, but endemic pauperization had not yet set in. Many
Jews, if not most, saw economic well-being as theoretically attainable and con-
sidered the opportunities of self-enhancement to be open to every member of
the community. But they differed over the ideologies associated with the
desired state of affairs. What some saw as a question of proprietary or labor
relations in Gesellschaft, moored within a system of graded but unfixed
status ranks, others viewed as a question of communitas: they downplayed
the efficacy of human agency per se, resisted general prescriptions and pro-
grammed, innovative interventions, and tended to favor ad hoc and ad
hominem solutions to individuals’ concerns.
Ostensibly ‘middle-class’ social and economic values were therefore much
contested in the culture wars waged between various sectors of Jewish
society throughout the period prior to the onset of mass emigration. Thus,
when viewed as a traditional society facing modernization under harsh con-
ditions, east European Jewry appears to have been beset by particularly
fraught internal relations. Conflicts over notions of communal integrity, econ-
omic value, and social capital would be resolved later, in America (for those
who emigrated) and Soviet Russia (for those who remained behind).

The second main arena we will examine in tracing the social declassing of east
European Jewry and its impact toward the end of the nineteenth century is that
of the artisan sector and the work ethic that evolved. Artisans, rather than indus-
trial workers, constituted the main body of Jewish labor and furnished a major
part of the emigration to America.77 Briefly, I will argue that pre-capitalist

Levin, ’Erkei hevrah vekhalkalah, 151–53; Michael Stanislawski, “For Whom Do I Toil?”
Judah Leib Gordon and the Crisis of Russian Jewry (New York: Oxford University Press,
1988), 28, 125 –28; Olga Litvak, Conscription and the Search for Modern Russian Jewry
(Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006), 78–83, 89–90, 93, 97.
Frank, “Di yidishe treyd-yunion bavegung,” 107.
S O C I A L S TAT U S O F J E W S 531

standards of employment and rewards in the realm of social capital were

increasingly eroded, but there was no new reconfiguration in the form of a
modern class-structured society.
This thesis runs counter to the narrative promoted by two generations of
writers, mainly from the Jewish left, which valorized the rise of a Jewish pro-
letariat in the period from before the 1880s to the First World War. According to
this quasi-canonical version, a progressive class consciousness developed
“organically” among Jewish workers, moving from sporadic master-
journeymen clashes within craft associations to the formation of separate
worker associations, radical “circles,” and strike funds, and matured eventually
into a full-fledged workers’ movement composed of unions and radical socialist
parties. Not only was the Jewish labor movement endowed with a coherent his-
torical pedigree, but Jewish workers were also credited with having spear-
headed working-class organization in the Russian empire.78
That reading of Jewish labor history is essentially driven by a labor ‘move-
ment’ perspective rather than by a social-historical analysis of the life world of
workers. It tends to transmute the small craft workshop into an embryonic
factory and confers upon the strike movement that developed in the Jewish
mechanical trades at the end of the nineteenth century a distinction typically
reserved in Marxian historiography for a class-conscious workers’ revolt. In
fact, however, the tensions within the Jewish craft shop were not a ‘class
struggle,’ properly understood, for two reasons. First, the employees saw them-
selves as future self-employed master artisans more than as members of a stable
class of wage laborers. Second, the master-artisans who employed them were of
the same economic and social class as the journeymen, and were progressively
being reduced to the status of workers engaged under contract by stores and
larger manufacturers. The attempt to rally employed craftsmen around a spur-
ious ‘class’ consciousness was doomed from the start, and led nowhere. Strikes
won short-term gains in terms of shorter working hours and higher wages, but
these were soon vitiated. By the turn of the century further strike action was
considered counterproductive, and leaders concluded that “it is impossible to

Peled and Shafir, “From Caste to Exclusion”; Mendelsohn, Class Struggle in the Pale, chs.
1– 3; Moshe Mishkinsky, Reshit tenu’at hapo’alim hayehudit berusiah: megamot yesod
(Tel-Aviv: Tel-Aviv University and Hakibbutz Hameuchad Press, 1981), chs. 1– 6; Levitats,
Jewish Community, 151–60. For some standard histories, see Elias Tcherikower, “Der onheyb
fun der yidisher sotsialistisher bavegung,” YIVO Historishe shriftn 1 (1929): 469–532;
Abraham Menes, “Di yidishe arbeter-bavegung in rusland fun onheyb 70-er bizn sof 90-er
yorn,” YIVO Historishe shriftn 3 (1939): 1 –59; Isaiah Trunk, “Di onheybn fun der yidisher
arbeter bavegung,” in, J. S. Herts, ed., Di geshikhte fun bund (New York: Farlag Unser Tsait,
1960), vol. 1, 26–39, 63– 96; Kh. S. Kasdan, “Der ‘bund’—biz finftn tsusamenfor,” in Herts, Di
Geshikhte, vol. 1, 218– 30; Henry J. Tobias, The Jewish Bund in Russia from Its Origins to 1905
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972); N. A. Bukhbinder, Di geshikhte fun der yidisher
arbeter-bavegung in rusland (Wilno: Farlag “Tomor,” 1931); Michael Hendel, Melakhah
uba’alei melakhah be’am yisrael (Tel-Aviv: Joshua Chachik Publishing House, 1956), ch. 6.

conduct an economic struggle” under prevailing conditions. This, more than

anything else perhaps, confirms the absence of a truly modern class structure
in east European Jewry.79
The evidence, therefore, suggests that it is an exaggeration (at best) to assert
that Jewish workers had become what one writer called “a large and concen-
trated urban . . . proletariat.”80 The real revolution in the lives of Jewish
workers lay not in the stalled attempt to foment a “class struggle” where
class had all but evaporated, but rather in the secularization of worker
culture and the Jewish work ethic.81 Workingmen’s societies tended to adopt
a new, purely economic organizing principle, replacing their more traditional,
religious purposes with instrumental ones. When craft workers no longer felt
able to negotiate for social capital within their old craft societies (khevrehs),
they broke with their entire worldview, leaving the older groups largely
intact and pioneering a new format instead.82 The point, moreover, is not
that individual workers were abandoning religious traditions in their private
lives—many did not do so—but rather that working relations, mutual assist-
ance, and the handling of labor grievances were routed into secular, purely
instrumental groups that had no sacred function or legitimacy within the
older, religious social order. Thus, while khevrehs were all-male institutions
(in keeping with their liturgical function), the new “funds” and other union-
forerunners, albeit still predominantly male, were open to women.83
Nevertheless, it would stretch the point to assert that with the displacement of
the religious khevreh Jewish crafts or manufacturing employees readily
replaced the former ideology with a new, Marxist one.84 East European
Jewry in the decades before the turn of the century displayed much ideological
ferment, but those directly involved constituted a small segment of society: the
intelligentsia and limited circles drawn into their orbit. The Jewish public at
large knew about these new currents, but was neither thoroughly engaged by
them nor yet able to realign its civic life around them.
This conclusion is borne out even by a ‘strong case’ of Jewish political radic-
alism, namely, that of the “Bund,” the most successful Jewish socialist party of
that time. The Bund won its rank-and-file following, not because it developed a

Mendelsohn, Class Struggle, 61, 115; cf. ibid., 14– 16, 26, 112–14; idem, “The Russian
Jewish Labor Movement and Others,” YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science 14 (1969): 98; and
cf. Peled and Shafir, “From Caste to Exclusion,” 100–1, 107.
Arthur Liebman, Jews and the Left (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1979), 70.
Mendelsohn, Class Struggle, 41–44.
Mendelsohn, Class Struggle, 43; cf. Levitats, Jewish Community, 151.
Hendel, Melakhah uba’alei melakhah, 127– 29.
Even Arthur Liebman admits, “The Jewish working class that emerged in Russia . . . was rife
with . . . contradictions” (Jews and the Left, 86), and he cites the complaint of Ber Borochov,
perhaps the leading Russian Jewish Marxist theoretician of his day, that Jewish artisans and
workers were typically eager to leave the working class behind. Ber Borochov, “Hahitpathut
hakalkalit shel ha’am hayehudi,” in Ketavim nivharim (Tel-Aviv: Am Oved, 1944), vol. 1, 206.
S O C I A L S TAT U S O F J E W S 533

clear, autonomous ideology, but precisely because of its adept focus on praxis.
Even the Bund’s worst enemies, of whom Lenin was one, never minimized the
party’s vaunted organizational abilities.85 As a leading historian of modern
Jewish politics, Jonathan Frankel, put it, the Bund “saw its role in the
[Russian Social Democratic Workers] party as that of mediator, shunning
polemics and seeking to reconcile the warring factions.”86 In the decade
between its formative years (1893 – 1897) and the violent events of the 1905
Russian revolution, the Bund took up “economic struggle” (strikes), which
proved popular because it placed workers’ material gains ahead of doctrinal
purity or the quiet preparation of a revolutionary underground. During
1905 – 1906, the party participated extensively in large-scale militant demon-
strations and strikes and saw to the organizing of Jewish self-defense.87
Having fought honorably for the sake of workers’ and Jewish honor,
however, the movement lost momentum in the post-1905 reaction, even as
Jewish emigration reached unprecedented levels.
It appears from the foregoing that the Jewish trajectory differed, in the end,
from the paradigm described by E. P. Thompson’s classic English study.
Thompson showed that a working class, considered as a social phenomenon,
is a multi-dimensional, social, political, and cultural way of living and thinking.
Its members derive their self-awareness, and hence their politics, from their
gradual occupation of a fixed place within the governance of state and
society. In contrast, east European Jews were denied such a place; theirs was
a short-circuited development with no clear political destination. Moreover,
the causes for the foreshortened process of class development in the Jewish
case had to do not only with the plight of the Jewish artisans and the sparse
employment of Jews in larger factories, but also—and crucially—with the
insufficient rise of a Jewish bourgeoisie against whose interests a proper
working class culture might begin to find focus.
The poverty that formed the backdrop of the mass Jewish migration must
therefore be assigned a “negative” legacy (meaning, its “non-” quality): It
played an important role in de-sacralizing the Jewish work ethic and

Hyman Lumer, ed., Lenin on the Jewish Question (New York: International Publishers, 1974);
Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862–
1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 203– 8, 227– 33, 236– 48; Tobias, The
Jewish Bund, chs. 14–16; Zvi Gitelman, Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics. The Jewish Sec-
tions of the CPSU 1917–1930 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 41–46; Liebman,
Jews and the Left, 117–23.
Frankel, Prophecy and Politics, 256.
The switch from intensive Marxist consciousness-raising in conspiratorial cells (“propa-
ganda”) to economic activism (“agitation”) was the hinge upon which the pre-Bund radicals trans-
formed their organization into a full-fledged party for the Jewish workers. Mendelsohn, Class
Struggle, chs. 3– 4; Frankel, Prophecy and Politics, 171 –210; Bukhbinder, Di Geshikhte,
64–74. On the 1905 pogroms see: Bukhbinder, Di Geshikhte, 350– 56; Tobias, The Jewish
Bund, 306, 313– 16; Liebman, Jews and the Left, 126.

workers’ culture, and it provoked among most Jews an essentially apolitical

response to their social predicament. The diffuse impact of new ideological
strategies speaks volumes about the overall blunting of actual class differences
within the Jewish population at the time. On the verge of becoming a migrant
population, their sociocultural baggage could not be characterized simply as
either “proto-capitalist,” or “proto-socialist.”88
To sum up: While peasants were beginning to be drawn into the emerging
manufacturing sector, and while foreign investment fuelled the financial
market and major enterprises, Jews were marginalized in their economic pur-
suits and in their Pale of Settlement. In contrast with their historical functions
in earlier eras as links between other actors in a regional economic system, Jews
in late-nineteenth-century eastern Europe were forced into the procrustean bed
of a truly “ethnic economy,” dependent upon their own dwindling resources for
employment and credit opportunities. As a group, their power of social agency
was severely attenuated. Despite the individual successes of select Jewish
notables, the loopholes that permitted some Jews to exit this closed system
were being narrowed rather than widened.89 All but a tiny percentage were
now part of one sub-class—which is tantamount to no class at all—and
stood little chance of being integrated within the surrounding political
All that we know about Jewish life in eastern Europe points toward the con-
clusion that by emigrating to a highly developed industrial and commercial
society Jews confronted circumstances of politics and economics so different
as to require a wholesale restructuring. Their economic transformation from
a marginal caste to members of a modern class society would have huge rami-
fications in terms of their social ethos. This transformation alone could endow
them with the tools they needed to integrate into the new society.

Liebman, Jews and the Left, 77; Gerald Sorin, The Prophetic Minority. American Jewish
Immigrant Radicals, 1880– 1920 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 8, 11 –41.
Löwe notes, for example, that the quotas placed on Jewish registration in Russian secondary
schools in 1887 succeeded by 1892 in reducing the proportion of Jewish pupils in such schools to
just 58 percent of the 1886 levels (Tsars and the Jews, 95).
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