The Washington Post
History of the Jews in the Modern Worldby Howard M. Sachar
The distinguished historian of the Jewish people, Howard M. Sachar, gives us a comprehensive and enthralling chronicle of the achievements and traumas of the Jews over the last four hundred years.
Tracking their fate from Western Europe’s age of mercantilism in the seventeenth century to the post-Soviet and post-imperialist Islamic upheavals of the… See more details below
The distinguished historian of the Jewish people, Howard M. Sachar, gives us a comprehensive and enthralling chronicle of the achievements and traumas of the Jews over the last four hundred years.
Tracking their fate from Western Europe’s age of mercantilism in the seventeenth century to the post-Soviet and post-imperialist Islamic upheavals of the twenty-first century, Sachar applies his renowned narrative skill to the central role of the Jews in many of the most impressive achievements of modern civilization: whether in the rise of economic capitalism or of political socialism; in the discoveries of theoretical physics or applied medicine; in “higher” literary criticism or mass communication and popular entertainment.
As his account unfolds and moves from epoch to epoch, from continent to continent, from Europe to the Americas and the Middle East, Sachar evaluates communities that, until lately, have been underestimated in the perspective of Jewish and world history—among them, Jews of Sephardic provenance, of the Moslem regions, and of Africa. By the same token, Sachar applies a master’s hand in describing and deciphering the Jews’ unique exposure and functional usefulness to totalitarian movements—fascist, Nazi, and Stalinist. In the process, he shines an unsparing light on the often widely dissimilar behavior of separate European peoples, and on separate Jewish populations, during the Holocaust.
A distillation of the author’s lifetime of scholarly research and teaching experience, A History of the Jews in the Modern World provides a source of unsurpassed intellectual richness for university students and educated laypersons alike.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
"Magisterial . . . Sachar situates Jews on a global stage. . . . [He] relates an immensely complex story with precision and learning." –New York Times Book Review
"[Sachar’s book features] an erudition that is confidently and casually displayed, a range of topics covered with crisp lucidity, and sentences whose cadences effortlessly sweep the reader along." –The Boston Globe
"Like all of Sachar's books, this too is comprehensive, illuminating, and readable. He weaves Jewish history through the intricacies of modern developments with a magisterial sweep." –Shlomo Avineri, Professor of Political Science Emeritus, The Hebrew University
"A magnum opus....comprehensive, analytical, and written in a felicitous style....The book is a must. Both the lay and specialist reader will be richly rewarded." –Isaiah Friedman, Professor of Modern History Emeritus, Ben-Gurion University
"This learned, sweeping, panoramic view of the Jewish experience in modernity will long remain...the standard history of this period." –Alfred Gottschalk, President Emeritus, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
“In this expansive and magisterial history of the Jews in the modern world...this distinguished historian and experienced teacher has created a vibrant, highly readable text for students and general readers alike." –Jehuda Reinharz, President, Brandeis University
"This is the work of a lifetime, a magisterial study....a book that all future histories of modern Jewry will be judged by." –Jonathan Sarna, Chairman, School of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, Brandeis University
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Read an Excerpt
The Jew as Non-European
A Tremulous Minority In the eighteenth century, a majestic silhouette of battlements and spires greeted the traveler who made his way down the valley of the lower Main River. It was the profile of Frankfurt, one of the four remaining free cities of the Holy Roman Empire, and one of the German world’s three most important commercial entrepôts. Frankfurt’s cobblestoned streets teemed with movement, with shouting hucksters, bawling cattle driven in for sale and slaughter, rattling vegetable carts pushed along to market, paunchy burghers and weather-beaten farmers arguing the cost and quality of produce. But as the traveler continued down the main Sachsenhäuser Bridge into the city’s principal business center, pausing occasionally to sample the wares in shops and pavilions, stalls and warehouses, he found his way barred by the Börheimertor, a large wooden gate demarcating still another townlet within the larger urban area, a ganglion of twisting alleys, ramshackle storefronts and cramped apartment structures. The gate’s solitary entrance, guarded by an armed warden, suggested that a prison community may have been locked inside. The notion was not entirely far-fetched. The little enclosure was the Judengasse, the ghetto of the Jews.
The ghetto of Frankfurt-am-Main, and comparable enclaves in scores of other towns and cities throughout West-Central Europe, evinced a central fact of Jewish life well into the Modern Era. This was the Jews’ indeterminate status as non-Europeans. It is fair to speculate, then, whether the Jews were foreigners or interlopers. Were they voluntary immigrants newly arrived from other lands or continents? Or had they been transported to Europe as captives, as African slaves had been imported to the New World? None of these descriptions would have been apt. The Jews were neither recent slaves nor recent immigrants. Most, rather, were descended from ancestors who had lived on European soil for many hundreds of years, in some instances as far back as the Roman Empire. In the German world, their settlement traced back at least to the eleventh century, and in Frankfurt itself to the twelfth century, when some two hundred Jews took up residence in the squalid little encinture beyond the Börheimertor. Even this initial settlement in Frankfurt was intermittently curtailed. In the fourteenth century, the city’s inhabitants, and those of other German communities, were ravaged by the bubonic plague. Afterward, it became the custom to attribute the “Black Death” to the Jews, the “wizards,” the “devils,” who had survived the epidemic in inexplicably greater numbers than their neighbors (possibly owing to Judaic hygienic regulations). In their fear and rage, local populations in ensuing years hurled themselves into a succession of anti-Jewish massacres. Those Jews who escaped Christian mobs fled eastward, most of them ultimately to settle in Polish and other Slavic territories (p. 9ff.).
In the sixteenth century, small numbers of Jews ventured a return to Central Europe. Their reception was not congenial—not in an age of religious turmoil. This time, they encountered the animus of Protestant Reformers and Catholic Counter-Reformers alike. The obloquy that attached to their presence was revealed in an obscene sixteenth-century graffito carved into Frankfurt’s ghetto wall. It revealed a trio of Jews debasing themselves around a sow. As one Jew suckled at the animal’s teats, another (in rabbinical garb) lifted the Judensau’s tail, allowing the third (also a rabbi) to drink the animal’s excrement. Several feet higher on the ghetto wall an even more repellent carving appeared, this one of a dead baby, its body punctured by countless miniature knife wounds, and beneath its corpse an array of nine daggers. The caption read, “On Maundy Thursday in the year 1475, the little child Simon, aged two, was killed by the Jews.” The inscription alluded to the death of Simon of Trent, allegedly a victim of Jewish “ritual murder.” In Frankfurt, these graphic expressions of Jew-hatred dated back at least to the fourteenth century, and in France to the twelfth century, when the myth first became current that Jews were enjoined by their religion to slay Christian maidens and children, whose blood was presumed necessary for the Passover festival. Thus diabolized, most Jews would not risk setting foot in Central Europe until the latter seventeenth century. Only then, with religious passions largely exhausted following the carnage of the Thirty Years’ War, did Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand III allow substantial numbers of Jews to resettle in Prague and Budapest and in such imperial “free” cities as Frankfurt; and other German princes also then relaxed their bans on Jews.
Nevertheless, throughout the Habsburg Empire and the German principalities alike, numerous towns, districts, and duchies continued to exclude Jews. Some municipalities admitted Jews, some did not. Even in Leipzig, where Jews played an important role in the city’s great fairs, it was not until 1713 that a single Jewish family was permitted to settle permanently, and forty more years passed before a second one was admitted. Official policy was continually in flux. Vienna’s tiny nucleus of Jews was expelled in 1670. Although several Jewish families were readmitted five years later, it was not until 1748 that Jews were allowed to form an organized community in the Austrian capital. Even where the various governments of Central and Western Europe allowed a certain incremental Jewish resettlement, their reasons were narrowly pragmatic. Barred from access to the feudal land system of Europe, Jews over the centuries had generated a compensatory vocational experience in trade and moneylending. Determined to exploit this Jewish talent for producing liquid wealth, substantial numbers of rulers were willing intermittently to protect “their” Jews as dependable sources of taxes and loans. Thus, Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II, although a militant early-seventeenth-century defender of the Counter-Reformation, was unwilling to dispense with Jewish funds for his military campaigns. Neither would Protestant kings and dukes. It was strictly as a quid pro quo for their money, therefore, that Jewish communities were allowed to revive in a succession of Protestant and Catholic dominions. By the mid-1700s, the Jewish demography in Central and Western Europe may have approached 300,000–400,000. These included approximately 165,000 in the German states; 35,000 in Habsburg Bohemia, Moravia, as well as in the city of Vienna; 80,000 in Hungary; 40,000 in France; 80,000 in the Dutch and Belgian Netherlands; and 8,000 in England.
A People in Quarantine
For the privilege of return, however, the Jews paid a price that transcended loans and taxes. Responding to the demands of clergy and of local guild members, state and local governments limited Jews to vocations disdained by gentiles. For this reason, perhaps as many as three-fourths of the Jews in Central and Western Europe were limited to the precarious occupations of retail peddling, hawking, and “street-banking,” that is, moneylending. Some Jews managed to earn enough to establish small shops. Most did not. In their struggle for a livelihood, they generated a sizable underclass of beggars, fencers, pimps, even robbers, thereby creating a self-fulfilling gentile scenario of Jews, one that would be endlessly invoked by Jew-haters throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
These constraints must be judged in the context of their time, of course. If Jews possessed fewer rights than did their urban Christian neighbors, they also bore fewer obligations and enjoyed more privileges than did Europe’s peasant masses. Even in comparatively prosperous Western Europe, most villagers remained bound to the soil. In 1689 a French commentator, Jean de La Bruyère, described his nation’s peasantry as “savage-looking beings . . . black, livid, and sunburnt. . . . They seem capable of articulation and, when they stand erect, they display human lineaments. They are in fact men. [Yet] they retire at night into their dens, where they live on black bread, water and roots.” As late as the eighteenth century, French and German peasants were encumbered by a wide variety of tailles, tithes, decimes, and quitrents, obliged to pay tolls and dues at bridges and fairs, to labor on the king’s roads, to serve in militias, to purchase their staples from royal monopolies. In contrast, the Jews were better off. Although burdened with arbitrary restrictions and taxes that often were little short of crippling, they were spared the obligation of feudal military service. They could move reasonably freely from place to place. They were allowed in effect to govern themselves (pp. 8–9). These were not trivial privileges.
Nevertheless, even in a Europe not lacking in afflictions and injustices, there remained constraints on Jewish life that eventually became insupportable. One of these was the ghetto. These walled slum-shanty neighborhoods effectively barred Jews from all but the narrowest, commercial—daytime—interaction with the gentile citizenry. It had not always been so. The first Spanish and Italian ghettos of the late medieval era actually had been requested by the Jews themselves as private, self-governing “territories.” Be- yond trading hours, after all, what need or desire could Jews have had for contact with the hostile Christian world? Who would have imagined in those earlier years, when populations were small and plague-decimated, that in time the ghetto would become dangerously overcrowded? By the mid-sixteenth century, however, the ghetto more commonly was imposed from above as a kind of holding pen, and not merely as a convenient reflection of corporate autonomy. It was the era of the Counter-Reformation, and if the Church could not evict infidels altogether from the local terrain, it was seized of the need at least to segregate them beyond the pale of society. In the case of the Jews, moreover, who absorbed much of the punishment well-armed Protestant nations were able to escape, the grotesquerie of a badge, a gabardine, or a peaked hat was apparently no longer enough to warn Christians off. A more thoroughgoing quarantine was deemed necessary. To that end, Pope Paul IV decreed the first “official” ghetto in Rome in 1555. Other Catholic sovereigns followed Paul’s example. Soon the German Protestant duchies, craving their own religious uniformity, issued the fiats that similarly ghettoized the Jewries of northern Europe.
With hardly an exception, the ghetto was assigned to the most squalid section of the city. Thus, Pope Paul IV ordered the Roman ghetto to be located on the malarial left bank of the Tiber River. As late as the nineteenth century this congested enclave was described by an Italian writer as “a formless heap of hovels and dirty cottages, ill-kept, in which a population of nearly four thousand souls vegetates, when half that number could with difficulty live there. The conglomeration of human beings, wretched for the most part, render this hideous dwelling place nauseous and deadly.” So were they all. In eighteenth-century Frankfurt, the Judengasse was barely a quarter-mile square, and no fewer than 3,000 people were impacted there. Denied space for new dwellings, the Jews were obliged to enlarge existing buildings— occasionally to the height of four stories. Little wonder that many ghettos became firetraps. The Frankfurt Judengasse endured at least three major conflagrations, in 1711, 1721, and 1774. Even in the best of times, moreover, the ghettos’ sheer congestion and squalor were notorious. A traveler in 1794 observed that “most of the people among the Frankfurt Jews, even those who are in the blooming years of their life, look like the talking dead. . . . Their deathly pallor sets them apart from all the other inhabitants. . . .” The young Goethe described the Judengasse as a “hellish slum.”
Except for the express purpose of business, Jews were forbidden to leave their enclosure. After nightfall, on Sundays and Christian holidays, the gates were locked and Jews were shut off from the outside world altogether. Even in daylight hours, when Jews were permitted to conduct their business in the surrounding community, they were barred from parks, inns, coffeehouses, from the better promenades, even from the immediate vicinity of cathedrals. Although Jews were allowed to travel, they had to pay heavily for a special Leibzoll, a “body tax,” for the privilege of entering a neighboring community. Thus, in Mainz, the duties levied by local customs officials were classified as “Honey, Hops, Wood, Jews, Chalk, Cheese, Charcoal.” A Jew was required to pay three gulden to enter Munich and forty kreuzer a day to remain there. At the Leipzig fair, Jews were under orders to wear yellow badges to mark their identity. In 1710, a Hamburg municipal ordinance forbade Jews to build a synagogue, to attend private services in numbers exceeding ten families, to marry or “hold commerce” with Christian women, to appear in public on any occasion when crowds of people assembled. In 1750, Frederick II of Prussia divided the kingdom’s Jewry into six classes. The most important encompassed the Jewish majority, who remained entirely ghettoized. Other categories included a small minority of Schutzjuden, that is, of specially protected or privileged Jews, who, in return for a substantial fee, were given temporary travel and domicile rights; and “generally privileged” Jews, a minuscule group of industrialists and financiers, temporarily valuable to the king, who were accorded full privileges of residence and occupation, including the right to purchase land and build homes wherever they chose, and to pass these rights on to their children. With few exceptions, the Jews were obliged to live quietly and unobtrusively—“still und ruhig leben.”
More galling yet were the unnatural restrictions imposed on Jewish family life. Even “generally privileged” Jews were strictly limited in the number of children they were permitted to settle with them. “In order that in the future all deception, cheating and secret and forbidden increase of the number of families may be more carefully avoided,” Frederick II’s charter declared (in cognizance of the Jewish underclass), “no Jew shall be allowed to marry, nor will he receive permission [the official matrikel] to settle in additional numbers, nor will he be believed, until a careful investigation has been made by the War and Domains Offices.” In the Frankfurt Judengasse, the Jews were limited to twelve weddings a year, and to none for couples who had not reached the marital age of twenty-five, specifically decreed for Jews.
A Hermetic Society
The Judengasse signified more than Jewish isolation. It also attested to Jewish self-government. Since the early Middle Ages, corporativism, the division of society into separate and self-ruling corporations, was the institution that allowed a ruler to delegate governing responsibilities to barons, dukes, townships, guilds, even universities, in the expectation that they would perform administrative duties that he, the king, could not afford to perform himself. Under this system, each corporate group functioned within its own delimited sphere of rights and responsibilities. The imperial free city of Frankfurt, the separate little Jewish “city” within Frankfurt, were merely evidence of this corporative reality. By the eighteenth century, as royal and baronial regimes augmented their civil services, the need for such an autonomous division of society had largely atrophied. But like so many other anachronisms of the ancien régime, corporativism lingered on well into the Age of Absolutism.
It was logical, therefore, for Europe’s Jews also to be organized on the basis of corporate autonomy. Under this rubric, Jews operated their own public services, maintained their own streets and sewers, their own schools, hospitals, and public baths, regulated their own trade and markets. Similarly, all legal disputes between Jews were resolved within the Jewish community, in Jewish courts before Jewish judges who administered Jewish laws based on Talmudic precepts. It was a complex accumulation of responsibilities, and inevitably it mandated a Jewish “government.” Known as a kehillah (or kahal in Poland), such a governing body functioned in cities as diverse as Frankfurt, Hamburg, Altona, and Fürth; in Habsburg Vienna, Prague, and Pest. In rural areas, where Jewish populations were too small to sustain individual communal bodies, regional kehillot were established.
Ostensibly elective, the kehillah by and large reflected the influence of heavyweight taxpayers. Indeed, with few exceptions, these communal governing boards were dominated by a tight clique of affluent patricians, known as parnassimin effect, as communal elders. The parnassim were invested with far-reaching powers. They appointed the judges, rabbis, and other kehillah officials. They also appointed the tax assessors and auditors. It was this latter function, moreover, that generated not merely revenue but a painful burden for West European Jewry. Jewish townsmen were obliged, in the first place, to pay considerable sums to fund the expenses of Jewish communal life. But, in addition, as the price of their toleration, they were required to deliver over substantial collective assizes to the royal, baronial, and municipal treasuries. Responsibility for assessing and collecting this cumulation of taxes was left to the parnassim, few of whom evinced any meaningful sense of noblesse oblige. Like the gentile governments that served as their models, Jewish governing oligarchies tended increasingly to shunt the yoke of taxation on to the common people. By the late eighteenth century, it was specifically this fiscal burden, not only doubly heavy but inequitably distributed, that was becoming all but insupportable for Europe’s most tremulous minority.
When American slaves in the antebellum South gave vent to their emotions in folk songs, their lyrics alluded to green pastures, to golden slippers, to spirits of departed ancestors promenading in heaven, garbed in robes that invariably were white. The Jews, too, compensated for the humiliation and squalor of ghettoization by embellishing the charms and allurements of freedom and nature. Witness a modern traveler’s description of a seventeenth-century synagogue in Bechhofen, Germany:
A shewbread table is the center of attention on the north wall, and a lighted menorah on the south. The Ark [of the Torah] is richly carved and the wall about it sown with inscriptions, foliage, and symbolic lions, trees, trumpets, and harvest fruits. The timbers of the barrel vault are alive with birds and beasts—unicorn, horse, lion, hare, fox, elephant and squirrel—the One Hundred and Fourth Psalm set to line and color. Two trumpeting lions flanked by Jerusalem and again by harvest fruits share the drum of the west walls; and beneath them are paneled inscriptions, appropriately near the doorway, the saying from the Talmud: “Since Jerusalem has fallen, closed are all the gates of heaven save one, the gate of tears.”
A Reorientation to the East
If our eighteenth-century traveler had been transplanted from Germany to Poland, he would have encountered a marked contrast of external surroundings. Wandering through the mud-caked Polish plain, he would have noted few bustling municipalities such as Frankfurt. Ramshackle villages were the rule here. Moreover, if few cities of Western dimensions could be found in this sprawling hinterland, neither could Western-style ghettos. In their place, hamlets and often entire towns appeared to be almost exclusively Jewish. The sheer breadth of this Jewish presence signified a shift in the Jews’ geographic dispersion, one that had begun as far back as the late fourteenth century. It was the bitterest era of the Jewish experience since the loss of their ancient homeland. South of the Pyrenees, thousands of Jews were beginning to flee the Christian reconquista of their Iberian diaspora, most of them to seek refuge in North Africa (p. 148). At the same time, gentile populations in Western Europe, blaming “infidel devils” for the ravages of the bubonic plague, were launching the chain reaction of massacres that drove Ashkenazic (German and French) Jews eastward—also by the tens of thousands.
For these Ashkenazim, the likeliest sanctuary was to be found in the Commonwealth of Poland. A mighty federation of Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian nations, Poland already comprised the largest empire in Eastern Europe. Its rulers now were prepared to make room for still other settlers. With their feudal economy continually in need of replenishment, the Polish kings were not slow in discerning advantage in a Jewish presence. Here an experienced and literate mercantile people would fill a vacuum in trade and banking, in the administration of royal and aristocratic estates, in the assessment and collection of taxes. As it became known, therefore, that Poland was offering sanctuary, Jews began moving eastward in growing velocity. Three centuries later, they would number some 800,000 in the Polish Commonwealth’s population of approximately 12.7 million. In this new and open terrain, Jews preserved and developed their own religious and cultural traditions even more freely than in the German-speaking world (although their vernacular, ironically, remained the medieval German they had brought with them from Central Europe).
Jewish settlement was densest in eastern and southern Poland, especially in the Ukrainian and Belorussian areas that had been annexed in the sixteenth century. Here a dozen Polish szlachta—feudal magnates—owned most of the land, with the rural population subsisting as their tenants. It was specifically in these colonized sectors that the need was greatest for a mercantile class. The Jews fulfilled the role with alacrity. Diffused principally in smaller towns and villages, where they often comprised a majority of the local inhabitants, they served the landowning gentry as estate and business managers, as rent and tax collectors from the Ukrainian and Polish peasantry. It was Jews who ran the aristocrats’ mills, supervised their forests and the marketing of their timber, the sale of their farm produce and cattle, and operated and occasionally subleased their local distilleries and taverns. This vibrant Jewish middle class was not yet typical of Polish Jewry at large, most of whom maintained their Central European vocations of petty trade and small handicrafts. Nevertheless, Jewish economic circumstances in Poland appeared far more promising than in the West. So did their opportunities of domicile. Although Jews in the larger Polish towns tended to be restricted to clearly defined quarters, the amplitude they enjoyed to live and work as they chose was far superior to their cramped and marginal subsistence in the West.
In Poland, as far back as the fourteenth century, the first privilege the Jews themselves requested and received was to operate their own kahals (kehillot). From the outset, the competence of these governing institutions was fully as broad-ranging as in the West. It embraced market and other commercial activities, the maintenance of the Jews’ streets, sewage, synagogues, ritual baths, and the care of the Jews’ own poor and ill. As always, these services were funded by Jewish taxes, assessed and levied by Jewish parnassim, enforced by Jewish judges. Yet, far more than in the extensively urbanized Jewish communities of the West, local kahals in Poland were dominated by wider, regional kahals. Linked together under the Va’ad (Committee) of Four Lands, this network encompassed Jewish settlements extending through four major provinces of the Polish Commonwealth: Great Poland, Little Poland, Lithuania, and Volhynia. It was the Va’ad of Four Lands that arbitrated fiscal, social, and welfare issues among the Jews, and determined annual tax quotas among them.
Those quotas were in every respect as substantial as in the West. Beyond Jewish communal assessments, the taxes included the usual general payments due royal or baronial treasuries, and often were supplemented by ad hoc imposts for the care of state dignitaries or local garrisons. The charges continued to rise, moreover, often to quadruple, by the late seventeenth century. Eventually, regional kahals were compelled to borrow to meet these surcharges. For Jewish families, the escalating fiscal burden became more oppressive yet when kahal officials, often working closely with the Polish magnates, began shifting a number of the heaviest taxes to less well connected rural Jewish communities. Here, too, as in the West, class tensions became seriously inflamed. All the more so as they became entangled with others of Polish Jewry’s mounting burden of afflictions.
Ukrainian Horror and Spiritual Crisis
The gravest of these crises was growing gentile resentment at the Jewish presence. In contrast to Western Europe, this animus did not initially take the form of religious diabolization. In Poland, after all, Jews interacted with the local population at almost every level, and were a familiar and routine presence. Rather, it was the Jewish economic role that came to loom largest in the consciousness of peasants and townsmen alike. Gentile rancor became particularly intense in the Ukrainian provinces. By the seventeenth century, among this overwhelmingly agricultural population, it was intolerable that the Jews, a people more alien even than the Roman Catholic Poles, should be compounding Ukrainian servitude by collecting rents and taxes on behalf of the Polish oppressors.
In the spring of 1648, popular rage was channeled into military action. The catalyst was Bohdan Chmielnicki, son of a minor Ukrainian noble. Mobilizing the support of neighboring federations of Cossacks and Crimean Tatars, Chmielnicki launched an explosive uprising against Poles and Jews alike, a campaign that indiscriminately slaughtered Polish landlords, Catholic priests, Ukrainian Uniate Christians, as well as Jewish estate agents, tax collectors, tavern-owners, small merchants and their families—men, women, and children. As the Polish administration collapsed, Jews living in outlying rural areas decamped for such barricaded towns as Tulchin, Nemirov, Ostrog, Tarnopol, and Dubnow. But flight availed them little. Chmielnicki’s legions were unstoppable, flooding over southeastern Poland, reaching the very gates of Lvov. Here again, Poles and Jews were seized, slain, and often hanged together with pigs.
In the early 1650s, border elements of Russians that were allied with Chmielnicki poured into eastern Lithuania and Belorussia, sacking Mohilev, Vitebsk, and Minsk, pillaging and burning Vilna. Once again, Jews by the thousands were massacred. By 1654, the Polish army managed to reorganize itself and suppress the rebellion. Yet, by then, it appeared that as many as 50,000 Jews had been murdered. In later decades, in the course of recurrent Ukrainian outbreaks, 75,000 additional Jews may have perished. Eventually, by the end of the century, the Poles succeeded in regaining control over the larger, eastern sector of Ukraine. Only then did the surviving Jewish population begin to recover, even to regain a measure of its demographic mass. But the economic and psychological scars of the Chmielnicki era would not easily be healed.
There were longer-ranging psychological consequences. By the eighteenth century, as Jews in Ukraine and Poland sensed the fragility of their position, they turned for consolation to a neo-mystical alternative. It was a continent-wide phenomenon. In Western Europe, where the Thirty Years’ War had reduced hundreds of thousands of Germans to eating grass in the streets, the austere pieties of Lutheranism offered only meager emotional solace. A warm gust of evangelicalism proved far more effective. In eighteenth-century England, the shock of agricultural enclosures and early industrialization accounted for a Methodist insurrection against Anglican “sensibility.” Throughout the Continent, even as far away as Russia, little sects of millenarians—Shakers, Baptists, Dunkers, Dukhobors, among others—made their appearance to emphasize new birth, personal discourse with the Holy Spirit, even ecstatic trances. In Ottoman Turkey, a hallucinatory version of Sufist euphorianism projected its influence as far afield as the Caucasus and southern Ukraine.
In some measure, the circumstances that gave rise to Christian and Moslem theosophy were reflected in Jewish life, and generated parallel mystical-evangelical movements. The best known of these was Hasidism (literally, “righteousness,” or “piety”). It was in eighteenth-century Ukraine, many decades after the Chmielnicki horror had crested, that the Jewish future once again appeared precarious. This time the crisis was political, and lay in the Polish kingdom’s all-enveloping political and economic catatonia (p. 15). In confronting the new challenge, Talmudic Judaism offered insufficient emotional anchorage. Other, more soul-satisfying alternatives were urgently needed.
In fact, there existed earlier precedents for an intensely mystical version of religiosity. One was the Kabbalistic apocalypticism that swelled up in response to the Jewish exodus from Spain and Portugal between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. In Eastern and Southern Europe, too, immediately following the Chmielnicki massacres, tens of thousands of Polish and Ukrainian Jews had been deranged into a kind of prayerful expectancy that a messiah would arise to lead them back to the Holy Land. Charlatans were not lacking to capitalize on this hysteria. Thus, Shabbtai Zvi, a Jew of Smyrna, and Jacob Frank, a Podolian Jew, made bombastic claims to the messiahship, and evoked a near-hysterical response throughout the entire European Jewish world. Although these men dissipated their followings by opportunistically apostatizing—to Islam in the case of Shabbtai Zvi, to Christianity in the case of Frank—the frenzied apocalypticism they had aroused was not to ebb so easily.
Within the framework of traditional Judaism itself, as it happened, a more “respectable” version of mysticism began to make its appearance. By the early eighteenth century, its principal exponents were itinerant lay preachers who traveled from town to town in Eastern Europe proclaiming the importance of fasting and penitence, threatening a demon-filled hell for the impure, and a physical heaven for the appropriately repentant. Several of these preachers moved beyond eschatology to a kind of pragmatic religious sociology. By laying their emphasis upon faith rather than learning, they exploited the resentment nourished by the Jewish poor against the Jewish middle class, and specifically against the oligarchy that dominated Jewish communal affairs, both in and out of kahal government. It was the members of this privileged group, after all, who enjoyed the leisure for study. Flaunting their superior Talmudic education over the Jewish common people, the affluent minority transformed its economic eminence into a symbol of both cultural and social aristocracy. For their part, the Jewish masses in their resentment became susceptible to any preachers who could restore their sense of dignity and self-worth. In the eighteenth century, the most charismatic of these evangelists appeared in the person of Israel Ben-Eliezer of Miedzy- boz, soon to be known as the Baal Shem-Tov—the “Master of the Good Name.”
From the Hardcover edition.
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