Jews, Poles, Drift Apart Under Russian Rule

Review of Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire, by Jeffrey Veidlinger. 2009. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.
Reviewer: Mr. Jan Peczkis
The Russification of Erstwhile Polish Jews in the 19th Century
This work provides considerable detail on the cultural and educational movements among the Jews of tsarist Russia. It also includes statistics on library usage in the libraries of major Russian and Russian-ruled cities.
With the Partitions of Poland, tsarist Russia assumed rule over eastern Poland, and the tsarist authorities later made this geographic region into the Pale of Jewish Settlement. Even the Russian-ruled Duchy of Warsaw, which later became Congress Poland, gradually lost its semi-autonomy and, by the 20th century, had lost virtually all of its independent political features. (p. xiv).
Although this work is not about Polish-Jewish relations, it shows how Poland’s Jews had detached themselves, and been detached by the Russians, from essential Polish-ness. Veidlinger makes it obvious that, whatever affinity Poland’s Jews had once felt for Poland, this was steadily being replaced by attachment to Russian culture and other non-Polish ways of thinking. For instance, the Jews formed the OPE (Society for the Spread of Englightenment among the Jews of Russia). The author describes it as follows, (quote) Formed in St. Petersburg in 1863 with the ostensible goal of spreading enlightenment ideals among the Jews of Russia, in its early years the OPE sought to convince the Jewish community to acculturate itself into Russian society by adopting the Russian language and abandoning the most parochial of Jewish practices and customs. (unquote). (p. 15).
In time, various libraries were established by the tsarist authorities, and by wealthy Jews. These could have books in Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish, but were forbidden to have books in Polish. (pp. 31-32).
Notwithstanding the severity of Russian anti-Semitism, Poland’s erstwhile Jews became functionally Russified. Veidlinger comments, (quote) Even after the tumult of 1905 and general disenchantment with the promise of assimilation, Jewish readers continued to prefer the Russian canon to the Yiddish one. The Jewish reading public was in many ways indistinguishable from the Russian reading public. However, the fact that the Jewish reading public preferred to read Russian books in Jewish libraries also stands apart as a testimony to the degree to which the two communities stood apart. Jews were enamored of Russian literature and approached it as though it was their own, but they preferred to do so in the company of other Jews. (unquote). (p. 113).
While Polish language and thinking were rare among the Litvaks (Litwaks), they were far from a given even among the Jews of Congress Poland. Veidlinger remarks, (quote) In the Kingdom of Poland, language debates were further complicated by the addition of Polish into the mix. (unquote). (p. 133).
I now elaborate on some ancillary matters:
The Jewish tavern owner has long been prominent in Polish-Jewish relations. Veidlinger alludes to the scale of this phenomenon, (quote) In the Pale of Jewish Settlement, where there were some 50,000 taverns—five times the number in the rest of Russia—Jewish travelers and tavern owners came into contact with touring actors from the Imperial Theaters and itinerant troupes of performers. (unquote). (p. 170). This statistic raises questions. Were the Slavic peoples who lived in the Pale notably more prone to alcoholic consumption than those Slavic peoples who lived outside the Pale? Alternatively, was the consumption of liquor more heavily promoted (or pushed), by the largely Jewish tavern owners in the Pale, than by the corresponding non-Jewish owners outside the Pale?
In any case, the disparity between Jewish and non-Jewish areas of the Russian Empire is striking. It explains, at very least, why Jews were seen as exploiters of Slavs and as profiteers of their alcoholism—notwithstanding the existence of non-Jewish tavern owners outside the Pale. Moreover, as Polish peasant associations strove to improve the lot of peasants by temperance movements, the role of Jewish tavern owners became more objectionable than ever.
The assimilation of Jews is often thought of as a changing of the attitude of gentiles, wherein gentiles stop seeing Jews as the “other”. However, for assimilation to take place, both Jews and gentiles have to change their attitudes to each other. Veidlinger discusses the pioneering efforts of Tadeusz Czacki (1807), who echoed Enlightenment sentiments as follows, (quote) …emancipation should be contingent upon the Jews giving up their separate institutional structure…predicated on the assumption that the Jewish community would relinquish its corporate privileges, parochial institutions, and distinct culture and language in exchange for the promise of equal rights of citizenship in the former case and a lessening of legal restriction in the latter. (unquote). (pp. 232-233).

By piotrbein