- Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity
Gershon David Hundert, Leanor Segal Professor of Jewish Studies and chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill University, is one of the outstanding specialists on early modern Polish Jewish history worldwide. Each of his publications is an important contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the history of Polish Jews. Certainly, the same can be said about the marvellous book under review.
Hundert advocates 'a revision of the understanding of modernity in Jewish history,' since, as he believes, 'there are fundamental distortions in the way modernity in Jewish history has been described.' He claims that historians devoted too much attention to ideology, put too much emphasis on change, and concentrated too much on regions where few Jews lived and not on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth where about 80 per cent of all the Jews resided in the eighteenth century. Hundert argues that several elements of the experience of East European Jewry 'strengthened and deepened a positive sense of Jewish identity' and, already in the eighteenth century, translated the traditional concept of chosenness into a modern East European Jewish mentalité.
Hundert's book is devoted to tracing these transforming elements of the East European Jewish experience. 'The Largest Jewish Community of the World' (chapter 1) is devoted to demography and proves that the term 'minority' is misleading when applied to eighteenth-century Polish Jews, who constituted a community of approximately 750,000 people and formed a majority in many towns of eastern Poland-Lithuania. In chapter 2, 'Economic Integration,' Hundert documents the indispensable role that the Jews played in Poland's economy. He describes the economic symbiosis between the Jews and the nobility. This symbiosis also existed between Jewry and the church (chapter 3, 'The Polish Church and Jews, Polish Jews and the Church'). Simultaneously, the church's onslaught against the Jews nurtured Jewish separatism. Hundert describes Jewish self-government in the Commonwealth (chapter 4, 'The Community') and argues that, contrary to the generally accepted interpretations, there was no deep crisis and no class warfare in Poland's Jewish communities (chapter 5, 'Was There a Communal "Crisis" in the Eighteenth Century?'), even though these communities did go through important changes (chapter 6, 'The Popularization of Kabbalah;' chapter 7, 'Mystic Ascetics and Religious Radicals;' chapter 8, 'The Context of Hasidism;' and chapter 9, 'Hasidism, a New Path'). The book closes with political history. Chapter 10, 'Jews and the Sejm,' depicts the attempts to change Jewish status in Poland in the eighteenth century, particularly at the last Polish parliament of 1788-91. In a short afterword, Hundert recapitulates his arguments: 'no other Jewish [End Page 267] population in the world was comparable, in terms of absolute numbers or proportions, to the Jewish community of Poland-Lithuania in the 18th century'; 'persecution did not contradict but rather confirmed Jewish distinctiveness'; 'Polish Jews were at once insular and integrated into the society in which they lived'; 'Kabbalah became part of the grammar of Jewish culture' and prepared the way for Hasidism; and 'self-affirmation and a feeling of Jewish superiority and solidarity dominated the spectrum of self-evaluation of eastern European Jews.'
A great number of books on Jewish history appear every year. Yet, among this multitude, there are usually only a few important publications. Hundert's book is most certainly one of them, and every person interested in Jewish history should study this meticulously researched, well-written, and fascinating work. [End Page 268]
Piotr Wrobel, Department of History, University of Toronto