If an earlier generation of scholars of Russian Jews focused on the constraining forces of tsarist policy on Jewish physical and socioeconomic survival in the East, then the current cohort of scholars is all about cutting the Romanovs and their autocratic power down to size, analyzing Jewish policies in the context of broader imperial concerns, and rereading Jewish activity and agency back into the narrative of Jews in Eastern Europe. Where a century ago we understood the Pale of Settlement as a supersized ghetto of Jewish isolation and last outpost of medieval Jewish communal autonomy and unadulterated traditionalism in Europe, a new cohort of scholars tells tales of Baltic German women helping to spear-head female Jewish education long before Puah Rakovsky and Sarah Schenirer, and of a Russian state increasingly anxious about controlling its Jewish population because it could not easily identify Jews within the heterogeneous, sociable, and peripatetic population of its western borderlands. These new works do not construct a history of Jewish Eastern Europe that is redeemed or subsumed by the rise of America as the Zion of the West but offer an explanation of how the competing imperial concerns of religious tolerance and interventionism, together with Jewish innovation, resistance, and manipulation, could pave the way for the modernization of Jewish society and culture in the East. In their recent scholarship, Eliyana Adler and Eugene Avrutin signal the new avenues that research on the East can take if we continue to comb the archives [End Page 408] and allow imperial policy to serve as a platform for Jewish activity rather than a brake on it.
The two works under review here, Eliyana Adler’s In Her Hands and Eugene Avrutin’s Jews and the Imperial State, look at how Jews made room for their own cultural and socioeconomic activity within a state that beginning with Tsar Alexander I was interested in minimizing Jewish difference and as of Tsar Nicholas I’s reign became increasingly interventionist in managing and reaching the tolerated confessions of the empire. The key to their fresh read is that they take as a given by now that the imperial interest in reforming the Jews was conditioned throughout the imperial period by religious toleration and ongoing reliance on indigenous elites and religious clerics to identify, manage, and educate the Jews. Avrutin’s study does most of the heavy theoretical lifting in this regard, drawing on colonial theory and explicitly situating Russian Jewish life in a diverse imperial polity that proved resistant to full tsarist control through the end of the old regime, due in equal measure to bureaucratic ineptitude and indigenous resistance. While Adler’s social and cultural history of Jewish girls’ education is less explicitly engaged in comparative imperial history or reading Jewish cultural activity as a form of colonial resistance, her approach to the sources and ability to see the unintended benefits of greater imperial direction of Jewish education places her squarely in the camp of reading Russian Jewish history against the grain of anti-Semitism and policy constraint.
Move over Sarah Schenirer, Meet Frau Ekert
Following the landmark studies of Shaul Stampfer, Chava Weissler, and Iris Parush, Eliyana Adler expands our understanding of Jewish women’s knowledge and literacy within an Ashkenazi culture that looked askance at female Torah study and channeled communal educational resources and collective responsibility to the education of boys.1 Like her scholarly predecessors, Adler is attuned to the disjuncture between ideals and reality, especially the widespread anecdotal evidence of Jewish girls attending heders, learning with tutors at home (especially foreign languages and the arts), and eventually joining Jewish boys in the Russian Jewish exodus to gymnasia and institutions of higher education in the 1860s. Rather than explaining away each anomalous instance of private [End Page 409] education for Jewish girls, such as the school Judah Leib Gordon opened in Tel...