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In Her Hands: The Education of Jewish Girls in Tsarist Russia by Eliyana R. Adler (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 5, Number 2, July 2012
pp. 97-98 | 10.1353/jji.2012.0018

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Eliyana Adler adds substantially to the literature about the history of Jews in the Russian Empire while doing her part to make visible a part of the narrative still too often obscured by a perspective that equates the history of Jewish men with the history of all Jews. Her carefully-researched monograph benefits from archival research in major Russian and Lithuanian archives as well as at the YIVO Institute in the United States. In her impressive monograph, Adler provides a nuanced and complex record of efforts to educate young Jewish women in the multi-ethnic Russian Empire. She analyzes the relations between tsarist officials and the Jewish community, the effectiveness and appeal of philanthropic efforts, and the dramatic turn in Russian-Jewish history with the application of more overt and at times violent anti-Semitic policies by the last two Tsars, Alexander III and Nicholas II.

Adler shatters commonly held beliefs about Russian-Jewish relations. She emphasizes that Jews were relative newcomers to the Russian Empire. The partition of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century for the first time brought in large numbers of Jews, most of whom were confined to the newly-created Pale of Settlement under Catherine the Great's 1791 decree. Yet the tsars were not consistently hostile to the Jews. While wary of this large non-Christian population, Catherine's immediate successors encouraged assimilation. They drafted Jews into the military, and created a state rabbinate and a state-sponsored Jewish school system. After his father's assassination in 1881, Alexander III radically changed course. Rather than encourage assimilation, he promoted emigration, and used violence against those who remained. Nicholas II, the last tsar, largely followed his father's policies. Government promotion of anti-Jewish racism contributed to the social and political conflicts that ultimately led to the end of the Romanov dynasty.

Within this context, Adler traces the first Jewish school for girls back to Odessa in 1831. Between 1831 and 1881, 130 such schools opened. Tsarist bureaucrats in many cases sincerely wrestled with the best way to educate all of the empire's boys and girls, including Jews. Many founders of such schools regarded the institutions as essential to assimilation, not to preserving Jewish identity. Adler highlights the views of such educators as Abram Bruk-Berezovskii, who in 1866 at the opening of his private school for Jewish girls in Kherson emphasized the importance of educating women because "through them we can supplant our jargon and little by little acquire the national language[;] an exceedingly important step toward internally and externally merging with the Russian people." (1)

Jewish girls' schools transformed with the changing times and changing tsarist policies. Indeed, to Adler, these schools benefited from their marginality. The system of education of Jewish boys in heders remained static, but Jewish girls participated in a "dynamic educational experiment," with greater opportunities to experiment. Russia was not an isolated educational backwater, and Jewish girls' schools in particular benefited from innovations developed in the empire. Some tsarist bureaucrats took part in the discussions of the day about educating the unskilled and transforming the illiterate into the workforces necessary for rapidly industrializing societies. At the 1876 Philadelphia World's Fair, the country's exhibit featured the "Russian System," using experiential methods to teach practical skills in schools. Additionally, Russian Jewish educators imported many books and materials from western Europe.

Adler views 1881 as a major turning point. With the introduction of harsher government policies by Alexander III, Jewish girls' schools transformed. No one opened any more private traditional schools for Jewish girls. The new Jewish schools were Zionist or Socialist. Those seeking to assimilate more and more attended Russian institutions, as quota legislation did not include Jewish women.

What is the significance of the Jewish girls' schools? Adler argues convincingly that they provided a key bridge to modernity for Russia's Jews. In a traditional Jewish society in which Russian was not the main language, private schools for Jewish girls aided the rapid assimilation of the overall Jewish population. The very exclusion of women from religious study provided opportunities for more learning about Russian culture and norms.

Adler's intensive research is evident, not only in...



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