- (What Was Once) The World's Largest Jewish Community
Taken together, these four books suffice for a crash course in the history of Polish Jewry from the early modern period until shortly after World War I. They offer specialists and nonspecialists alike an understanding of the newest trends in the historiography of "the Jews of Eastern Europe," who are still often relegated to a sidebar in the master narrative of modern Jewish history and too frequently only appear within it in relation to their destruction. In fact, these four books demonstrate conclusively that this narrative must be rewritten. The seminal impact of the partitions of Poland (1772, 1792, and 1795) as the dividing line between early modern and modernizing Polish Jewry is asserted directly by Israel Bartal and assumed implicitly by Hundert's and Teter's work and by the numerous essays in the Polin anthology. We do well therefore to address the issues of the two books that are squarely in the early modern period and then continue with a discussion of the two books whose focus is the nineteenth century. [End Page 647]
Lucid, vivid, and brimming with archival detail and description, Gershon Hundert's book is a bold, sophisticated, revisionist analysis of eighteenth-century Polish Lithuanian Jewry that culminates years of scholarly work. Focusing on (what was once) the largest Jewish community in the world, Hundert seeks nothing less than a redefinition of the term "modernity." He rejects the conflation of Westernization, "the progressive integration of Jews into society at large and the exchange of particularistic Jewish values, in varying degrees, for a more universal worldview," with modernization (p. 1) and seeks to anchor the study of modern European Jewry in the continent's east rather than in the narratives of "small Jewish communities comprising tiny proportions of the total populations of the countries in which they lived and of the total number of Jews in Europe" (p. 233). The term "modernity" is merely chronological, and Hundert defines it as "roughly the past two centuries." Purging the term "modernity" of its conventional meanings and teleology (namely, political enfranchisement, religious transformation and secularization, dissolution of Jewish autonomy, and migration), Hundert offers up instead Annaliste geological terms to underscore the significance of Polish Jewry's unique mentalité, hoping "to identify on a magmatic level of Jewish experience, that is, the elemental continuities that persist from the early modern period almost to the present" (my emphasis, but see pp. 3 and 234).
Hundert makes an elegant and convincing case for the singular culture of eighteenth-century Polish Jews. Due to their enormous numbers, indispensable role in the economy, and sense of cultural superiority, Polish Jews created and lived a sense of their own importance, what Hundert calls a "social-psychological translation of the concept of chosenness" (p. 4). This mentalité drew from the spiritual well of Haside Ashkenaz—the medieval German Jewish pietists1 —which was transmitted to Poland as Ashkenazic Jews moved eastward, and deepened in the Commonwealth, the vast state formed by the union of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1569. Following Jacob Katz and Benzion Dinur, Hundert insists on telling Jewish history from within its own narrative. In his reading, East European Jews were essentially different from other Jews. Polish Jews refused to be defined by others and were particularly immune to the promise of embourgeoisement and its quid pro quo of attenuated Jewish identity; this refusal...