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  • A Story within a StoryThe First Russian-Language Jewish History Textbooks, 1880‒1900
  • Vassili Schedrin (bio)

We should want a young Jewish man to know, although in brief form, the entire history of his people: to understand it and reflect on it. Then much would be revealed to him in the surrounding reality, in the spiritual and social life of his own nation.

simon dubnow, Uchebnik evreiskoi istorii dlya evreiskogo yunoshestva

Describing his father's bookcase in their St Petersburg home, Osip Mandelstam wrote: 'I always remember the lower shelf as chaotic: the books were not standing upright side by side but lay like ruins. … This was the Judaic chaos thrown into the dust.'1 The reddish volumes of the Pentateuch were shelved there along with 'a Russian history of the Jews written in the clumsy, shy language of a Russian-speaking Talmudist'.2 Scholars of Mandelstam—Russian poet and 'autobiographical Jew'—identify this history book as either a study by Ilya Orshansky3 or the Russian translation of the best-selling History of the Jews by Heinrich Graetz.4 In fact, by 1900, the approximate year of Mandelstam's recollection, there were at least five publications that could have been described as a history of the Jews in the language of 'a Russian-speaking Talmudist' and could have been on the lower shelf of the poet's father's bookcase: the first volume of Graetz's History of the Jews, books by Mark Nemzer and Solomon Minor, and two books by Simon Dubnow.5 Whichever book it actually was, the 'Russian history of the Jews' [End Page 109] represented an integral story within a story 'of the spiritual efforts of the entire family'.6 According to Osip, in the case of his father, Emil Mandelstam—an escapee from the traditional Jewish world, a maskil-autodidact, and successful Russian merchant—this history might have paradoxically played a role both in the father's acculturation ('inoculating … [him] with alien blood') and in building a new sense of belonging to his people, or, rather, to his 'nation' ('In a fit of national contrition they went as far as hiring a real Jewish teacher for me.'7) Osip himself was very confused by the version of Jewish history taught to him by the private Jewish tutor. He recalled that the tutor's 'literate Russian speech sounded false' to him and that, while the tutor displayed striking 'national Jewish pride' during the lessons, he cautiously 'hid his pride when he went out in the street'. For these reasons Osip 'did not believe' his history teacher.8

However, the books by Nemzer, Minor, and Dubnow—as textbooks, tools of self-education, and popular histories—profoundly influenced the souls and minds of Mandelstam's contemporaries—the whole generation of Russian Jews who themselves made Jewish history in twentieth-century Russia and beyond. The stories recounted in these histories shaped the national consciousness of this generation and thus also shaped Jewish life in the modern world. In 1938 Lazar Kaganovich, a Bolshevik leader of the USSR, sternly told the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre (Gosudarstvennyi evreiskii teatr; GOSET) to present plays about the 'historical' Jewish courage and the rebellious spirit of the heroic national past. 'Where are the Maccabees? Where is Bar Kokhba?' he asked emphatically.9 In the 1930s and 1940s Solomon Mikhoels, GOSET's principal star and unofficial leader of the Soviet Jews, planned a production of a 'historical' play about the sixteenth-century 'Jewish prince' David Reubeni. Mikhoels dreamed of playing Reubeni as an early Jewish nationalist, a 'political figure … a wild beast in international politics'.10

This chapter will focus on these four influential Russian-language textbooks on Jewish history. It will analyse their authors, goals, structures, sources, methodologies, narratives, and impacts on readers, but first and foremost, it will call attention to the key stories conveyed by these accounts.11 [End Page 110]

jewish history in the curriculum of the modern jewish school

In the second half of the nineteenth century the reform and modernization of traditional Jewish education was among the key priorities of Russian official policy towards the Jews, as well as one of the most controversial and divisive...


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pp. 109-130
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