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  • The Return of the Ḥeder among Russian Jewish Education Experts, 1840–1917
  • Brian Horowitz (bio)

The role of the ḥeder in the modernization of Jewish education in the tsarist empire is a fascinating, albeit little-known, story. Most laymen and even scholars view the ḥeder monochromatically. They repeat the criticisms of the maskilim of the 1840s and later decades: the ḥeder was the obstacle to the successful integration of the Jews of Russia; nothing was learned there; the melamed beat the children, destroying them physically and spiritually; it was one of the vilest of religious institutions. However, there was a change in attitude towards the ḥeder at the beginning of the twentieth century among some of the most important specialists in the field of Jewish education in Russia. Some of these experts discovered in the ḥeder previously unnoticed dimensions that could be salvaged in future schools, while others saw parallels between the values of the ḥeder and the new nationalist-leaning Jewish institutions. Still others were impressed by the ḥeder's longevity, its success with the public, and its low costs. Individuals associated with the School Commission of the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment among the Jews of Russia (Obshchestvo dlya rasprostraneniya prosveshcheniya mezhdu evreyami v Rossii; OPE) along with certain Zionists, Bundists, and other independent intellectuals were involved with these questions.

Research into the ḥeder and modern schools in the tsarist empire is largely divided between those who studied the question during tsarist times and those who approached these issues starting in the 1960s in Israeli and American universities. The kinds of questions each group posed were different, because each group had its own political and cultural agenda.

During tsarist times the ḥeder was the object of study by 'activists', individuals, mainly men, who sought either to eliminate the ḥeder or to transform it. Attitudes changed, growing more positive around 1900 and reflecting new views on politics and the Jewish cultural ferment of the time. The experts gradually and [End Page 181] begrudgingly discovered much to like in the ḥeder. The majority of these individuals, non-Zionists such as Menashe Morgulis, Pinkhus (Petr) Marek, Leon Bramson, Jacob Katsenelson, Hayim Fialkov, and Shaul Ginzburg, were trained as lawyers but worked as journalists, teachers, or activists. Zionists, such as Avram Idelson and Chaim Zuta, admired the institution, although they demanded its modernization.1 Incidentally, some of the statistical information and much of the anecdotal material come from studies produced in tsarist times.

The other group is composed of university professors in Israel and the United States of America. Individuals such as Zevi Scharfstein, Shaul Stampfer, Steven Zipperstein, Michael Stanislawski, Jacob Shatzky, Yossi Goldstein, Eliyana Adler, and Brian Horowitz intended to produce objective scholarship independent of political motives, although they relied on earlier statistics and to a degree on previous analyses. Despite their professed objectivity, these university-trained professors were sometimes influenced by revisionist thinking about Jewish history in Russia that was typical of the late years of the Cold War. Such thinking was characterized by the rediscovery of a good deal of positive aspects of Jewish life ('it was not all gloom and doom'). The 're-imagination' of Jewish life in Russia was undoubtedly connected with disappointment regarding Jewish life in the West, which was seen as decaying in spite of or because of the free atmosphere for Jewish religious observance. Russian Jews, it turned out, had much to offer in the construction of Jewish community.2 Although this chapter does not deal directly with the differences between these two groups and their agendas, it implicitly shows the premises that underlie sympathies towards the traditional ḥeder.

The history of the ḥeder in the Russian empire is connected largely with struggles between the religiously orthodox and the maskilim (supporters of the Haskalah). The maskilim emphasized learning Russian, basic secular knowledge, and the acquisition of useful skills, such as mathematics. Despite a good deal of support from the government, including subsidies and even free tuition, for most of the nineteenth century few parents would permit their male children to attend secular schools. Besides the religious obligation to teach their children Torah, study at a ḥeder conveyed prestige. Parents showed they could...


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