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CHAPTER 8 Opening Doors: Jewish Women During and After lfaskalah (1750-1900) OVERVIEW While the battle between the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim was threatening to destroy Jewish unity in eastern Europe, some Jews were migrating westward. Many had fled the religious wars of the seventeenth century and the anti-Jewish pogroms and persecutions in Poland, Lithuania, and the less stable German principalities. They began returning to Holland, France, and England, where religion now seemed less of an issue and where the Industrial Revolution had opened up new opportunities for trade. Changes in the West In these western lands, Jews confronted very different lifestyles. Concepts of freedom, religious tolerance, and reliance on reason were being openly discussed. Humanism and Deism were now acceptable, and Jews, while sometimes viewed as superstitious and more often as simply undesirable, no longer seemed so threatening. Forward-looking individuals reasoned that if Jews were allowed to mix with the rest of society to learn what gentiles knew and understood, they would become like everyone else. Jews had a different agenda, but many sought to fit into a changing world. This new intellectual climate was called the Enlightenment. Jewish historians named it, in Hebrew, Haskalah.1 By 1700, France already had small communities of Jews, conversos who had practiced their religion secretly for generations but now felt freer to practice openly. Jews from the Alsatian region, once part of Germany, 199 200 The JPS Guide to Jewish Women found themselves in France when the borders between those two countries were altered in 1648. They suffered many disabilities, but by the end of the 1700s, the French Revolution introduced the concept of individual rights to each man and woman living within its borders.2 In return, the government demanded primary allegiance to the State, including direct payment of taxes. This new system effectively eliminated the power of the Jewish community over its members and caused a considerable weakening of Jewish life. In the Netherlands and Belgium, similar developments were occurring. Sephardic Jews who had been living in the cities of Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Brussels since the expulsion from Spain found a new freedom. In Amsterdam, several prosperous Jews had become principals in the Dutch West India Company. Through that influential group of merchants, they exerted pressure on behalf of their co-religionists both in the Netherlands and in the New World. But as more immigrants crossed the borders into tiny Holland, the Dutch Jews looked to England as another alternative. From 1290 to the mid-1650s, Jews had been barred from settling in England. Individual Jews, famous physicians from Italy and France, and a few groups of New Christians had quietly managed to enter the country. (New Christians had Jewish origins and were sometimes called Marranos, a derogatory word meaning swine.) Only after the English (Puritan) Revolution (1646-1649) did Manasseh ben Israel, a famous Amsterdam rabbi, succeed in negotiating with Oliver Cromwell to permit the Jews to return to England. Although there was no formal cancellation of the original medieval edict of expulsion and the legal status of the Jews remained uncertain, Cromwell, then Lord Protector of England, must have given some assurances in 1655. Almost immediately, the new Jewish community acquired a cemetery and a house for public worship. Not long after, immigrants began arriving from Holland.3 The Revival of English Jewry The Jews, unknown in England for four hundred years, were looked on with suspicion but were tolerated because of the benefits they brought for increased trade. There was no official Jewish community recognized by the government to negotiate privileges for Jews as there still was in eastern Europe. A Jew with enough influence or money might get considerable rights, but such personal arrangements would not necessarily benefit other Jews. For the English, the primary motivation for this new liberalization was the advancement of commerce. By the eighteenth century, Jewish women arriving in England from eastern Europe, and even from Amsterdam, found themselves in a fairly tolerant , heterogeneous society. There was no ghetto, and Jewish community Opening Doors 201 life was merely one of many options. Communal officials did not impose Jewish Law, and Jews, especially affluent ones such as Moses and Judith Montefiore often moved in gentile circles and interacted easily with Christians. The Enlightenment and the Jews of Central Europe German Jews were in a different position than Jews in England or France. Their numbers were larger, and they had a long, ambivalent history of cooperation with Christians alternating with periods of...


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