Mordechai Nadav

The Jews of Pinsk, 1506-1880

Edited by Mark Jay Mirsky and Moshe Rosman; translated by Moshe Rosman and Faigie Tropper
(Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2008); pp. 606

The memorial books, or yizker-bikher, to communities destroyed in the Holocaust defy easy categorization. Some, written and compiled entirely by amateurs, are little more than albums, with scraps of memories and treasured photographs. Others combine personal reminiscences with more scholarly articles and include valuable maps and historical information.

The Jews of Pinsk, 1506-1880, written by Mordechai Nadav and recently translated into English by Moshe Rosman and Faigie Tropper, originated as part of a three book series devoted to Pinsk, and further stretching the definition of the memorial book. While most of the other yizker-bikher include contributions from numerous authors and cover mainly the period immediately before and during the war, the survivors of Pinsk elected to augment this more typical offering with a thorough historical study of the Jewish community of Pinsk.

Two professional historians, Mordechai Nadav and Azriel Shohet, took on the task of researching and writing the volumes. Nadav’s contribution begins with the foundation of a Jewish community in Pinsk and follows the community through the later part of the nineteenth-century. Shohet’s soon to be published companion volume picks up with the end of the tsarist period and ends with the destruction of the Jewish community of Pinsk in 1941.  Both were published in Hebrew in the 1970s and made careful and conscientious use of all of the documentary sources available at that time.

Nadav’s volume on the first four centuries of Pinsk Jewish history is encyclopedic in nature. Each chapter covers a specific span of time and dwells on topics ranging from education to economics and including leading rabbinic figures, demographics, legal status, interrelations with neighbors, religious developments, historical occurrences and just about everything else.

This is local history par excellence. Nadav has made use of rabbinic works, court documents, tax data, memoir literature, periodical literature, and published and unpublished studies in all of the local languages to build his history. His highly detailed descriptions of the kahal functions and disfunctions, as well as the day-to-day developments during wars and sieges, offer students and scholars alike a whole new level of understanding of frequently discussed institutions and occurrences.

At the same time, Nadav is conversant with the scholarly writing about each time period and engages in sophisticated debate on a variety of issues. For example, Nadav offers a complex and compelling narrative of the early encounters between Pinsk and Hasidism. Whereas other scholars have viewed Pinsk as one of a group of Lithuanian Jewish communities actively opposed to Hasidism from its inception, Nadav argues that most of Pinsk’s leaders avoided persecuting the new movement in its early decades.

In these and other examples Nadav demonstrates how local history can both illuminate more general historical scholarship, and highlight its flaws. Nadav is also committed to covering every aspect of Jewish communal life in Pinsk.

Economic developments, a subject often shunned by social historians, play a central role in the narrative. Nadav shows how geographic, political, and other factors influenced economic development, and thus the fate of the Jewish community. Pinsk’s location, at the convergence of two roads and one river, proved crucial to its early growth. Ironically, the 1569 Union of Lublin decreased the importance of the land routes through Pinsk, but with the expansion of the lumber trade, the water route took on added importance. In the nineteenth century, the decision to bypass Pinsk on the new railroad was one of a number of factors precipitating its decline. Nadav demonstrates how all of these issues affected the economic, and consequently communal, life of the Jews.

It is rare to have the opportunity to review a book that contains its own internal review. In addition to the lengthy and personal preface provided by Mark Jay Mirsky, the novelist who conceived of and raised money for the translation project, it also contains a preface by the translator, himself an eminent historian, Moshe Rosman. Rosman uses his introduction to explain the provenance of the book, discuss some of the challenges entailed in its translation, and honestly assess its contribution to scholarship on East European Jewry.

To Rosman, ‘This book is an antidote to the fragmentary approach’, to East European Jewish history available from other works (p. xxxvi). Rosman commends Nadav’s ability to bring together all of the many topics into one coherent whole. At the same time he recognizes that the approach of this, as well as the second volume by Shohet, combines aspects of both the academic and the chronicler. Both Nadav and Shohet were Pinskers and wrote their works as memorials to their lost homeland. Add to this the fact that they were originally published decades previously, and certain partisan qualities are unavoidable.

To these concerns I would add an over reliance on particular sources and an occasionally ponderous format. Nadav did not have access to archival sources in Pinsk, yet he wanted to write a comprehensive volume. At times the result is ingenious rereadings of available sources or clever use of previously unknown sources, as with his demography. At other times it appears that general arguments are based on single sources. Court documents in particular carry a good deal of weight.

With a book of this depth and span, format is by nature complicated. Nadav chose lengthy chronological chapters divided into topical sections. This format is excellent for a reference book. A student of Jewish history with an interest in estate leasing or taxation can simply find the sections devoted to those topics. For a reader more interested in the broad sweep, and committed to reading the book straight through, the format can be both repetitive and unsatisfying. A figure like Saul Levin, who was involved in communal leadership, Hasidic/Mitnagdic interrelations, and economic development, for example appears in multiple sections without a sense of continuity between them. Similarly the changing relationship between Pinsk and her sister city of Karlin ends up split up between various chapters and sections and more confusing than necessary.

That said, the translation is highly readable. Rosman has updated what he terms the ‘late-maskilic Jerusalem academic Hebrew’ (p. xliv), to a more straightforward English. The decision to shorten and simplify the footnotes leaves important references intact, and the curious reader can always refer to the Hebrew edition. It is not clear, however, why the editors chose to leave the maps in Hebrew. The English language keys are an inelegant solution.

Most readers will probably use the book as a reference work. Even those who read it through will easily repay the effort. The Jews of Pinsk is a tremendous source of information on Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Students and scholars of Jewish history will benefit from this translation, which increases its accessibility and renown. The book is also a powerful monument to the illustrious community it commemorates.

Eliyana R. Adler