The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe

Gershon David Hundert, Editor-in-Chief

Yale University Press, New Haven 2008


In his thoughtful introduction to the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, Gershon Hundert notes that this work concentrates, clarifies and synthesizes knowledge on aspects of the Eastern European Jewish experience for the first time. One reason why this is now possible is that over the past thirty years or so a new infrastructure has been created for the study of Jews in Eastern Europe.

Where once the scholars occupied with this subject were almost exclusively Eastern European—or formerly Eastern European—Jews, themselves; the last two generations have seen the emergence of a large number of Jewish scholars born after the Second World War outside of Eastern Europe who, to the surprise of their elders, have attempted to immerse themselves in the languages and cultures of the region. They have authored a long bibliography. Moreover, there are already two postwar generations of European (mostly non-Jewish) scholars who have devoted themselves to aspects of Judaic studies, including the study of Hebrew and Yiddish. Thirty years ago no one could have foreseen the existence of these specialists fully conversant with the languages and the secondary literature of Jewish studies. They have brought new sources, new perspectives and new groundbreaking knowledge.

The literally thousands of books and articles—source collections, reference books, analytical and synthetic works—written over the past thirty years have been facilitated by the establishment of a number of centers for the study Eastern European Jewry at European, American and Israeli institutions. These have offered educational and financial resources, established academic journals, taught content and language courses, and organized numerous conferences. The result has been a new world-wide context for the study of the Eastern European Jewish experience, with scholars from various countries in regular contact and even cooperating on joint projects. What is written in Moscow or Wroclaw resonates in Jerusalem, London and New York; and Israeli and American works appear, sometimes in translation, in Eastern European libraries.

This new infrastructure, together with the dramatic political changes in the former communist bloc as well as more general changes in the post-modern intellectual climate, have transformed the style, content and standards of scholarship and set a new research agenda for the field of Eastern European Jewish studies.

All of these transformations gain expression in the YIVO Encyclopedia. I will attempt to demonstrate how by using a convenient rubric, the title of the Encyclopedia, as my initial examining lens.

THE YIVO ENCYCLOPEDIA OF JEWS IN EASTERN EUROPE: I am sure that this locution was the product of hours of agonizing deliberations and ultimately compromise on the part of the editors. They had the weighty obligation to formulate; we have the luxury of analyzing the implications of their formulation.

Even though it points to several institutional, publishing and financial issues, I will leave aside the presence of the word YIVO in the title and focus on the rest:

It does not say Encyclopedia of Eastern European Jewry, or Encyclopedia of the Jews in Eastern Europe, but is phrased much more modestly, Encyclopedia of Jews—perhaps some, not all—in Eastern Europe. This I take to reflect both a postmodern sensibility that eschews essentializing and a postcolonial bias against depicting the members of a group collectively and hence monolithically.

To my mind this is too great a tribute to pay to current academic fashion. A work aiming to portray, as the Introduction states, ‘the Jewish experience’ and ‘all aspects of Jewish life’ and that permits itself, and rightfully so, to speak of ‘most Jews’ or ‘the vast majority of Jews’ cannot then retreat to the politically correct safety of an absent definite article. ‘The Jewish experience’, which the Introduction to the Encyclopedia proclaims it is presenting, is the experience of the Jews. In my opinion, if the Jews do not exist, then it is impossible to have any individual Jews either. There must be a group that the individuals derive from, if they are to be seen as sharing anything beyond their individuality.

Moreover, I think one of the great virtues of this Encyclopedia is that it indeed makes a valiant, and largely successful, attempt to relate to all of the Jews. As Hundert writes:

religious and secular, male and female, urban and rural, Hasidic and Misnagdic, Yiddishist and Hebraist, Zionist and assimilationist, Russian and Polish, Romanian and Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Galician, even Karaite and Rabbinite (p.ix)

What I think is particularly valuable is that for the first time, with the exception of the problematic Life is With People, due attention is paid to typical, everyday Jews; those who did not belong to some movement, those who did not espouse some ideology, those who were not great religious figures, those who were not politically active; those who neither studied in Yeshiva nor in gymnasium. I am speaking of Jews who were generally religiously observant, but not formalist; mildly, but not ideologically Zionist; relatively poor; who learned how to be Jewish more by watching and listening and less by reading; those whose Jewishness was taken for granted without elaborate theorizing or articulation. The inclusion in the YIVO Encyclopedia of the overarching conceptual category ‘Everyday Life’, with articles on such things as Life Cycle, Food and Drink, Demons, Love, Chess, Riddles, Christmas and Talk, finally affords us a serious, comprehensive entrée into the lives of most of the Eastern European Jews.

The next word in the title is ‘in’. Prepositions are notoriously difficult to translate and this is a sign that they hold much nuance of meaning. I was frankly surprised that this book speaks of Jews ‘in’ Eastern Europe and not ‘of’ Eastern Europe. On one level it is understandable. As Hundert writes:

The focus of this encyclopedia is on people and events in Eastern Europe. To include those people with roots in Eastern Europe but who made their ‘mark’ outside [of it] would overwhelm the work.(p. xiii)

Fair enough, if the Encyclopedia were to include every Israeli politician of Eastern European origin it would require a third volume. So ‘in’ was intended to exclude those whose significance was established ‘outside’ of Eastern Europe. However, that ‘in’ rankles because it seems to contradict a fundamental assertion of the new scholarship on Jewish Eastern Europe.

In the past Jewish-written Jewish history—especially of Jews in Poland and Russia—has often de-emphasized the larger geopolitical and socio-economic context, viewing Eastern European Jews as the most authentically Jewish of Jewish communities and thus only incidentally influenced by surrounding culture and society. In his famous book, Tradition and Crisis, Jacob Katz spoke of Ashkenazic Jewry from the Loire to the Dniepr as one virtually homogeneous mass. Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson characterized Poland as ‘a province of Jewish autonomy’.  When they did concern themselves with the non-Jews’ part in Jewish history, Jewish historians usually asked how the Jews were treated in Eastern Europe. They virtually never considered how the Jews viewed or behaved towards the people they lived among.

This has now changed. As expressed by Hundert in his first book, with a chapter entitled, ‘Jews and Other Poles’, Jews were not only in Eastern Europe, but they were also of it.  This assertion is a virtual article of faith of this Encyclopedia. For example, almost all of the geographic articles—Poland, Russia, Czechoslovakia, etc.—situate Jews in the geographic, demographic, political , economic, social and cultural contexts of the places they lived. The article on the Russian Empire notes, ‘This [Jewish] migration reflected not only demographic growth and the need for jobs, but also economic changes in the Russian Empire.’ (p. 1612) The article on Poland devotes more than 15 per cent of its word allotment to discussion of general Polish social, economic and political conditions.

On a different plane, the article on Relations Between Jews and Non-Jews in Eastern Europe notes:

‘Jews of the area had a strong sense of rootedness.’ (p. 1539)

The article on Economic Life states:

‘Jewish economic activity formed an integral part of the feudal economy.’(p. 444)

The article on Food and Drink speaks of a ‘symbiotic relationship’ (p. 529) between Jews and their neighbors; a metaphor that applies in other areas as well.

With regard to relations with non-Jews, this Encyclopedia points out that Jews were not only passive recipients of negative policies and actions, but that they also could benefit from hospitable and generous ones; or take advantage of lax administration and enforcement; or use political, legal and financial tools to shape policies and actions.

This Encyclopedia also reminds us that hostility was a two-way street, albeit with lanes of unequal size:

It should be emphasized that Jews reciprocated the contempt in which their religious beliefs were held by the Christians…Yet one should not equate the position of the two groups. Effectively all power was in the hands of the Christians. (p. 1538)

Given the emphasis on reciprocity and Jewish involvement, the editors’ choice to use the ‘in’ of the title to lower expectations was a trade-off which leaves the reader to discover on his own one of the main theses of the work, that Jews were not marginal to their societies and cultures, but an integral, vital part of them.

Next comes ‘Eastern Europe’. This was always an amorphous term with no precise definition. Outside of the Jewish experience, it gained currency in the nineteenth century as a shorthand way to refer to the area where the nationalisms of various Slavic peoples were on the rise. Later, it was used mainly in a political context to denote the communist bloc and much less frequently in a physical geography context. Since the fall of communism, it has largely fallen into disuse.

In Jewish terms, ‘Eastern Europe’ has proven to be a useful label with—as is the case with many commonly used concepts—an elusive definition.  Some have suggested that it is the area where Jews predominantly spoke eastern Yiddish, or the area known as eastern Ashkenaz. One suggestion is that it is the area where Hasidism flourished. My personal favorite is that Jewish Eastern Europe includes the Jews in the territories that before the late eighteenth century partitions of Poland were part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as well as the countries to which they migrated within two generations of the partitions (except for Germany).

The YIVO Encyclopedia’s definition of Jewish Eastern Europe is a negative, but also a practical, one: east of the German-speaking realm, north of the Balkans and west of the Urals. While it results in a few anomalies, this definition does cover all of the territories (with some minor additions) that by convention were part of Jewish Eastern Europe and that correspond with geographical and political boundaries that are recognizable today.

However, I am more interested in the meta-geographical connotations of the term ‘Eastern Europe’ than in its geographical denotations. By using a term which resonates today primarily in a Jewish frame of reference, Hundert and his colleagues are marking their book as presenting a Jewish perspective and declaring that perspective to be legitimate. For example, the article on the events of 1648-49 in Ukraine is called: Gzeyres Takh Vetat and not ‘The Chmielnicki Uprising’ or some other conventional non-Jewish appellation for these events. While it gives a thorough account and analysis of the political, economic, religious and social context of these events, the article is, at base, about the gzeyres, the persecutions of the Jews and how they were remembered, and not, strictly speaking, about the Uprising.

The use of the term Eastern Europe also implies that even if the Jews were of their countries of residence, they still had a recognizable identity and a repertoire of common features from which they drew no matter where in Eastern Europe they happened to be. You will probably not find the words Eastern Europe on any map, except perhaps a physical geography one (and until the communist period these Jews themselves never referred to themselves as Eastern European Jews except after they had left the area). The editors are positing, however, that there once was a realm (which in some ways continues today) called Eastern Europe with its distinctive Jewish population that developed a highly articulated Jewish civilization. This is a discrete, legitimate subject worthy of all of the research effort that this Encyclopedia culminates.

However, here and there the Encyclopedia hints at some postmodern uneasiness that this focus on the Eastern European Jewish experience might be interpreted as parochial, ethnocentric or prejudiced. In the article on Holocaust (not The Holocaust, Peter Novick forbid!) for example, we read what seems to be a semi-apology:

Because the purpose of this article is to sketch the process by which some 5.2 million Jews…met their deaths at the hands of agents or allies of the Third Reich…, the specific aspects of the encounter between the Third Reich and the Jews of Eastern Europe…will be stressed at the expense of comparative analysis. (p. 737)      

Perhaps what is most notable about the YIVO Encyclopedia is the new general tone it strikes. In place of nostalgia-tinged idealization, there is an attempt at realistic depiction and cold (or at least lukewarm)-eyed analysis and evaluation.

Modern critics have not been kind to literary and other attempts to capture the essence of Jewish life in Eastern Europe in the centuries preceding the Holocaust. The classic Yiddish and Hebrew fiction portrayals by Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Mokher Seforim, Y. L. Peretz, and S. Y. Agnon; the anthropological study by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, Life Is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl; Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Earth Is the Lord’s, a lyrical homage to ‘the inner world of the Jew in East Europe’--these and others have been trenchantly criticized for reducing the kaleidoscope variety and fractal complexity of the Jewish community in Eastern Europe to a single, simplistic concept: shtetl.

In contrast, the YIVO Encyclopedia presents the view through the kaleidoscope:

water-carriers and industrialists, luftmenshn and tailors, rabbis, crown rabbis and heretics; preachers, tavernkeepers, doctors and musicians; Hasidim, Misnaggedim, Maskilim, Kabbalists and Musarniks, Bundists and Zionists, Agudists, and socialists of various stripes; pogroms, persecutions, and privilegia; conscription into the army, indebtedness, negotiation, and taxation; synagogue, heder, heder metukan, bet midrash, kloyz, yeshiva, rabbinic courts and Hasidic court; secularized elementary schools, gymnasium, bathhouse, and mikve; autonomy, kehilla, kahal, va’ad, and mitzvah and charity havarot; politics, politicians, parties, and elections; migration, industrialization, and proletarianization; pilpul, holy tomes, and modern library; arenda, trades, moneylending, commerce, and businesses; etc. etc. etc.[i]

Whatever scholars posited as present in Jewish Eastern Europe is found in the YIVO Encyclopedia.

And what about that shtetl?

The conventional shtetl was code for ‘the golden period in Jewish history,’ ‘a transnational universal Diaspora,’ or a ‘Jerusalem-in-Exile’, ‘the Jewish Polity par excellence.’ The encoded shtetl was an unacculturated and unadulterated Yiddishland where all was authentically and quintessentially Jewish, which included high standards of morality and interpersonal decency.[ii]

The YIVO Encyclopedia takes the reified, encoded shtetl and turns it into a real place—or rather real places—in time and space. It carefully traces the origins of the shtetl in the Pre-partition Commonwealth and follows its historical transformations through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It distinguishes at least five types of shtetl by size and it makes statements like:

‘…it would be a great mistake to see the shtetl as an entirely Jewish world without gentiles’ (p. 1732); or: ‘The common stereotype of the shtetl as a harmonious community is misleading’.(p. 1735).

But while the Encyclopedia tempers the nostalgia and idealization, it also presents the Eastern European Jewish experience in an overall upbeat, positive light. The suffering and persecution are there, but the emphasis is on achievement and creativity. Perhaps emblematic of this is that three of the five articles on Holocaust deal with literary, artistic and musical creativity that grew out of this greatest of catastrophes. Moreover, the decision to extend the work chronologically until the year 2000 bespeaks a certain optimism about the resilience of Jewish Eastern Europe. The Shoah was not the absolute end; there has been something of a rebirth.

Finally, a word about the illustrations and graphic material. It is rich and abundant; sometimes it is magnificent. It gives the texts it accompanies an immediacy and a reality that the word portraits cannot typically achieve on their own. 

Whatever cavils I may have, this is a magisterial work, done with vision and diligence. Its usefulness will long outlive its creators.

Moshe Rosman
Bar-Ilan University

First published in Gal-Ed-Journal on the History and Culture of Polish Jewry. Reproduced by permission.



[i] Cf. M. Nadav, The Jews of Pinsk, 1506-1939, vol. 1 (Stanford, 2008), xxxvi-xxxvii.

[ii]Ibid., xxiii-xxiv.