Review of Families, Rabbis and Education: Traditional Jewish Society in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe

by Marc B. Shapiro

Families, Rabbis and Education: Traditional Jewish Society in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe
Author: Shaul Stampfer
Publisher: Littman Library

For many years now, Shaul Stampfer has been recognized as an authority in all things dealing with nineteenth-century Jewish Eastern Europe. In his newest book we have a collection of numerous essays representing more than twenty years of his scholarship, including one essay published for the first time (The Missing Rabbis of Eastern Europe).

Stampfer’s focus is not on the purely intellectual debates between rabbinic elites. He is more interested in social history, how average people and in particular women lived. Even his discussions of rabbis emphasize such matters as inheritance of rabbinic positions and the rabbi’s role in communal life. His sources are quite broad: traditional rabbinic works as well as Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian texts and newspapers.

I could write extensively about every essay, each of which taught me a great deal. (And I never imagined an entire essay could be written on the pushke and its development.) Yet to remain within the word limit for this review, let me just mention some of Stampfer’s most important points.

People have generally assumed that marriages in Jewish Eastern Europe were very stable, with divorce being quite rare. Stampfer, however, provides evidence to demonstrate that divorce was common and not shameful. In addition to citing statistics, Stampfer refers to memoir literature that mentions divorce. Yet I do think Stampfer exaggerates the frequency of divorce. For example, one of his statistics of marriage and divorce is from the 1860s in the city of Berdichev where for every three to four marriages, there was one divorce.

He cites similar statistics for Odessa (p. 46). Stampfer goes so far as to claim “it may well be the case that there were thirty divorces for every hundred weddings in the nineteenth century” (p. 128). However, these numbers are certainly skewed for the simple reason that while marriages took place in every town, to obtain a divorce couples had to travel to a larger city where there was a bet din and scribe. Thus, divorces from any one city do not reveal a ratio of marriage to divorce. The situation is identical to what happens today. Couples get married anywhere they want, but must come to a central location for their divorce.

Stampfer also argues that, contrary to another popular stereotype, early teenage marriage was not at all common in traditional Jewish society. While it occurred among the economic and intellectual elite, and is immortalized in memoirs of the latter, early teenage marriage does not reflect the life experience of the average young Jew. Similarly, the lower class, which encompassed most Jews, did not have much use for matchmaker services, and indeed, romance was a factor in their marriages.

Tied to the points made so far is the place of women in society. Many of us are accustomed to think of traditional society as one in which men had all the power and made all the decisions, and in which the husband went out to work while the wife served as a homemaker. Yet Stampfer shows that while this perception fits in very well with contemporary “family values,” it is not how East European Jewish society functioned. Women generally worked, were involved in business ventures, and were thus “out of the home.” Unlike today, the stay-at-home wife and mother was not necessarily an ideal.

Another fact noted by Stampfer, which will no doubt be surprising to readers, is the existence of coed cheders. This is certainly not the image people have of this institution. Yet while the coed aspect is interesting, especially, as Stampfer states, “given the contemporary concern (or obsession) in certain very Orthodox Jewish circles regarding co-educational education even in elementary grades,” even more significant is what this says about education for girls (p. 169 n. 11; see also p. 32). Contrary to what many think, there were East European Jewish girls who were educated just like their brothers, and Stampfer thinks the ratio of girls to boys in cheder was approximately one to eight (p. 170).

As for education in general, while some like to imagine Eastern Europe as a place where Torah study always thrived, Stampfer notes that “one can safely conclude that by the mid-1930s there were far more young Jewish males in secondary schools than in yeshivas” (p. 272). Worthy of note is Stampfer’s point that the kollel system developed because there were no longer many rich fathers-in-law willing to support a son-in-law who was studying. In addition, he argues that the shrinking of the job market for rabbis also had a share in the development of the kollel.

As mentioned earlier, there is much more that can be said about Stampfer’s careful scholarship, which is a treat for all readers. I know many share my wish to soon see in print the English edition of his classic work on the Lithuanian yeshivot.

The original review from The Jewish Press can be found here.


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