Kiev Jewry's Temporary Triumph Over Adversity

The History of a Community That Flourished in the Face of Anti-Semitism

By Allan Nadler

Published May 25, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Kiev: Jewish Metropolis. A History, 1859-1914
By Natan M. Meir
Indiana University Press, 424 pages, $27.95

Natan Meir’s meticulous new history of Kiev Jewry in the modern period, is an assiduous work of conventional scholarship. Meir provides a thorough, lucid and ultimately heartrending account of the noble successes of Kiev’s Jews in building a solid Jewish community, with exemplary religious and charitable institutions, that included one of Europe’s most majestic synagogues and, as in Bialystok (which I review in a companion piece here), a host of medical centers that rivaled the finest in Moscow and St. Petersburg. At the same time Meir documents with great insight and empathy the relentless obstacles, frustrations and ultimately violent rejection by the Russian majority in the city, which “greeted” the Jews’ noblest efforts to integrate into the city’s larger civic society.

Considered in late Imperial Russia to be a Crown City, whose Jews were expelled by Nicholas I, they were re-admitted to Kiev, in 1859, by the far more benign Alexander II. They then rapidly became the predominant economic and social force in the city. Unlike Bialystok, however, the Jews of Kiev — a city whose Russian majority was dominated by conservative monarchists, many if not most, of whom harbored strong anti-Jewish prejudices — faced relentless hostility and repeated eruptions of violence, not least in the pogroms of 1881 and 1905. There was even a brief expulsion in the decades following Alexander’s assassination. Despite a host of legal and social obstacles, and a particularly vicious local anti-Semitism endemic to Kiev — a city whose most prominent public monument is a statue of the murderous Bogdan Chmielnitsky — Jews persevered, creating what Meir, dubs a “civic society”, that consisted in an array of educational and social networks and institutions.

The many restrictions on Jewish life and culture imposed upon the Jews of Kiev, and the relentless rise of an increasingly oppressive environment of anti-Semitism that reached its depth in the early decades of the twentieth century, did not, however, prevent Jews from the surrounding shtetls from migrating to Kiev. Despite the ban on Yiddish or Hebrew publications, theatre and newspapers, Kiev Jews managed produce a remarkably rich cultural legacy, whose laboratories were the many social institutions under whose private auspices they managed to circumvent these many legal obstacles. As in Bialystok, there emerged in Kiev a powerful Jewish industrial elite who controlled the city’s most lucrative industry: sugar production. The city’s Jewish “Barons,” most notably the Brodsky and Rothschild families, built great institutions that provided the structure for a strong community, despite all the odds. These buildings can still be seen in Kiev today, and although no longer serving their original purpose remain among the city’s finest edifices.

As Meir reports, the Yiddish daily, Haynt, in a series of articles in 1910, aptly named “The Truth About Kiev” summed up the remarkable strength of character that allowed Kiev to become such an important Jewish community in the worst period of late Imperial Russia. Despite pogroms and expulsion, and every manner of cultural and economic discrimination, Haynt’s editors observed that it was the only Imperial city to which the impoverished Jews of the Pale had access, and where they stood a chance at self-improvement:

Kiev is where merchandise is bought and sold; the seat of the district court and all of the government bureaus that almost everyone has need of…. Kiev is where you find a good Jewish lawyer, and where you go when you are sick….

Meir is at his very finest when he delves deeply into the complex relationships between those Jewish aristocrats, who labored nobly to navigate the stormy waters of Imperial Russian politics from within the structures of power, and the rising class of Jewish revolutionaries from among Kiev Jewry’s hoi polloi — from Bundists to radical Zionists who, increasingly after the 1905 pogroms sought the government’s overthrow.

The only frustration with his terrific book is that Meir chooses to conclude his narrative with the dawn of the First World War, which is to say, the effective end of Tsarist Russian history. Given the book’s many virtues, a work which is in every respect a model of how civic history ought to be written, one ends hopes that Meir will produce a follow-up volume on Kiev’s Jewish history during the early Soviet period, when the Jewish population reached its height, and produced an impressive if entirely secularized Yiddish culture and literature.

Allan Nadler, a frequent contributor to the Forward, is professor of religion and director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.