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The Schmooze

Almost Contemporary Kiev

There are Orthodox Jews versus secular Jews; accusations that wealthy philanthropists are trying to control Jewish organizations staffed by overworked, underpaid communal professionals; charges that certain Jewish institutions are sucking up the lion’s share of communal funds, leaving others to languish. Sound familiar? Something like New York, or any other large American Jewish community, in the 21st century? Yet these phrases could just as accurately describe the Jewish community of czarist Kiev, as I’ll explain in a lecture at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research on May 24.

Kiev was formally opened to Jewish settlement in only 1859, but its Jewish population grew by leaps and bounds in the following decades, despite continued czarist legislation restricting Jewish residence and cultural and religious activities. By the turn of the century it had a wide array of Jewish welfare and communal institutions, as well as a chorus of critics who, dissatisfied with the way the community was run, demanded a revolution. In this, Kiev was typical of many Jewish communities in the Russian Empire, where a new Jewish leadership — often inspired by ideologies such as Zionism and Bundism — was in the ascendant, but had to struggle with an entrenched establishment.

This story of leadership and institutions is a fascinating one, but so are the lives of everyday people: the tens of thousands of Jews who came to Kiev seeking a better life, some sort of livelihood (whether as a clerk, an artisan, a market trader, or an agent at the commodities exchange), a diploma from a gymnasium or a university, or just the bright lights of the big city. In Kiev they might find things they had never seen in the shtetl: high culture in the form of Russian theater and opera; opportunities to broaden the mind at the free lending library; clubs where Russians, Ukrainians and Jews mingled and interacted; a multi-acre Jewish Hospital complex comprising dozens of buildings and equipped with the very latest in European medical technology.

Sadly, they would also find nightly police round-ups for illegal Jews, who were marched out of the city in shackles; blatantly anti-Semitic activists and organizations; bloody pogroms in 1881 and 1905 (and several near-pogroms in the years after 1905); and, in the very last years of czarism, a blood libel trial called the Beilis Affair that put Kiev on the front pages of the newspapers for months on end, not only in Russia, but the world over.

So, although czarist Kiev might seem to bear some resemblance to Jewish communities we know, it is in many ways quite different. And thank God for that.

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