No. 19/2000 - 10. October 2000

Elsebeth Paikin
The editorial staff:
Mario Kampel - Lori Miller

Groping Toward the Modern

By Dara Pearlman

Book Review:


by David E. Fishman.
New York University Press, 1995

Sometimes, when the stars are properly aligned, innovators gather and inspire each other, and produce a cultural ferment that later observers dub a "golden age" of art or literature or science. Think of 15th century Florence. Think of 16th century London. Think of 18th century Shklov.


Yes indeed, Shklov!

While admittedly not in the same league as Florence and London, this market town in the Mogilev province of the Russian Empire (modern day Belarus), did enjoy its own golden age in the years 1772-1812, which David E. Fishman documents in his book, "Russia's First Modern Jews: The Jews of Shklov".

Fishman, now an Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department for Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, begins with the necessary background. Shklov, he tells us, was a relatively minor outpost of the Jewish cultural world until the first partition of Poland (August 1772) made it a part of the Russian Empire. Together with the other towns of Mogilev and Polotsk provinces, Shklov now had to make its way independent of the centers of Jewish life in Vilna and other cities to the west.

Shklov's status as a border town on the trade route between Poland and Russia gave impetus to commerce, while at the same time it became part of the estate of Major-General Count Semion Gavrilovich Zorich (1745-99), one of Empress Catherine's former favorites. To console himself from his exile from court, Zorich attempted to replicate the high society of St. Petersburg in his new estate in the provinces. Within short order, he was holding elaborate entertainments at his castle, and the Shklov town square, home to the synagogue and Yeshiva, also boasted a high class boarding school for local aristocrats. Not far away, Zorich established a theater, home to professional caliber ballet and opera companies.

With the stimulus of Zorich's spending, the town economy flourished, giving rise to a class of Jewish merchants who began to travel widely across Europe and imitate the life style of the aristocrats, as far as they were able. Some of this merchant class supported scholars who in turn began to take the first steps toward the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, that would burst into full flower a generation later.

In Fishman's tale of the vibrant cultural world that was briefly Shklov's, he tells us about rabbis and merchant princes, Hasidim and their opponents, scholars and writers. We meet Nathan (Nota) Notkin, one of Zorich's main contractors, who went on to become the first Jew to live openly in St. Petersburg, despite the laws prohibiting Jewish residence in the capital. Notkin served on government committees, where he proposed enlightened educational and economic policies and attempted unsuccessfully to get the government to repeal anti-Jewish legislation.

Among the scholars that Fishman introduces us to is Naftali Hirtz Schulman, an education reformer, who worked as a private teacher in Shklov in the late 1790s. Here he began his literary career by editing and publishing a new edition of Mikveh Yisra'el, a Hebrew book first published in Amsterdam in the 1600s, which describes the discovery of the ten lost tribes of Israel among the Indians of North America. At first blush, this might seem like an unremarkable choice for a reformer, another standard piece of pious religious literature. But the book's religious theme masked Schulman's secular didactic intent. In addition to the news about the lost tribes, the book also includes detailed information about the geography and peoples of the New World, topics virtually unknown among Schulman's Jewish audience.

And indeed, Fishman notes, the book became a "literary sensation," partly for its content and partly for its citations from many gentile authors and discoverers, as well as rabbinical sources. This was part of Schulman's subtle but unmistakable argument that Jews need to learn from Gentiles' advances in knowledge.

In Fishman's pages we follow Schulman's career, and learn about the ideas and efforts of other early westernizers who worked and wrote in Shklov.

In the end, Shklov's decline was as swift as its rise. The second and third partitions of Poland moved Russia's frontier farther west, and ended Shklov's role as a border town controlling trade routes. Count Zorich died, and his estate was liquidated to pay his debts. The boarding school, theater and ballet school disappeared. And in a burst of religious enthusiasm, Shklov's religious elite picked up and moved to the land of Israel. Napoleon's invasion in 1812 only provided the final blow. Shklov was once again a provincial backwater.

Knowledge of the great golden ages of western Europe is part of the mental furniture of anyone who has completed a high school world history course. And now, thanks to David Fishman, we know about the golden age of Shklov as well.

For anyone interested in the history of the Jews of eastern Europe, it's a period well worth visiting.

Copyright © 2000 Belarus SIG and Dara Pearlman

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