[Pages 279–298]

The Jews of Bessarabia from their arrival
to the end of the 19th century


By Eliahu Feldman

Translated by Ala Gamulka

Edited by Toby Bird

A. Before 1812

  1. The area known as Bessarabia lies in south–east Europe, on the northern shores of the Black Sea, between Russia and Romania. The Dniester separates Bessarabia from Ukraine on the east and the Prut River borders it with Moldova (Romania) on the west. The area of Bessarabia encompasses 45,600 square kilometers.

    Bessarabia was never an autonomous political unit. Towards the end of the 14th century the princes of Moldova extended their rule. Soon it became an independent kingdom. By the first quarter of the 15th century the whole area was inside the kingdom. In the 15–18th centuries many parts of Bessarabia fell into the hands of the Turks. They turned these parts into a Raya, i.e. under direct Turkish rule. The Turks brought Tatar tribes from Crimea to the southern section, nicknamed Budgeak, and so it became part of the kingdom of the Khan. By the end of the 18th century the area along the Black Sea was under direct rule of the Turks. This area extended from the Danube to the Dniester and included the forts of Reni, Ismail, Kilia and Akkerman as well as the District of Bendery (Tighina) in the south east and Khotin in the north. The Budgeak was part of the Tatar kingdom of Crimea, under the Sultan. The central and the north central sections, as well the sliver along the Prut in the south, remained in the hands of the Moldovans. This part was divided into the Districts of Soroka, Iasi, Orgeyev (Orhei), Hoternicheni, Codru and Gratchani. At that time only the southern area, the Budgeak, was called Bessarabia.

    Bessarabia lay between rival entities and it served, at times, as the arena for wars between them. Finally, it was annexed by Russia according to the Bucharest Pact, in 1812.

    In addition, due to its geographic location as a neighbor of Moldova, during the 14th–17th centuries, Bessarabia was an important factor in the commerce between cities in southern Poland and ports of the Black Sea, Turkey and Asian countries. From the 14th century, trade routes went through it connecting Lvov in Galicia with the ports of Kaffa in the Crimea and Akkerman and Kilia in Bessarabia. The importance of Bessarabia as a trade route between Galicia and eastern countries did not diminish even after the Black Sea ports were in the hands of the Turks in the last quarter of the 16th century.

    In Jewish–Romanian literature we find the explanation that Jews lived in southern Bessarabia and maybe in the north even in the times of the Romans, in Dacia, in the 1st century. This is based on unsubstantiated theories. However, there may be more proof that there was a Jewish community in Akkerman– Cetatea Alba in Romanian– now Belgorod –Dnestrovskiy. The towns of Bessarabia are mentioned in a report, prepared by the Russian authorities in the 19th century (also accepted in Jewish literature), of names existing in the 13th–14th centuries. This theory is based on a biography of a Christian martyr called the “new” John who was killed by the Tatars in Akkerman around 1300. In the story there is mention of a Jewish community in existence in Akkerman at the time. Although this is most likely a fable, written about 60–70 years later, it is possible that it contains some actual historic value.

    The first hints of the presence of Jews in Bessarabia are connected to the above mentioned trade between Poland and the Black Sea ports. This trade attracted some Jewish merchants who were quite active at the end of the 15th century. Actual testimony that these Jewish merchants used the route along Moldova only appears in the second half of the 15th century. There are documents that attest to the fact that in the years 1467–1479 there were 3 Jewish Sephardi merchants from Istanbul who were actively involved in trade between Lvov and Turkey. These merchants had assistants and agents and visited Moldova and Khotin on their way to and from Lvov.

    During the 16th century there is more frequent news of Jewish merchants coming to the area. By the last quarter of the century there are tales about groups of Jewish merchants from Turkey who stopped on their way to Lvov along the trade route. They visited Reni and Kilia in the south and Khotin in the north. At the same time there are stories about the arrival of Jewish merchants from Poland. Some of them were on their way south and others came to fairs and markets to do business. The first notices of the arrival of Jewish merchants from Poland in Bessarabia appear in 1541. However, from the language of these notices it seems that there had been such visits prior to that date. The testimonials about these travellers were found in books kept by the Rabbis and important judges in Poland at the time– R. Yoel Sirkis, R. Binyamin, son of Avraham, Selenik, R. Meir, son of Gedalya, from Lublin.

    One of these books relates that in 1591 there was a Jewish community in Akkerman with a rabbi and judges. The fact that these positions existed is proof that the community was there even prior to that year. Indeed, there are signs that point to a Jewish community – or perhaps only a Karaite one– in Akkerman, already in the middle or even the beginning of the 16th century. Information is available that in those days there were Karaite sages in Akkerman. One was Caleb Tarano who copied a large book on Good Deeds, called the Garden of Eden in 1531. It had been written by R. Aaron, son of Eliahu, Nicomedia. Another was R. Shlomo Ramati who approved the book of Judah by Yehuda Poky, son of Eliezer Chalabi (published in 1581). It is estimated that at that time the Karaite sage, R. Caleb Afendopoulo and his brother Shmuel, sons of Eliahu Ramati, were there as well. There may have been Jewish communities in the 16th century in two other southern towns – Kaushany and Kilia. In Kaushany there was an ancient Jewish cemetery which contained headstones from the 16th century while in Kilia there is mention of Jews in 1545. It is possible that there were Jewish settlements in the center and north of Bessarabia. It was probably in Khotin which was an important customs center and the main stop on the trade route between Poland and Moldova. There is no proof of this. The first Jewish settlements in the center of the province and in its north were established, most probably, in the 17th century. They came as a result of the frequent visits by Jewish merchants from Poland who sometimes settled in Bessarabia. More Jewish settlements were established as a result of the edict of 1641 when refugees came from Ukraine and found shelter in Bessarabia. A traveler who passed through Soroki in 1657 describes the city as being “filled with Jews”. Some of these Jews were refugees from Ukraine and Poland who escaped the Cossacks.

    In the 18th century Jews could be found in almost all urban areas in Bessarabia. According to information available, it can be concluded that most of these communities were settled by Jews in the second half of the 17th century and the first half of the 18th. There were some communities, like Balti and Teleneshti who were only settled at the end of the 18th century. In some cases, Jews were brought by landowners in order to develop their estates into urban areas. These were Balti and Panzireni. There was also settlement of Jews in rural areas where they were agents for land leases following the custom of nearby Ukraine. According to the tax lists in Moldova in 1803 there were Jews in villages in the Moldovan territory. Many of them resided in northern districts such as Soroki and Orgeyev and very few were in the south.

  2. When Bessarabia was annexed by Russia there were about 20,000 Jews representing 4% of the population, About 60% of them settled in urban areas and the remaining 40% stayed in rural ones. As a rule, there was one Jewish family in each village. Even the urban areas did not have many Jews. There are 14 urban areas where information is available, and of those, 7 had a few hundred Jews, 4 had 500–1,000 and 3 had 1,000–2,000. Only Kishinev had 2,000 Jews. However, it must be noted that even the non–Jewish community in these urban areas was not large. Therefore, the percentage of Jews in urban areas was about 35–40%. In the north the percentage was higher – 40–45%. There were few Jews in the south, sometimes only 5–6% of the total.

    About 2/3 of the Jews of Bessarabia were centered in the 3 northern districts (Khotin, Soroki, Iasi) which were close to the veteran, densely populated Jewish settlements of Poland. There were less Jews as one went further south. In the 4 southern districts (Bendery, Codru, Izmail and Gratchani) lived 13% of the total number of Jews. This distribution of the Jewish population of Bessarabia indicates its origins and the direction in which it developed and grew. The Jewish population in Bessarabia was a continuation of the larger population in Poland. The largest number of Jews originating in Poland settled in areas close to the border where the economic and social conditions were similar. In addition, the areas where the Jews settled were the largest population–wise in Bessarabia. These 3 northern districts represented 51.1% of the total population of Bessarabia while the 4 southern one had only 18.4%.

    As in nearby Poland and Ukraine, the Jews in the Moldovan rural areas of Bessarabia earned their living by land lease and the sale of liquor. All information available points to the important place these businesses had in the Jewish economy in the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. The Jews leased, from estate owners, flour mills, fruit orchards, fishing rights, bridges over rivers. There were some Jews who leased entire estates and thus obtained all privileges associated with ownership of these estates: rental income from housing, percentage of produce, flour mills, fishing rights, permits to sell liquor. Only the priests in the churches on these estates were exempt from paying rent and giving produce. This custom of renting bridges on the Dniester to Jews was so rampant among all estate owners that in 1741 the Governor of Soroki asked the prince to forbid it. The excuse was that he could not promise the security of the border. In towns, the Jews mainly dealt in commerce. However, they were not the only ones thus engaged. There were Greek and Armenian merchants working alongside them. Commerce was mainly in agricultural products or items needed by the farmers such as: cattle, oil, wheat, salt, fish, trees, fruit, wine, boots, etc. Most of the commerce was designated for internal markets and was concentrated in fairs in other towns. There were also Jewish merchants who dealt in larger spheres, some even were exporters. The customs ledgers in the border stations attest to the busy activities of the Jews. They imported fish, coffee, thread, perfume, pelts and wine and spirits from Ukraine and Poland. An important side to the trade was exporting cattle, horses and other animals. At the beginning of the 19th century there were Jews in Bessarabia who became quite wealthy. After the Russians came in 1806, there were Jews who supplied the new rulers.

    Although we do not have specific information, the Jews of Bessarabia were also craftsmen. There was always a need for craftsmen connected to religious aspects such as butchers, bakers, tailors (Shatnaz regulations). It is a fact that in 1727 there were Jewish butcher stores in Soroki and they must have existed in other places. However, it seems that the number of Jewish craftsmen in Bessarabia, at least until the middle of the 18th century, was quite small. This was also the situation in the rest of Moldova. The Prince of Moldova, Dumitru Cantemir, writes in his essay “Description of Moldavia”, written in 1716, that the Jews of the princedom deal in commerce and running inns. He does not mention craftsmanship. The number of craftsmen in Moldova, and in Bessarabia, began to grow in the second half of the 18th century. The proof of this lies in the regulation of the Hevra Kaddisha in several towns in the princedom that states that in the event that a member dies, it is forbidden for “the tailors and other craftsmen in the organization” to work until the funeral is over. This regulation was published by the Hevra Kaddisha in Kishinev in the year 1772 and the one in Teleneshti (founded in the year 1793). Another source of information about the Jewish craftsmen of Moldova lies in the description by foreign visitors who spent time in those years in the princedom. The same must be true of the Jews of Bessarabia. The French count D'Hauterive, secretary of the Moldovan prince Alexandru Mavrocordat in 1785–1787, describes Moldova in 1785 as having many Jewish carpenters, tailors and watchmakers. In the ledgers of Prince Gregori Calimaki from 1763–1764 there is mention of a Jewish watchmaker from Orgeyev.

    From a legal point of view, the Jews of Bessarabia were under the rule of Moldovan princes. At the beginning of the 19th century the situation was as follows:

    1. They could reside wherever they wished in towns or villages within the princedom.
    2. Every community was an independent unit paying the authorities a tax on behalf of all its members. The Jews were thus exempt from other payments. The community collected the taxes within its boundaries without the intervention of the authorities. Privileges were awarded by the princes to each community.
    3. The Jews of Moldova were organized in a corporation (breastia in Romanian i.e. guild or professional unit). This was true of all middle class urban groups and foreigners who were permanent residents in Moldova. As did other corporations, the Jewish corporation enjoyed a good standing with the authorities as well as judicial and administrative autonomy. Much of the administrative and judicial powers were in the hands of the chief Rabbi of the princedom. The Haham Bashi was empowered to manage the corporation according to customs of the Jewish faith and to judge cases between Jews. Any cases that dealt with the chief clerk of the state, i.e. vel–camaras, were not under his jurisdiction. The Haham also had the right to appoint rabbis and secular leaders in all parts of the princedom. He was permitted to levy taxes from the Jewish community and he had representatives in villages that did it in his name.
    4. The lives and properties of the Jewish residents were protected by the authorities in the same way as was done for the others.
    5. Jews were free to deal in commerce, retail and wholesale, and practice various crafts.
    6. They could own houses and stores in the towns, but they could not have estates, vineyards or other property in rural areas.
    7. They were not permitted to lease estates, but they could sell liquor in the villages.
    8. Synagogues could only be built with wood at a certain distance from Christian churches. A special permit from the prince had to be obtained. The building could not be different from other buildings nearby.
    9. Beginning in 1841 Jews could not hire Christian children or maids younger than 30.
    10. Jews could not testify against Christians. They were to be sworn in by a special oath.
    11. Various regulations, mainly canonical in nature, were devised to have as little as possible contact between Jews and Christians and to avoid religious libel.
    In spite of these regulations, the Jews of Bessarabia were, as were also the Jews of Moldova, subject to the good graces of the princes and were dependent on them. In 1726 the Jews of Onishcani (no longer in existence) were victims of a blood libel which allowed the prince to collect a large sum of money from them. In some cases the princes made arrangements which gave the Jews the same privileges as other local residents when it came to tax collection. This happened in 1741/42 in Kishinev. The Jews had decent relations with the local authorities in the 18th century and worked together with other residents for their mutual benefit. They took part, together with their Christian neighbors, in discussions about citizens' rights and they were also united in their struggle against the owners of the city.

    There are no specific details about the legal situation of the Jews in areas ruled directly by the Turks. It can be presumed that it was similar to the situation of Jews in other Turkish areas: they were allowed to practice their religion, but they were under the jurisdiction of the local authorities.

    The Jewish communities in Bessarabia were organized in the same way as other communities. However, they were under the direct control of the Rabbi Bashi from Iasi. As everywhere else, the Meat Tax was collected by special permission from the prince. There were religious courts where Jewish law was followed. As well, there were other organizations similar to those in other Jewish communities, such as the Hevra Kaddisha. The ledger of the Bendery Hevra Kaddisha from the year 1793 is now located in the National Library and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There are also such ledgers from Kishinev (Hevra Kaddisha founded in the year 1773) and Teleneshti (founded in the year 1793). Upon reading them it is obvious that these organizations were founded along the same lines to similar ones in Moldova. There are even some clauses only found in Moldova. These constitutions indicate that the treasurer had double duties. In case there is no quorum for an election meeting, the treasurer would continue in his position for another year. Certain members could appoint themselves as treasurer and there were regulations as to proper conduct at meetings, suitable clothing to be worn and speaking in turn, no infighting, etc. In the Bendery book there is specific instruction on the position of the beadle (Shamash) and the fact that it not permissible to turn to Christian neighbors for help when there is a difference of opinion among the members. Only Jewish law was to be followed. There were also exact rules about the setup of the organization, elections, new members, tasks to be assigned. All this was quite similar to regulations of any Hevra Kaddisha in other parts of Eastern Europe.

    In those days there were no centers for learning Torah or circles of sages in Bessarabia. There were no famous rabbis in the 17th and 18th centuries, but there were teachers and judges in the communities of Bessarabia. In the last quarter of the 18th century R. Yehuda Leib Margaliot spent some time in Khotin. He was a very interesting personality. An excellent orator and preacher, he was one of the first members of the Enlightenment movement. He wrote several books, but he did not work as a rabbi. In the early years of the 19th century famous rabbis were to be found in Bessarabia. They were learned and stood out in late 18th and early 19th centuries. In Soroki, in the early 1800s, there was Rabbi David Shlomo, son of Avigdor, Eibshitz. He was well–known for his books which were quite popular. A few years later the chief rabbi of Kishinev was R. Haim, son of Shlomo, Tiror. He was also called R. Haim from Czernowitz or R. Haim from Mogilev. His books, “A Well of Fresh Water”, “Shabbat Siddur”, and “Gates of Prayer” were reprinted many times. He only stayed a short time in Kishinev, in the years 1810–1812. Since there were no leading commentators in Kishinev the residents used to send him questions even before his arrival. There is a discussion by R. Zvi Hirsh Kara from Buczacz which refers to a question posed to R. Haim in the case of a woman who could not receive a divorce. When R. Haim left Kishinev he was replaced by R. Arieh Leibush from Lantzot. He was known for his essays “The Discourse of Esther”, “The Wall of Ariel”, “The Courage of Lions”. In the early years of the century Rabbi Yitzhak Rabinovitch was chief Rabbi of Bendery. He was learned and an expert in Halakha. He was the chief Rabbi in Odessa in 1809.

    In those days the Jews of Bessarabia were mostly influenced intellectually in the same way as Jews in other places. Kabala was spreading in Galicia, Podolia and Moldova and it also reached the Jewish communities in Bessarabia. It is said that in the middle of the 18th century a famous Kabalist, R. Yitzhak, son of Yaakov, Ashkenazi, and brother of R. Moshe from Ivia, resided in Balti. The essay “Covenant of the World” is attributed to him. There is no actual proof for this fact.

    In the middle of the 18th century the movement led by Yaakov Frank spread in the villages of Podolia, on the border of Bessarabia. The movement also reached Bessarabia. Frank himself and his followers found refuge in Bessarabia. Khotin plays an important part in this tale since it was close to the villages where Frank's followers resided and also because the town was under the authority of the Turks. The number of Jews in Bessarabia who followed Frank is unknown, but it must have been considerable. Another group that left quite an impression on the Jews of Bessarabia in the 1760s was a sect of converts from Russia. These people, numbering a few dozen, were accepted in Khotin as true converts and this small community had to send emissaries to Germany to collect funds for their upkeep.

    These spiritual and religious influences helped pave the way for Hassidism in Bessarabia. The beginnings are unclear and there is no data on this movement in the second half of the 18th century. There were Hassidic centers in Podolia and Volyn at the time and they must have made some headway in Bessarabia as well. In the beginning of the 19th century there are clear signs that there were Hassidim in Bessarabia. In the years 1810–1830 there were important rabbis in communities in Bessarabia. These were R. David Shlomo, son of Avigdor, Eibshitz in Soroki, R. Haim, son of Shlomo, Tiror in Czernowitz, R. Arieh Leibush in Lantzot and Kishinev. They were followers of the Hassidic movement. The Rabbi of Khotin at the time, R. Moshe Eliezer, son of Aaron, was also a Hassid.


B. In the middle of the 19th century
  1. In the years 1812–1858 the number of Jews in Bessarabia grew from 20,000 to about 84,696. In 45 years the Jewish population quadrupled. This large increase in the number of Jews in the Province reflects immigration for two reasons. One was the growth of population due to the settlement that took place in the first half of the 19th century with the encouragement of the Russian authorities. The Russian regime was interested in populating the province especially in areas with few people such as the south. The Budgeak was almost unpopulated in 1812. Different people were given privileges to resettle on government lands. In addition, there were many settlers who came on their own because of economic conditions in Bessarabia in the first half of the 19th century.

    The colonization, organized or free, of the province and its economic development drew many immigrants and allowed for quick population growth in the first half of the 19th century. In 1812–1861 the population doubled, while in the rest of Russia, in 1815–1857, the increase was only 39%. The population density was 7 per square meter, 19 in 1842 and 27 in 1856. Jewish immigration was an integral part of this trend. The rate of its growth was even greater than that of the general population and so their percentage increased as well– from 4% in 1812 to 8.3% in 1858.

    On the other hand, Jewish immigration to Bessarabia was part of the large movement of Jewish immigration from the northern districts in the first half of the 19th century. These areas were densely populated by Jews and they were moving southward. The southern areas were sparsely populated at the time and were undergoing an accelerated colonization process, independently and freely. They were also going through great economic development. The new Russia was a developing area and there were many economic opportunities in the state.

    News about these economic opportunities reached the Jewish population of Lithuania, White Russia and Ukraine, as well. These countries were in dire economic straits. Some of the rumors were exaggerated. An example is the tale about the wealth awaiting anyone who arrives in the south. The rumors awakened a strong desire among the Jews in the west to immigrate. A parade of Jews came to the south, mainly from Lithuania and White Russia and it encompassed thousands of people.

    After 1812 Bessarabia also became a refuge for Jews from the north and some of them settled there. Soon Bessarabia became an important absorption center for this internal Jewish immigration. The Jewish community grew at a quick pace and, as a result, its relative importance in the general Jewish community of Russia grew from 2.9% in 1818 to 5.5% in 1852.

    Immigration did not change the geographic distribution of the Jewish population in the province. Most of the Jewish settlers were drawn to the northern densely populated areas and only a few reached the south. The majority of Jews resided in Khotin, Soroki and Iasi even in the middle of the century. They represented approximately half of the Jewish population of the province. Still, the south was settled by Jews with the wave of immigration and from several hundred families in the beginning of the century there was an increase to over 13,000 people.

    One of the best results of the Jewish immigration was the concentration of Jews in the capital city of Kishinev. It became a large urban center with 80,000 residents and it attracted many immigrants. In 1864, 20% of all the Jews lived there– about 20,000 of them. Kishinev became one of the 3 or 4 large communities population–wise. The establishment of this important center played a large part in the development of the Jewish community in Bessarabia.

    A typical occurrence in the Jewish colonization was that those who did not settle in Kishinev did not go to other urban areas, but went to villages and small towns. They played an important part in the development of these places. As a result, at least 50% of the Jewish population lived in villages and small towns. The southern towns also grew in the number of Jews settling there. The northern towns increased many–fold, as well. In 1864, the towns, aside from Kishinev, held 24% of the Jewish population. In all cities, aside from Kishinev and Khotin, the Jewish population grew at a greater rate than that of the non–Jewish one. The role of the Jews in the cities grew as well. In mid–century, the Jews in Soroki and Orgeyev represented 70% of the population. As a result of the Jewish settlement in cities they became centers of large urban populations. In the years 1830–1850, 24% of the entire population resided in cities. This was a high percentage and made Bessarabia the 5th among all provinces in Russia.

  2. The Jewish immigrants from the north were drawn to Bessarabia not only for the good economic conditions prevalent in the province, but also for political ones. After Bessarabia was annexed by Russia the legal situation of the Jews of Bessarabia was defined by the Regulations for the Organization of Bessarabia of 1818. It set out legal and administrative conditions and regulations for the next 10 years (until 1828). Jews were awarded basic rights (they had them under the Moldovans), the privilege of residing anywhere in the province, permission to work and do business everywhere. The Jews now had, as did other Jews in Russia, permission to join occupational associations. These were merchants, urban residents or farm workers. In this way the Jews of Bessarabia were integrated into the existing administrative economic and social levels. They were now permitted to own unpopulated state land. They did not have these rights under the Moldovan regime.

    An important point to note is that the new regulations did not speak of the jurisdiction of the community already in existence in Russia, on Jewish legal matters. In 1804 there was “Jewish legislation” in Russia which outlined the legal situation of the Jews. In spite of what was stated in this legislation, Jews in Bessarabia could still lease land and sell alcoholic beverages in the villages. The Jews of Bessarabia were thus not in danger of being exiled from the villages, unlike the rest of the Jews of Russia. They could reside in the villages and continue their business there. The Jews of Bessarabia, in spite of being part of Russia, had a unique legal situation. They were exempt from any legal changes since Bessarabia was given a special autonomy in 1818. They were not subject to the administrative rule of the Empire. The Jews of Bessarabia benefitted from this fact.

    The Jews of Bessarabia remained outside the legislation pertaining to the rest of the Jewish population of Russia at least until 1828. That year, the autonomy of the province decreased considerably. A new “Jewish legislation” was announced in 1835. However, until 1827, the Jews of Bessarabia could live wherever they wished and were able to work as they wanted. They were not subject to the regulation of 1804 preventing Jews from settling in rural areas and doing business there. They also were not obliged to stay in an area within 50 viorsts of the western border as decreed in 1825. In 1827 the difference between the Jews of Bessarabia and the rest of the Jews of Russia became more basic since the former did not have to serve in the army as did the latter. In this manner the Jews of Bessarabia had first class privileges that differentiated them from their brethren in the rest of the country.

    When the New Jewish Regulations were proclaimed in 1835 there was a significant difference in the legal stance of the Jews of Bessarabia. These regulations even touched those Bessarabian Jews who had moved to other parts of the Empire and they could no longer remain outside the laws that regulated the lives of the rest of the Jews in Russia. However, the two privileges that the Jews of Bessarabia had – permission to live outside the border restriction and not having to serve in the army – remained in practice for some time after the New Regulations came into being.

    The permission to live away from border restriction was not revoked for the Jews of Bessarabia for 4 years – until 1839 while army service did not affect them for more years. In 1846 the first steps to enforce conscription were taken, but the actual regulations were not really enforced until 1852. In that year the Jews of Bessarabia were taken into the army to do work. This is when the situation of the Jews of Bessarabia became equal to that of the rest of the Jews of Russia.

  3. The main reasons for Jewish immigration to Bessarabia were the good economic conditions which had developed there after 1812. These conditions made for easier absorption of the new settlers. As happened in the southern areas of Russia in the first half of the 19th century, Bessarabia also had a developing agricultural market which followed distinct capitalist lines. At first the market was based on working leased lands (there really were no actual farmers in Bessarabia) and it eventually was the venue for export. Bessarabia and other provinces became the main wheat export markets from Russia to other countries in Europe. In mid–century 90% of all wheat exports from Russia were sent from southern ports. This development opened many opportunities for Jews who came to Bessarabia. They integrated well into the economic structure of the area and were instrumental in exporting farm produce. The farms remained an important economic factor in Jewish economy in the province. The Jews provided loans to the farmers and they also managed the sales of their produce. They still continued in their traditional professions of land leasers and spirits sellers. These activities were all inter–connected.

    Not only did the Jews play an important role in the sales of agricultural produce, but there is proof that they were also in critical positions in all trade activities in the province. The majority of the Jews were small merchants, grocers and peddlers and served as a liaison between the farmers and the more important merchants. They facilitated the sales of produce and they also provided the farmers with all their needs. Only a small percentage – 3%– of the Jewish population dealt in the higher stages of commerce and they were also members of the guilds. According to two sources dealing with the 1850s, the Jews amounted to 50% of all merchants registered in the guilds. However, the first two guilds – those of the important merchants and exporters– had only about 33% of the members as Jews.

    This situation was a result of the economic conditions developed in Bessarabia after its annexation by Russia. These conditions created a situation where many non–Jews were also drawn to urban livelihoods. In Bessarabia, there were always important non–Jewish merchants, mainly Greeks and Armenians. As a result the Jewish merchants always had competition from them.

    The situation in Bessarabia was different from that in the northwestern provinces where Jews constituted a large majority of the merchant class. It was more similar to the situation in the southern areas of the new Russia where the Jews were a higher percentage of the two first guilds. In those cases the areas were in the process of colonization and economic development.

    From the point of view of the percentage of Jews in the guilds the situation in Bessarabia was different from that in the northwestern areas and more similar to that of the southern districts of the new Russia. Although the percentage was small in Bessarabia and in the new Russia areas, it was still higher than in the northwestern districts. This fact is an indication that the economic situation of the Jews of Bessarabia was better than their brethren in the other areas. The market was alive and dynamic, an economy that was developing and providing many opportunities for the Jewish population. The Jewish population in Bessarabia, together with that of the southern districts, was sound and well–founded from an economic point of view.

    The authorities encouraged the movement of Jews into agriculture and provided those doing so with special privileges– the “Jewish Regulations of 1835”. It also included exemption from army service. In Bessarabia, between 1836 and 1850, 17 Jewish agricultural settlements were established. They were mostly all situated in the northern areas: one in Khotin, 9 in Soroki, 2 in Iasi, 2 in Kishinev and one in Bendery.

    The Jewish agricultural settlement in Bessarabia was conducted differently than in other parts of new Russia where there were many settlements. The Jewish settlers in Bessarabia were not placed by the authorities on land owned by the state nor did they receive housing, utensils, work animals or any other help. They actually settled on land bought or leased by them, with their own money, from private estate owners and they also had to purchase all they needed. Therefore, the Jewish agricultural settlement in Bessarabia was a private enterprise. Thus, the Jewish settlers in Bessarabia were not subject to strict supervision by the authorities and the government clerks who tried to have them become successful and productive farmers. Punishment for lack of success was often exile to Siberia. This was true for Jewish settlers in other parts of new Russia. All conditions were far better in Bessarabia. Even the climate and quality of land were superior. Settlers came from neighboring Podolia or from Bessarabia and did not have to travel far to reach their destinations. In contrast, the settlers in new Russia came from Lithuania, White Russia and other Baltic areas. The plots of land bought or leased by the settlers in Bessarabia were smaller than those in new Russia.

    In spite of these better conditions the settlers in Jewish farming still encountered major difficulties, as did those who farmed in new Russia. Visitors who came to the Jewish agricultural settlements in mid–19th century tell about the fields that were not being worked and that many settlers did not even do any farming. All the negative issues that plagued Jewish agricultural settlements everywhere else existed in Bessarabia as well.

    There were Jews in Bessarabia who farmed in villages and small towns even outside of the settlements. Growing tobacco was quite popular – in 1864 the Jews of Bessarabia grew it in 26.8% of the province and in 1866 the percentage was up to 62.

    The number of Jewish farmers grew at a quick pace and represented a considerably large part of the Jewish population. In 1839 there were 695 Jewish farmers and in 1858 in 16 agricultural settlements in the province (one settlement had been abandoned) there were 10,589 Jewish farmers. In 1839 farmers represented 3% of the Jewish population and by 1858 they constituted 12.5% of it. Bessarabia became a very important agricultural center within the Jewish population of Russia.

  4. In the first half of the 19th century there were no educational institutions in Bessarabia dedicated to teaching Torah to young students. The three previously mentioned Rabbis (R. D. Sh. Eibshitz, R. Haim Tiror from Czernowitz and R. A. L. from Lantzot) who were in Bessarabia at the beginning of the century did have some students, but they did not build permanent institutions for the teaching of Torah. Even in the second quarter of the 19th century there was no rabbi who was famous for his knowledge of Halacha. The only rabbi who stands out at that time is R. Yeshayahu, son of R. Moshe, Shore. He was the author of the book “Splendor of the Torah” and served as a rabbi in Khotin in the 1840s and 1850s. He later moved to Iasi. Still, there were some good candidates from these students who became rabbis in some congregations in Moldova and Walachia.

    The main aspect in the cultural and religious life of the Jews of Bessarabia was the Hassidism that had found its home there, mainly due to the many immigrants that arrived in the province at the time. They had come from areas where Hassidism existed. In the 1820s the first Hassidic courtyard was founded in Bessarabia when R. Arieh Leib Wertheim, son of Shimon Shlomo from Savrani and brother of R. Moshe Zvi from Savrani came to Bendery. He established a dynasty of the house of Wertheim in Bessarabia. Another dynasty which belongs to Bessarabia was the one from Rashkov, on the eastern banks of the Dniester which is actually outside the borders of Bessarabia. This dynasty began at the beginning of the 19th century or perhaps even at the end of the 18th. It was founded by R. Shabtai (a student of the Maggid from Morich and author of the book “Ascendance of the Worlds”). It was actually his son, R. Yosef who was famous in Bessarabia. In the second quarter of the 19th century we find R. Israel from Rozhin who settled in Sadigura in Bucovina in 1840.

    In the 1830s we find the first data on the existence of enlightened people in the province. They were few in number and did not have any influence on the Jewish masses. However, in 1839 they succeeded in opening a secular Jewish school in Kishinev. Up to then there was only such a school in Odessa. The opening of these schools was quite ahead of other important and veteran Jewish centers. It was Betzalel Stern, principal of the Odessa school, who was influential in helping to found the school in Kishinev. The governor of new Russia, Count Mikhail Vorontozov, helped to establish the school. At first, the Jewish population was not welcoming to the school and it could not draw many students.

    When the government decided in the 1840s to open public Jewish schools, many such schools came into being in Bessarabia. The Kishinev school was closed and two public schools were opened in its place. In 1855 there were 6 Jewish public schools in Bessarabia (2 in Kishinev, one in Khotin and 1 in Balti, Bricheni and Izmail each). The schools had 13 teachers and 188 students.



    A Seller of Rolls and Bagels in Bessarabia

    A Jewish Farmer in a colony in Bessarabia

    A Shoemaker

    Jewish Shepherds near Tighina

    A Water Carrier in Bessarabia

    Jewish Shepherds near Tighina

    Vineyard Workers in the Colony of Petrovka, Tighina District

    The school in Kishinev, as well as the public schools there and in other parts of the province fulfilled the same purpose as they did elsewhere. They became centers for the enlightenment movement. Hundreds of young students obtained a secular education in these schools.

    Enlightenment came to the Jews of Bessarabia in other ways also – through secular literature (Epicurean). In addition to the public Jewish schools there were now private secular institutions with many students. Slowly the enlightenment movement succeeded in Bessarabia. A new group of intellectuals arose. They had a good general education and even an academic one. They abandoned the traditional Jewish ways and became part of the general community.

    The advancement of the enlightenment movement in Bessarabia was closely connected to economic and cultural changes taking place there at the time. The number of important Jewish merchants grew. Their numbers were relatively high in Bessarabia and they were interested in a secular education for themselves and their children. It was needed for their business and for their social standing. Indeed, the enlightenment movement grew at a faster pace among these merchants than in other social strata of the population. The result was that their children attended the public Jewish schools.

    Another cause that held an important place in the advancement of the enlightenment among the Jews of Bessarabia was the influence of the cultural Jewish center in Odessa.

    Still, in spite of its rapid advancement, the enlightenment movement in Bessarabia in mid19th century held only a small position in the Jewish community. The majority of the Jews in Bessarabia continued to live according to traditional lines and to educate their children as before. They opposed secular education and did not trust the public Jewish schools. They saw these new schools as a punishment by the government similar to army service. They believed the Jewish youth would be forced to convert. Every family did what it could to “save” its children from the conversion in the schools. This fact was also true in smaller towns and villages. The main center of enlightenment was in Kishinev where there was a large Jewish population and where conditions were ripe for the new development. Indeed, among the 172 students in the public Jewish schools in Bessarabia in 1858/59, about 46% or 79 individuals studied in Kishinev. Many were children of merchants registered in the guilds. There were many of these merchants in Kishinev and they were instrumental in the enlightenment movement. However, the majority of the Jews of Bessarabia did not live in Kishinev, but in towns and villages where the time was not ripe for enlightenment. These were mainly people who did not stand out in their depth of learning or higher intelligence. They felt closer to their Moldovan neighbors and were simple Jews, uneducated and unsophisticated. Enlightenment texts were actually forbidden in these places.


C. Second half of the 19th century
  1. During the second half of the 19th century the Jews of Bessarabia continued to develop along the same lines as in the first half. The Jewish community in the Province continued to increase during the second half of the 19th century. As evidenced by the census in Russia of 1897, there were 228,528 Jews in Bessarabia in that year. In the 39 years between 1858 and 1897 the number of Jews there increased 169.8%, or an average of 4.35% per year. The growth rate was not uniform during that time. In 1858–1881 the number of Jews in Bessarabia grew 98%, or 4.26 per year. However, in 1881–1897 there was only 36.2% increase, or 2.2% per year. These numbers indicate that in 1858–1881 Bessarabia continued to absorb Jewish immigrants from the northwest. After 1881 the pace of immigration slowed and there was even immigration out of the Province. Bessarabia at that time was an area that received and lost Jews. However, it must be noted that the rate of growth of the Jewish community of Bessarabia was still one of the highest. The number of Jews in Bessarabia increased from a rate of 5.47% in 1858 to that of 6.38% in 1897. In the second half of the century non–Jewish immigration to Bessarabia decreased and that was one of the reasons for the growth of the Jewish community. As a result, the growth of the Jewish community in Bessarabia was higher than that of the general population. The percentage of Jews in 1858 was 8.3% while in 1897 it was 11.8%. This increase in the number of Jews brought about a higher population density. By early 20th century Bessarabia was one of the most populated Provinces. In 1905 there were 57.4 residents per square meter and Bessarabia stood 9th out of the 50 Provinces in Russia.

    The Jewish population growth in the second half of the 19th century was evident even in areas that already had a larger number of Jews, i.e. Kishinev, Khotin, Soroki and Iasi (changed in 1897 to Balti). At the end of the 19th century, therefore, the majority of Jews resided in Kishinev District – 25% of the total Jewish population. Half of the Jewish population resided in the four districts mentioned above. These were also highly populated areas, in general. Kishinev District in 1903 had 94.2 per square meter; Khotin District had 99.3, Soroki District– 61.6 and Balti District – 48.7. In contrast the 3 southern districts had 17.9% of the population in 1897 with densities of 44.2 in Akkerman, 40.7 in Bendery and only 38.5 in Izmail.

    The division of the Jewish population of Bessarabia according to the types of settlement they resided in did not change in the second half of the 19th century. 22% (50,237) people) of the Jews of Bessarabia were still centered in Kishinev, the capital. In 1897 it was the third community size–wise in Bessarabia. In the 6 district towns, Khotin, Soroki, Balti, Orgeyev, Bendery and Akkerman there were, in 1897, 23.9% (51,759 people) of the Jews of the Province as against 24% in 1864. The Jewish residents of towns – excluding Kishinev – were still in the minority. The population was still spread in small towns and villages. 72.8% of the Jewish population of the 4 northern districts– where 60% of the entire Jewish population resided – lived in small towns and villages. These statistics reflect the slowdown in development of cities in the second half of the 19th century. Except for Kishinev, the towns remained small settlements with less than 20,000 residents in 1897. This phenomenon was evidenced in the fact that the urban population was only 17.6% of the entire population in the second half of the century

    The 118,873 Jews of Bessarabia who did not live in cities were divided half and half in small towns and villages: 60,657 or 26.5% of all the Jews of the province resided in small towns and 58,216 or 25.5% of them were in the villages. The percentage of Jews in Bessarabia living in small towns in 1897 was low in comparison to other northwestern provinces. This situation was similar to that of other provinces in the New Russia. However, the percentage of Jews in all rural areas was greater in Bessarabia than in other provinces. It reached 55.7% and even up to 70–90% in some small towns. The percentage of Jews in villages in Bessarabia was one of the highest. This indicates a concentration of rural Jewish population. It was also a very dense population – 3.8% of the total rural population. This was a high percentage.

  2. In the second half of the 19th century the Jews of Bessarabia were under the same legal regulations as others in Russia. There was no difference between the Jews of Bessarabia and those in other areas of the country. Still, there were some local aspects in legal matters that were a result of the different situation in the Province.

    A special importance for the Jews of Bessarabia was the prohibition of residing near the border. There were two reasons: A. the border was an odd line so that two–thirds of the area was included in the prohibited area. B. The political and territorial results from the Treaty of Paris (1856) and the Treaty of Berlin (1878) changed the borders twice.

    The Treaty of Paris awarded parts of southern Bessarabia to Romania so that large areas of the province, including Kishinev, became part of the prohibited areas. The Jewish population was in danger of being expelled. However, such mass expulsion would have destroyed the economy of the province. This was the reason for changing the regulations governing the Jews. On 27.10.1858 a new regulation was published which allowed the Jews to remain in the border area. They had to have been permanent residents in this area or they could have been property owners there. New Jewish residents could not settle in the prohibited area.

    The results of the regulations meant no new Jewish immigration. However, the Jews continued to arrive with the tacit agreement of the authorities. They were always in danger of expulsion. In the second half of the 19th century, occasionally, some families, or entire communities were expelled.

    The worst expulsion order was the one published in 1869 when the police was ordered to expel– in a short few weeks– all those Jews who could not prove their right to reside there. As a result of these regulations, which also included Kishinev, about 20,000 people were due to be expelled. This regulation created headlines in western and central Europe as well as the United States. Great Britain and the United States tried to intervene with the government of Russia to help the Jews due to be expelled. Even Austria discussed the matter of Jews who were Austrian citizens and who were residing in the area. There were no positive results for these interventions, but the authorities rescinded their orders because it was too difficult to implement them. It was decreed that only the Jews who were in that area on 29 May 1870 could remain. However, Jews continued to arrive. The authorities attempted to expel them. The situation worsened after southern Bessarabia was annexed by Russia in 1878 and the question of the right to reside in this area arose. The authorities continued to try to expel the Jews from this area, especially after Alexander III became the Tsar. The pursuit did not abate even after 21 June 1895 when those Jews who had resided there when the regulations were published were permitted to stay. The Jewish press at the time was full of news about the expulsion of Jews from the border area. Individual Jews, as well as whole groups, were expelled. Even those who actually had permission to reside there were still expelled for various reasons. The Jews suffered greatly because of these expulsions until the regulations were repealed in 1904.

    Beginning in 1882 the Jews of Bessarabia also suffered from the persecution by the authorities of Jews residing in rural areas that were forbidden to them because of the temporary regulations announced on May 3, 1882. This regulation hurt many Jews since many of them did reside in rural settlements. Although the regulations were meant to stop new Jewish settlers from coming to these areas, they were still abused by the administration and used to expel even Jews who had permission to reside there. The governor of Bessarabia in 1903/04, Prince Urusov, attested to the fact that the administration really wished to cleanse the rural areas of Jews. There was a deliberate campaign to oust the Jews and to deny them the right to reside in these rural areas. The police and government clerks employed many excuses and ruses to accomplish their purpose. They would rename veteran residents as new settlers either by an artificial change in the border between town and country or by allowing rural authorities to expel any residents they did not want. It was sufficient for any two farmers to decide about expulsions. According to an article in Hatzfira in 1882 which discusses the expulsion of 4 Jewish families from the village of Plakhtyev near Akkerman, the authorities even invented reasons to circumvent decisions by the Senate which favored the expelled Jews. Thousands of Jews were forced to leave their rural homes and move to urban areas. The Jewish press at the time is full of items about the expulsion of the Jews from the border areas in Bessarabia, as well as the rural areas. Reality of life was stronger than any regulations and many Jews sought ways to remain in their rural areas. Urusov's testimony speaks of the many Jews who remained in these rural areas under the pretense of temporary stay. However, these Jews were beholden to the local policemen and clerks for their status.

    Although the Jews tried in many ways to stop the anti–Jewish bent of the administration, these years remain marked by the endless expulsions from border and rural areas. These events became a regular part of the lives of the Jews in Bessarabia and caused great instability among them for many years.

    The legal position of about 6,000 Jews in southern Bessarabia –annexed by Romania according to the Treaty of Paris of 1856 –was similar to that of Jews in the rest of Romania. This meant that for 22 years, until the annexed area was returned to Russia in 1878, the Jews of this area (New Bessarabia) had the status of foreigners who had no civil rights. As was the case with all Jews in Romania, these new residents did not have economic freedom and could not live in rural areas or own real estate there. They also could not lease land or manage taverns and inns in these areas. They were subject to expulsion from rural areas or even from the state itself. This regulation only applied to Jews. They also could not practice any profession permitted to Romanian citizens, i.e., practicing law, dispensing medications, etc. The Jews of New Bessarabia also suffered from persecution by the population and local authorities. In 1864 there was an attempt at blood libel and in 1869 the citizens of Bolgrod attempted to expel Jewish residents from there. In 1872 there were serious pogroms in Izmail, Cahul, and Vlikov. They were a reaction when there was a rumor that a Jew from Izmail, actually a convert to Christianity from Russia, stole money and religious items from the local church. When he was caught he was convinced to implicate some Jews from the town, including the Rabbi and a community leader, saying they had sent him to steal the religious items in order to desecrate them. These Jews were arrested, tortured until they confessed and then sent to trial. The behavior of the authorities caused strong reactions among Jews and non–Jews in western countries. Jewish organizations were then involved and protests were made to the Romanian government. One of the leaders of the protests was the American Consul, a Jew called Benjamin Franklin Peichoto. There was a demand to free those arrested and to punish the pogrom leaders. These demands actually led to the release of the arrested Jews, even though they had been found guilty in court.

    When the area was returned to Russia questions of the legal standing of the Jews arose. Many Jews did not pledge allegiance to Russia within 3 years as required by law. They were considered as foreigners and the Russian authorities began to deport them to Romania. However, the Romanians did not think of them as citizens and returned the deportees. This was their fate until 1892 when the Senate decided that all residents of the area would automatically become Russian citizens as a result of the annexation. This was the case for all Jews who were able to prove that they were residents before the annexation.

    The wave of pogroms that inundated southern Russia in 1881–1884 bypassed Bessarabia. The exception was a dispute between a group of hooligans and Jewish butchers in Kishinev that occurred on April 20, 1881. It did not develop into serious problems. Still, the bitter anti–Semitic atmosphere in Russia during the reign of Alexander III and Nikolai II affected Bessarabia as well. There is proof that the administrative branch of the province was quite anti–Semitic– including the police and government clerks. This administrative branch had a special system for harassing the Jews. Prince Urusov called it “a work of art”. Even the Church showed hatred of the Jews and there was a general rampant anti–Semitic atmosphere in the entire population. This prepared the ground for the bloody pogrom in Kishinev during Pessach of 1903.

  3. The economy of Bessarabia during the second half of the 19th century was developing along capitalistic lines and there was great activity everywhere. Bessarabia was even ahead of other provinces in Russia in that respect. The growth seen in the agricultural sector continued to be the basis for the economy of the province.

    The farming areas increased considerably and there were new methods used on the estates, such as machinery. This resulted in a great growth in the amount of produce. At the beginning of the 20th century the average production of wheat, in Bessarabia, was almost double of that of the rest of Russia. In addition, trade in agricultural products increased and this fact affected other areas and other countries due to exports. Wheat export from Bessarabia in the years 1860–1901 increased eight–fold and the amount of exports through Odessa grew from 14.6% in 1865 to 43.4% in 1901. There was also great development in manufacturing and industry. In the 30 years between 1870 and 1900 the number of machines grew five–fold and the production increased six–fold. The general increase in production in the years 1854–1903 multiplied nine times. In commerce, the number of stores in different fields quadrupled in the years 1870–1899 and the average output per store, in the years 1861–1900, grew two and–a–half times. The amount of money at the disposal of the shopkeepers also almost quadrupled. This capitalistic state of the growing economy was also evident in the amount of loans available. There were different banks and loan associations that were quite active. The Municipal Bank of Kishinev, in the years 1874–1899, increased six–fold and its balance grew seven times.

    All these developments put their stamp on the economic activities of the Jews in Bessarabia in the second half of the 19th century. Jews held an important position in all economic endeavors in the province and they were crucial in the capitalization of the economy of Bessarabia. They helped to develop the agricultural sections as owners or leasers (3.9% of all private lands in the province were owned by Jews by the end of the 19th century and 5.7% were leased by them). All this is spite of the prohibition – “Temporary Regulations”. Jews leased thousands of Disiatins of land. Jews were also prominent in the growth of special crops that would bring in a good income such as vineyards, fruit orchards and tobacco. According to statistics, 60.4% of all tobacco growers were Jews and they worked 52.2% of the land; 92.3% of all those who worked in tobacco fields were Jews– in 1888. A farming settlement developed by the Jewish Colonization Association in Soroki employed new methods for the growth of fruit. Urusov highly praises the settlement. The Jews really stood out in the trade of agricultural products: 95.8% of all wheat merchants, traders in leather and furs were Jews in 1897. During that period Jews were the main, almost the sole, traders in agricultural products. Jews were also instrumental in other branches: 90.5% of all merchants in lumber and construction materials, 89% of those who dealt in clothing and textiles. The Jews were actually the majority of income earners in commerce in Bessarabia – 81.2%. They also were in the majority–67.6%– of those who were members of the guilds.

    There were many Jews who were craftsmen. Although they were not in the majority – 39% of the total were Jews at the end of the century. In some areas the percentage of Jews was considerably higher: 87.1% of all workers in the tobacco industry, 81.2% of the watchmakers, 72.6% of those producing beverages, and 56.3% of those in the clothing industry. However, in some areas there were very few Jews: 17.4% of metal workers, 16.5% of construction workers and 15.8% of those employed in quarries and ceramics.

    The Jews were also involved in the development of industry in Bessarabia: 28.1% of all factories at the end of the century were owned by Jews and in some sections they were all owned by them. Jews owned all factories producing bricks, wine, soap and 2/3 of the ones manufacturing farm machinery, 7 out of 12 of the sawmills. Jews were among the founders of the biggest manufacturing plants in the province. Two of three of the largest flour mills in Bessarabia and other large plants were owned by Jews. One of the largest sawmills, owned by Jews, employed more than 200 workers in 1895 and the products were exported outside of Russia. Also, Jews owned important factories producing farm machinery and other utensils. The electricity grid was also built by Jews.

    Data on the professional make–up of the Jewish community of Bessarabia at the end of the 19th is found in the census of 1897. It indicates that two–fifths (39.5%) of the Jews of Bessarabia dealt in commerce – the most popular occupation among them. The majority were small business owners and only 2362 Jews belonged to the guilds which catered to the biggest merchants. Half of them – 51.1% – resided in Kishinev, the large commercial center and the most important one in the province. In 1901, 62.4% of commerce in Bessarabia took place in the cities. 706 of the Jews registered in the guilds resided in other towns and 448 were in small towns and villages.

    At the center of Jewish trade stood agricultural production which occupied about a half of all Jewish merchants in Bessarabia. About one fifth of the population (22.32%) earned their living that way. Many were small merchants who bought produce from the farmers and sold it to bigger businesses in villages and small towns.

    Other branches of commerce in Bessarabia did not have as many Jews. The important ones were the commerce in textiles and clothing, lumber and construction materials, leather and furs. Only 7% of the Jews of the province worked in these areas and of those, half were in the textile industry. Only 0.7% of the Jews were grocers and 0.6% dealt in items needed in the home. On the other hand, 5,346 Jews (2.34%) were agents and a larger number– 16,345 Jews (7.16%) were in business, in general.

    The authorities persecuted the rural Jews who were mainly involved in taverns and there was a considerable decrease in their numbers as a result. In 1897 there were 2,796 Jews who made their living selling alcoholic beverages (1.22%). In addition, there were 2,374 other Jews (1.04%) who managed taverns and inns.

    The second method of earning a living for the Jews of Bessarabia was as craftsmen: 61,167 (26.81%). There were various occupations among the Jews of Bessarabia which were typical of Jews in other areas. The clothing industry had 28,051 Jews (12.29%) and other branches of the textile industry had 1,961 Jews (0.86%). There were also 5,781(2.53%) workers in leather and furs. It seems that one sixth of the Jewish population was included in this field.

    The food industry was also quite popular among the Jewish residents and by the end of the 19th century there were 6,287 (2.75%) Jews involved. In addition, 675 Jews earned their living by producing alcoholic beverages.

    A few Jews also worked in the lumber industry, metalwork and construction. There were a total of 13,064 (5.72%) Jews, 6,550 were in lumber. Other occupations–1,181 were bathhouse attendants, barbers and launderers, 1,030 worked in the tobacco industry, 849 were in printing and paper production, 632 produced jewellery and 552 were watchmakers and opticians. There were some who worked in sawmills, quarries, chemical products, wagon making, etc.

    It must be noted that by the end of the 19th century there were many teachers– 8,307 (2.99%). This was a much needed occupation.

    Many Jews also worked in transportation – 8,334 (3.65%) people. Wagon driving (7,388) was a popular occupation among Jews in Eastern Europe.

    There were about 20,000 Jews who were clerks or workers in private industry (8.9%). An additional 10,858 (3.91%) earned their living from real estate and by help from their relatives.

    The free occupations, except for teaching, still included only a few Jews at the end of the 19th century in Bessarabia. There were only 1,712 Jews who were lawyers, scientists, authors, artists and medical workers.

    At the end of the 19th century in Bessarabia there were many Jews who worked in agriculture. In 1897 there were 16,247 (7.12%) who earned their living in this area. There were then 6 Jewish agricultural settlements comprising 1,494 families (7,782 people). Only 536 families owned land– in total 2,942 Disiatin; an additional 2,989 Disiatins were leased. There were 204 families working the land and 268 other families who were agricultural laborers. The main reason for the low number of families who earned their living from working the land was the fact that the fields used in these settlements were quite small and there was a lack of work animals and tools.

    Thousands of Jews worked in agriculture outside of these settlements. Many of them grew special produce where the income was higher: vineyards, fruit orchards, dairy and especially tobacco (very popular among the Jews). At the end of the 19th century there were about 1,000 Jews growing tobacco on an area of 1,400 Disiatin mainly in the districts of Khotin, Soroki and Orgeyev. About 600 Jews owned vineyards in the Kishinev and Orgeyev districts and 500 others, mainly in Khotin district, grew fruit and vegetables. There were 364 Jews who had dairy farms. The Jews were drawn to these branches mainly for the good income margin. They were involved in all phases of production and marketing.

    In many cases the trade in these agricultural products also involved the Jews in their growth either on their own or as workers on purchased or leased land. At times there was no difference between production and marketing. Sometimes the merchants would buy the fruit while still on the trees and they did the picking themselves. Many Jews worked entire estates with various agricultural branches as owners or as lessors, but the produce belonged to them.

    There were Jews who were day laborers on Jewish or Christian estates. The laborers lived in towns or villages, mainly in the north. They were usually hired in large groups during the harvest season. The estate owners said that these Jewish laborers kept up with the farmers or the Christian workers who also came to work from other areas in Bessarabia.

    The occupational make–up of the Jews of Bessarabia was similar to that of their brethren in other parts of Russia. There were some differences:

    1. There were a larger number of agricultural workers in Bessarabia as compared to other areas. This was true even in the second half of the 19th century.
    2. There were more merchants than agricultural workers. A total of 39.5% of the Jews in other provinces dealt in business either as agents, sellers of liquor, managers of inns and hotels, while, in Bessarabia, it came to 44.1% at the end of the 19th century. There were only a total of 26.81% of the Jews working as craftsmen. This indicates that the number of merchants was double that of the number of craftsmen. In other areas the numbers of these groups were almost even. In Bessarabia, commerce occupied first place, while the opposite was true in other provinces.
    This situation resulted from economic growth in Bessarabia and the rest of New Russia. There was a quick and intensive development of the agricultural sector based on capitalism with the products being immediately directed to wholesale and retail markets. This created a growth in commerce.

    Until the 1880s the Jews of Bessarabia enjoyed the good conditions that had been created due to the quick economic growth and the various opportunities available. They did not suffer from difficulties that existed for the Jews in northwestern areas. There is much evidence of the stable economic situation of the Jews of Bessarabia at the time. As had been true in the first half of the century, so it was in the second half, that the Jews of Bessarabia were better off economically and lived in better conditions than their brethren in White Russia, Lithuania and Western Ukraine. One resident of that time even referred to Bessarabia as “Paradise” in comparison to other countries.

    This situation began to change in the 1880s. There were two reasons. One was the growing anti–Semitism of the authorities in the days of Tsars Alexander III and Nikolai II which had dire effects on the Jewish population in Bessarabia. The frequent expulsions of Jews from the border area and the villages undermined the economic existence of thousands of families who were obliged to leave without any belongings. They moved to towns and cities which were densely populated and where it was difficult to earn a living. This resulted in a struggle for survival on economic grounds for many levels in the Jewish population.

    The second reason for the major changes in the economic situation of the Jews was the general economic depression in Russia in those years. The depression was mainly agrarian–based since it resulted from the breakdown in wheat prices on world markets. It was especially harsh in Russia, including Bessarabia. There had been many people who earned their living in the marketing of agricultural products.

    The economic situation of the Jews of Bessarabia worsened by the end of the 19th century The Jewish press of those days published many articles from various settlements in the province that described the impoverished Jewish population. “Prices are rising and the numbers of the poor are growing – they have no food”. This was written from a village in 1895. Another village is described in 1890 as “...the poverty among the Jews has reached frightening levels”. The correspondent adds, perhaps an exaggeration, “People are dying of hunger”.

    Another result of the continuing rise in poverty in the last twenty years of the 19th century is the growth in the numbers of those needing assistance. In 1894–1898 the number of Jewish families requiring help at Passover grew by 42%. The pace of poverty among the Jews in Bessarabia was one of the highest in all areas.

    The expulsions and the deteriorating economic situation pushed the Jews to immigrate. Although statistics do not exist, articles in the Jewish press speak of many Jews who left for overseas. In 1893 the central committee of the Jewish Colonization Association received requests from more than 300 Jewish families from Bessarabia to help them leave Russia. The main destination was the United States, but others went to Canada and other countries. When the Baron De Hirsch proposed his plan to resettle Russian Jews in Argentina, Bessarabia became one of the central places for organizing this move. Groups of Jews, each consisting of dozens of families were centered in different parts of the province. There were two groups of 200 people each in Kishinev in 1891. The Baron even sent their representatives to Argentina to choose locations for their resettlement. In the end the groups did not go. Members of groups pressured the secretary of the central committee of the Jewish Colonization Association, David Feinberg, to approve their immigration and to expedite their move from Russia. Most of those who did go to Argentina left at the beginning of the proceedings. However, 6 of the 9 groups organized by David Feinberg to go to Argentina came from different areas in Bessarabia. Some left on their own without waiting for the formal permission. Many people who wanted to go to Argentina had been expelled from their homes in villages and border areas. Some had money and others wanted to work the land. The latter had been chosen by Feinberg as being suitable for farming. There were several hundred families sent to Argentina by Feinberg. However, there are no specific statistics as to how many Jews from Bessarabia actually went to Argentina. It is clear that in the second half of the 1890s the wave of immigration to Argentina decreased. The reasons were the cessation of activities by the Jewish Colonization Association and information received from Argentina about negative conditions there.

    Some of those who wanted to immigrate went to Eretz Israel. There were settlements in Bessarabia preparing those who wished to make Aliyah.

  4. The basic lives of the Jews of Bessarabia did not really change during the second half of the 19th century. The Jews continued to live along traditional lines, following their religious rules and educating their children. They were not open to innovations. It was only towards the end of the century that changes began to appear and to take root within the population.

    A central place in the lives of the Jews of Bessarabia was the Hassidic movement which was in control. Members of several dynasties were evident in Bessarabia. An important place is given to the Friedman family from Sadigura, headed by Rabbi Yitzhak from Bahush and the Twersky family from Czernowitz, led by R. David from Talne. All reminiscences by people of that generation attest to the influence and control of the Jews of Bessarabia in the 1870s and 1880s by these Hassidim. Emissaries of these Hassidim roamed the villages and towns of Bessarabia collecting money for the upkeep of their courts. They were always well received. When the leader himself came for a visit, it was a festive occasion for the residents. Different settlements vied for the opportunity of receiving them and having the honor of having them as guests. This attitude was true not only in small towns and villages, but in larger cities as well. Kishinev was nicknamed “Nest of Hassidism” in the 1870s. When the famous cantor Pinhas Minkovsky came to serve in one of the synagogues there, he had to be in touch with one of the ruling Hassidim. All members of the community had to be followers– from simple women to wealthy merchants. All of them had to come to the Hassidic courts to ask for blessings and to make requests, accompanied by monetary compensation. There were so many dynasties and Hassidim that the Jews of Bessarabia, and those of other areas, had difficulty following them and many quarrels ensued.

    In spite of the progress in secular general education, the Heder, House of Study and Yeshiva remained the main institutions in the Jewish educational network even at the end of the 19th century. In 1898/99, in 16 settlements in the province, there were 56,853 Jews including 8,126 school–age children. In those settlements there were 219 private Heders (4,539 students), 8 public Talmud Torahs (410 students). This means there was one private Heder for every 259 Jewish residents, or per 37 school–age children. If the Talmud Torahs are to be included, there was one Heder per 250 Jewish residents (or per 36 Jewish children). In total, 60.9% of all school–aged Jewish children in those settlements studied in Heders. Only boys studied in Heders and the statistics include girls. In essence, if only boys are included the percentage is even higher. This percentage was one of the highest in all of Russia and was actually higher than the southern areas. This indicates the need for Jews to continue traditional education even at the end of the 19th century. It is also probably true that not all Heders were included in statistics and the numbers were actually higher. It is safe to assume that every settlement, large or small, had a Heder. In 1894, according to unofficial statistics, there were, in Bessarabia, 305 Heders with 310 teachers and 6,170 students in cities and 215 Heders with 227 teachers and 4,038 students in small towns and villages.

    A different situation existed in secular schools. In 1898/99, 33 settlements in Bessarabia were researched. There were 29 settlements with at least 100 Jewish families and only in 14 were there any secular Jewish schools. In total, there were 41 secular Jewish schools including 2 government–run, 26 private, 8 advanced Heders and 5 others. These schools had 3,456 Jewish students. Of these, 240 attended government–run schools, 1407 were in private schools and 1809 went to public schools. It seems there was one secular Jewish school for every 4,343 Jewish residents. There was a large percentage of private institutions in the general Jewish school system. These schools catered mainly to girls since in those run by the government there were none. In the public schools the girls comprised less than 15% of the student body, while in the private ones they equalled 2/3 of the total. In the secular public schools the girls were only 1/3 of the entire school population. It is interesting to note that girls did not study in traditional educational institutions, but the religious establishment did not deny them secular learning which they did not want for the boys.

    The Jews of Bessarabia, especially the religious teachers, fought against the movement to widen the system of secular Jewish institutions and did their best to deny the opportunity of opening them and to close those in existence. There was even an order of excommunication against those attempting to open new schools and their teachers. Sometimes there were criminal complaints against them brought to the authorities. There was strong opposition to the secular schools.

    The great awakening among Orthodox circles in the second half of the 19th century in Lithuania which brought about the blossoming and development of great Yeshivas and the growth of the Mussar movement was not seen in Bessarabia. The only sign of initiative to deepen and widen Torah studies among the Jews of Bessarabia can be seen in the second half of the 19th century in the establishment of the Kishinev Yeshiva in 1860. This Yeshiva did not reach the standards of the famous Lithuanian Yeshivas, but it still drew students from the entire province. In 1876 there were 280 students. The Yeshiva fulfilled an important role in the dissemination of Torah and it study among the Jews of Bessarabia.

    In the second half of the 19th century there were no Rabbis famous for their scholarship and leadership, unlike those who arose at that time in other parts of Russia. The latter were political and public leaders as well as scholars. At the beginning of the 20th century such a leader did appear. He was R. Yehuda Leib Tsirelson, chief Rabbi of Kishinev from 1909. He was important in the life of the Jews of Bessarabia and Russia as well. In 1910 Rabbi Tsirelson was president of the rabbinic council. After WWI he held an important place in the lives of the Romanian Jews.

    Many Jews in Bessarabia lived in rural areas, in villages or agricultural settlements and were involved working the land and selling their products. They had close relations with the Christian farmers near them. Many of these Jews followed the lifestyle of their neighbors and their customs –housing, furniture clothing, food and language. Sometimes it was difficult to distinguish the Jews from their neighbors. The Christian community had a great influence on the Jews of the area. They seemed like Moldovans. These Jews were also not learned in Torah and were quite ignorant.

    This cultural isolation of the rural Jews in Bessarabia brought about the description of them in literature as a distinct group quite different from other Jewish communities in Russia. Authors such as Shmuel Leib Blank, Shlomo Hillelis, Isaac Rabaai and others describe the lives of these Jews as quite different. They categorize the Jews of Bessarabia as simple people who worked the land, enjoyed nature and who were not scholars. This description of the Jews of Bessarabia appears in the Mount of Vineyards by Shlomo Hillelis, “My Life” by Isaac Rabaai and the trilogy “The Desert”, “Cattle”, and “Earth” by Blank. These descriptions, although idealized, are true of the rural Jews in Bessarabia who were involved in agriculture. The Jews of Soroki who had vineyards are the heroes of the story by Shlomo Hillelis.

    In the second half of the 19th century the Jews of Bessarabia were part of the changes that affected all the Jews of Russia. The Russo–Jewish intelligentsia arose at that time. These were Jews who spoke Russian and were well–educated and who saw themselves as part of the Russian people. It was not a large group, but it was growing. The number of Jewish students in the public schools grew. In the 1870s and 1880s the number of Jewish students comprised a quarter, a third and even higher of all the high school students.

    As in the rest of Russia the reasons for this growth in Bessarabia were similar. Economic growth brought about the need to learn the Russian language and receive secular education. This meant an adoption of some non–Jewish customs. During the reign of Tsar Alexander II the Jews had more privileges and could study in secular institutions. The Army regulation of 1874 eased the lives of the Jews and allowed educated people to prosper. Also, the Hebrew press began to appear in the late 1850s.

    The members of the Jewish intelligentsia had the same desires and hopes as their friends in the rest of Russia, They believed, in the 1860s and 1870s, that the Russian people were now ready to allow citizenship to the Jews and so they were prepared to integrate into general Russian culture and to be loyal to the Russian homeland. Russification was the dominant purpose of the intelligentsia who wanted equal rights. Young Jews studied in public schools and absorbed Russian culture. They adopted the ideals of the Russian intelligentsia and thus widened the Russification process within the Jewish population.

    The pogroms of the 1880s and the reaction of the Russian population to them shook the Jewish intelligentsia of Bessarabia– as happened in the rest of Russia. Its belief that the Russian people would accept the Jews as equals and brethren was destroyed. The call to return to the Jewish people and its values was now also heard. “Lovers of Hebrew” branches were founded in various cities in order to teach the language, the history of our people and its literature. In addition, the disappointment from the possible solution to the Jewish question in Russia moved many in Bessarabia to find a radical answer to the problem by leaving and making a new life in Eretz Israel. In the early 1880s, in different places, clubs of “Lovers of Zion” were formed and these joined similar ones in other areas. They could be found in the north and in the south, in Kishinev, Khotin, Soroki, Balti, Orgeyev, Bendery and Akkerman and in smaller towns such as: Ungheni, Tatarbunari, Tarutino, Liova, Kalarash, Falesht, Sculeni, Teleneshti, etc. Some of these clubs did not last long and sometimes they were re–established. Some of them, especially in Kishinev, grew and thrived and became an important part of the entire movement in Russia. The representative of the movement in Kishinev, Meir Dizengoff, attended the Druzganok conference and brought many suggestions for the continuation of its activities. Representatives of the movement also attended the founding conference in Odessa in 1890. Later, when the movement was faltering these same representatives brought ideas for strengthening the organization and for coordination with other movements. At the end of the 1880s the Lovers of Zion from Kishinev tried to convince religious leaders to support the movement.

    Page 298 on right side

    An accounting of donations collected on Yom Kippur 1913 for the purpose of purchasing land in Eretz Israel

    The pressure of the frequent expulsions from border and rural areas brought about the need for the movement to help those who wished to make Aliyah. At first, there were various groups founded to assist their members who had some means. Some groups sent, or planned to send, emissaries to Eretz Israel to investigate the situation there. Emissaries were also sent to Baron Rothschild in Paris to ask him for help in settling in Eretz Israel. This was done in Liova. In Kalarash there were 20 families preparing for Aliyah. They were joined by 40 other families from Sculeni and Teleneshti. In Khotin there were 30 such families and in Falesht– 15. The latter were joined by 38 families from Balti and other nearby settlements. Most of the emissaries returned empty handed from the Baron. However, the emissaries from Falesht managed to obtain his help and 25 families from the movement made Aliyah in 1888. They settled in what is now Beer Tuvia. Some of these settlers did not stay because of disputes with the Baron's agents who wanted to make them into day laborers. They returned to Bessarabia.

    The change in the viewpoint of the Jewish intelligentsia also caused them to make changes in educational and social fields. They wished to improve the traditional teaching methods and the physical surroundings and founded the “Repaired Heders”. The members of Lovers of Zion had an important part in these activities. Another important reform was in the teaching of the Hebrew language. At the end of the century there were, in Bessarabia, 8 Advanced Heders. Another area which occupied the intelligentsia was occupational training so that Jewish youths would have a proper trade. At the end of the 19th century there was one occupational school for girls in Kishinev. In 1898 the school had 157 girls and 6 different sections in conjunction with public and private schools with 32 boys and 43 girls.

    The members of the intelligentsia worked hard in social assistance to broaden the services to the needy, to improve the system and to have proper public supervision. Several new social assistance institutions were founded in Bessarabia. In 1898 there were 7 offices to help the poor and they followed regulations approved by the authorities. There were also 7 general assistance institutions, 9 hospitals, 3 homes for the aged, 8 shelters, 3 soup kitchens, 16 to help the sick, 2 to help poor brides, 2 to provide clothes for the poor and 8 loan banks.

    These groups of people in Bessarabia who helped the needy– Jewish intelligentsia in the end of the 19th century– were no longer estranged from their nation. They were now deeply involved in Jewish culture and its values. These groups were the source for the development of Hebrew teachers who enriched the knowledge of the language among Jewish youths and the teaching of Jewish subjects in a modern, nationalistic way. Some of these people were Hebrew poets and writers who now earned a place of honor in the New Hebrew literature. Among them were Yaakov Steinberg, Yehuda Steinberg, Sh. Ben Zion, Shlomo Hillelis, and Yaakov Fikhman. These were the years of great growth and blossoming of Jewish cultural life in Bessarabia.



  1. Eliahu Feldman, “The History of the Jews of Bessarabia up to the end of the 19th century” in the collection: THE JEWS OF BESSARABIA, an encyclopedia of the Diaspora, Volume 11, Jerusalem, 1971, pages 1–248. (Also a special printing, Jerusalem, 1971 “ pages 237–246) ” A detailed bibliography.
  2. Israel Kloisner, “The Zionist Movement in Bessarabia”, in the above collection, pages 497–526.
  3. I. Yosef Cohen, “Publications in Hebrew and Yiddish”. Same collection, pages 917–920


Between the two wars

There have been two extensive research projects published in Hebrew on this topic:

Lavi, Theodore: The Jews of Bessarabia between the Two Wars, Diaspora Encyclopedia, Jews of Bessarabia, Jerusalem, 1971.
Vinitsky, David: Jewish Bessarabia during the period between the two world wars 1940–1944, Jerusalem, 1973.


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