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Village Jews in the 19th Century Minsk Gubernya through a Genealogical Lens

Throughout the 19th century, village Jews (“yeshuvnikes”, in Yiddish) constituted a significant segment of the Jewish population living in the Pale of Settlement. Their total numbers have not been established with any precision. However, estimates for the beginning of the 19th century range from anywhere between a quarter and a third, if not more, of the overall Jewish population, with considerable variations dependent on time and geographical location.

Scant research has been done into this large segment of Jews, in comparison with the more abundant work done on Jews living in the towns (shtetliche yiden). The reason is clear. The histories of Jewish communities in the Pale naturally deal with large communities that left records and that were home to well-known figures, both religious and secular. Against that, the yeshuvnikes were very ordinary people, generally not members of any élite, whether rabbinical or intellectual, commercial or communal. They resided in considerable isolation, forming a scattered and largely anonymous mass, living in overwhelmingly non-Jewish environments and constituting an ongoing element of concern for the Russian authorities at the time – but seldom drawing the attentions of contemporary scholars.

Nonetheless, the village Jews should not be overlooked. They merit serious attention and beg basic questions. What were their real numbers? Since they were often just two or three Jewish families living among vastly larger numbers of Christians (Roman Catholics or Russian Orthodox, or both), how did they maintain a distinctive Jewish way of life? What languages did they speak? What were their relations on the local nobility and/or landowners, on whom they were heavily dependent for patronage and protection? How did they interact with the non-Jewish majority? In what ways were they similar to town Jews and how did they differ? How did the processes of urbanization, increased mobility and eventually mass migration affect them?

In October 2012, IIJG launched a 3-year research project into this topic, to be conducted by Dr. Yehudit Kalik of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In more formal terms, this project will have three principal foci, each relating to aspects of Jewish genealogy – namely, demographic, behavioral and migration. It will seek to test prevailing academic theories in each of these areas with specific reference to village Jews. It will measure more accurately the numbers of these Jew and their proportion within the overall Jewish population. It will focus on the family structure of the village Jews and dynamic changes therein. In so doing, it will illuminate contrasting aspects between the lives and lifestyles of yeshuvnikes and those of urban Jews, who may be considered the village Jews’ immediate reference group. And it will throw light on the process of mobility both locally, regionally and internationally, among village Jews during a critical period in Eastern European Jewish history.

Click here for Dr. Kalik’s research proposal on the subject.

Click here for an article on this study, as published in AVOTAYNU, XXIX, 2 (Summer 2013), pp. 47-49.

Click here for a paper on this study, as delivered at the 16th Congress of the World Union of Jewish Studies (Jerusalem, July 2013).

Click here for an article by Neville Lamdan, “Village Jews in Imperial Russia’s Nineteenth-Century Minsk Governorate Viewed through a Genealogical Lens”, first published in National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 99 (June 2011), 133-44; and posted here with the editor’s permission.