Charting the Outer Provinces of Jewry: The Study of East European Jewry's Margins

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Polin Studies in Polish Jewry

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THIS CHAPTER is something of an experiment, as it attempts to apply a new and rather untraditional historiographical approach to a group that seem to resist such treatment. The last three decades have seen a huge increase in works on the socially marginal in history: people considered deviant or abnormal, including the physically and mentally disabled, the insane, vagrants and beggars, criminals, and prostitutes.1 Although most of the members of these groups were poor or destitute and often supported by the community in one way or another, 'the socially marginalized' does not embrace the poor as a class—and certainly not in late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century east European Jewry, of which poor people made up a large proportion.2 In eastern Europe, where the large and concentrated Jewish population gave rise to a diverse society that in many ways lived a separate existence, there were many of the same kinds of marginality and deviance that historians have already studied in other European contexts, national and otherwise. As the Yiddish aphorism that Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi used to fondly quote states, 'vi es kristelt zikh, azoy yidlt es zikh'—'as it goes among the Christians, so goes it too among the Jews'. Indeed, it might be argued that any Jewish community would have both centre—or indeed multiple centres—and margins and, further, that a full understanding of the internal dynamics of that community and a history of its mentalités in a given period would necessitate the study of both centre and margins.3 Tracing the historiography of this field, however, may seem like an exercise in futility, given the relatively recent origin of such subfields of social history as Alltagsgeschichte (history of everyday life), microhistory, and disability history. However, the history of the socially marginal has indeed existed within the study of east European Jewry—or, to be more precise, Polish and Russian Jewries—hidden, more often than not, in the interstices between the bibliographical entries rather than in its own section.


Published by Liverpool University Press