Author Archives: Joellyn Zollman

About Joellyn Zollman

Joellyn Wallen Zollman holds a PhD in Jewish History from Brandeis University. She was the History and Community editor of

The Dreyfus Affair

At the end of the 19th century in France, the birthplace of European Jewish emancipation, an espionage scandal erupted involving an assimilated Jewish army captain and questions about his “loyalty” to the state. The anti-Semitism that characterized the arrest, trial, and retrial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus shocked world Jewry. Alfred Dreyfus

The Crime

In 1894, Dreyfus was arrested and accused of spying. He was convicted by a military court for supposedly selling French military secrets to the Germans. 

The physical evidence consisted of a slip of paper discovered in a German military trashcan on which was written a promise, in French, to deliver a valuable French artillery manual to the Germans. Handwriting experts could not definitively link the note to Dreyfus, but the captain was vulnerable on other accounts.

Dreyfus was rich and Jewish. He was also from Alsace, the border area of France that was ceded to Germany as a result of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71. After the area was returned to Germany, the Dreyfus family moved to Paris. The press ran stories questioning his loyalty: Was he, above all, French? German? Or part of an “international Jewish conspiracy”?

While his background made him “suspicious,” the military court hesitated to convict Dreyfus without more substantive proof. Colonel Henry, a French military intelligence agent, testified that he had additional information definitively implicating Dreyfus, but that this information involved classified military secrets and thus could not be revealed. Based on Colonel Henry’s testimony, Dreyfus was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in exile on Devil’s Island.

The Cover-up

In March of 1896, French intelligence discovered another piece of paper–in the same German office–which promised new deliveries of French military secrets. The handwriting was identical to that found on the piece of paper used in the Dreyfus case. Since Dreyfus was imprisoned on Devil’s Island at the time the second paper was discovered, he could not have authored this or the original treasonous note. This time, handwriting experts traced the writing to another officer, Walter Esterhazy, a notorious gambler.

Brother, Where Art Thou?

In contemporary Jewish life, the word “interfaith” is usually coupled with the word “marriage.” However, the history of modern interfaith relations occupies a much broader plane, concerning itself with both private and public manifestations of religious tolerance and interaction between diverse religious groups. Over the course of the 20th century, interreligious dialogue has resulted in both fear and security, reinforcement of age-old values and lessons from new experiences. 

The Interfaith Idea

The idea of interfaith dialogue and cooperation is rooted in the liberal fabric of modernity. The same modern, liberal philosophies that led to Jewish emancipation (civil rights) encouraged religious tolerance. If all citizens were to be equal before the law, as modern western governments decreed, then the state could and must support a diversity of beliefs and opinions. How diverse citizens interacted with each other and the state varied across time and place.

The Interfaith Movement

America in the 1920s proved the time and place for the beginning of the interfaith movement. This may seem incongruous to those students of American history who remember the intense isolationism and nativism that characterized America in the 1920s. The decade after World War I saw the passage the 1924 immigration act that severely limited access to the United States, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the publication and dissemination by Henry Ford of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery that alleged world Jewish conspiracy.

And yet the 1920s were also the “age of goodwill.” A sizeable number of American religious leaders judged the intolerance advocated by the KKK and others as un-American and un-Christian. In addition, WWI stimulated a sense of religious fraternity, as soldiers (and chaplains) of different faiths worked and fought side by side. Finally, many religious leaders realized that domestic harmony improved chances of more peaceful international relations.  

Interfaith activity in the past as well as today often centered around joint social-action or political advocacy projects. Protestant activists inaugurated this age of goodwill, coordinating efforts to improve industrial conditions, upgrade the quality of urban life, and foster international peace and justice.

Shtetl in Jewish History and Memory

Virtually every Jew today has a mental image of the shtetl, the small villages in which Jews lived for centuries in Eastern Europe. These images are informed by the portrayal of shtetl life in a variety of media, from fiction to film. Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman (which most of us know better as Fiddler on the Roof) and artist Marc Chagall’s whimsical depictions of Ukrainian Jewish life (with images of floating fiddlers) contribute to the contemporary vision of the shtetl as a small Jewish town in in Eastern Europe where a population of poor but industrious Jews worked and studied, all the while seemingly accompanied by a klezmer soundtrack.modern quiz
It doesn’t take a professional historian to realize that such a static representation of the populous and geographically disperse Jewish communities of eastern Europe doesn’t reflect historical reality. The popular “fiddlers” image of shtetl life neglects the great diversity of ideas and experiences that characterized these communities. This article examines the shtetl as a historical phenomenon.

What Exactly Is a Shtetl?

The word “shtetl” is Yiddish, and it means “little town.” Shtetls were small market towns in Russia and Poland that shared a unique socio-cultural community pattern during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Shtetls ranged in size from several hundred to several thousand residents. Forests and fields often surrounded these small towns. Gentiles tended to live outside of the town, while Jews lived in the town proper. The streets were, for the most part, unpaved, the houses constructed of wood. Public spaces included synagogues (often wooden), the beit midrash (study house), shtiblekh (smaller, residential houses of prayer), a Jewish cemetery, Christian churches (Russian Orthodox or Roman Catholic, depending on the location), bathhouses, and, of course, the marketplace.

The Jewish community was typically governed by a community council, a kahal. The kahal oversaw civil and religious affairs, from collecting taxes to dispensing charity. While religion guided daily life, it was not, as is often portrayed, the sole occupation of Jewish males. In reality, the scholarly class was a small, elite segment of society. A majority of shtetl Jews, both men and women, worked to support their families, usually in commercial or artisanal trades, and then, more commonly, as time and industrialization marched on, in factories.

Jewish Emancipation in Russia

"Emancipation" in the western sense–that is, a contract between citizens and a modern nation state–is a term that does not apply to Russia until the twentieth century because Russia did not become a modern nation-state until the October Revolution of 1905. Before 1905, Russia was a feudal society wherein subjects contracted privileges from a sovereign. Within this feudal society, however, some Russian Jews attempted to expand their rights. The following article outlines the Jewish pursuit of self-styled emancipation in Russia from the late eighteenth century through 1917.

Until the Polish partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795, when Poland, wrecked by invasions and wars, was annexed by her neighbors (Russia, Prussia, and Austria respectively) and no longer existed as an independent country, there were virtually no Jews in Russia, nor was there any formal recognition of Jewish residence. (Jews were not officially allowed to settle in "Holy Russia," however, prior to 1772, some traders resided there whom the government pretended not to notice.) With the acquisition of Belorussia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine from Poland, the Russian state inherited hundreds of thousands of Jews–making Russia home to the largest Jewish community in the world. After 1795, Russia’s tsars struggled with the fundamental question of how to define the Jews legally, both as individuals and as a collective.

Tsarist policy toward the Jews alternated between acts of repression and liberation. The Russian Haskalah (or Jewish enlightenment), however, pursued a policy of integration for the Jews from the mid-1800s through 1881.

The Russian Haskalah struck a tenuous alliance with the Russian government in the name of the integration of Russia’s Jews into Russian society. During the reign of Nicholas I, for example, members of the Haskalah worked with the Ministry of Education to develop a state-sponsored system of Jewish schools in Russia, the crown schools. These schools, which taught the Russian language and other secular subjects, were met with opposition from traditional Jews, the Hasidim in particular. They opposed secular education, especially the sort provided by the government, which usually came with an invitation to convert. As a result, few Jewish children attended these schools.  (It should be noted that all was not education and enlightenment under Nicholas I. His Jewish conscription policies were infamous for requiring the enlistment of Jewish boys ages 12-18 for a 25-year period during which they underwent a severe program of "Russification" aimed at conversion.)

Jewish Immigration to America: Three Waves

Today, America’s Jewish community is largely Ashkenazic, meaning it is made up of Jews who trace their ancestry to Germany and Eastern Europe. However, the first Jews to arrive in what would become the United States were Sephardic–tracing their ancestry to Spain and Portugal. The following article looks at the three major waves of Sephardic and Ashkenazic immigration to America.

Historians have traditionally divided American Jewish immigration into three periods: Sephardic, German, and Eastern European. While the case can be made that during each period, immigrants were not solely of any one origin (Some Germans came during the “Sephardic” period and some Eastern Europeans arrived during the “German” era, for example), the fact remains that the dominant immigrant group influenced the character of the American Jewish community.

The Sephardim

The first group of Sephardic settlers arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654 from Brazil. For several decades afterward, adventurous Sephardic and Ashkenazic merchants established homes in American colonial ports, including Newport, R.I., New Amsterdam (later New York), Philadelphia, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.


jewish poster

Poster from World War I

While the Ashkenazim outnumbered the Sephardim by 1730, the character of the American Jewish community remained Sephardic through the American Revolution. Colonial American synagogues adhered to Sephardic ritual customs and administered all aspects of Jewish religious life. The synagogue did not, however, attempt to govern the economic activities of its (mostly mercantile) members. This was a departure from the Old World, where synagogues in places like Amsterdam, London, and Recife, taxed commercial transactions, regulated Jewish publications, and punished members for lapses in individual or commercial morality. In this manner, colonial synagogues set a precedent of compartmentalization–a division between Jewish and worldly domains–in American Jewish life.

Colonial American Sephardic synagogues also sought to combine modern notions of aesthetics with traditional Judaism, creating congregations that were rational and refined. Synagogues established rules of order so that services and meetings proceeded with the proper amount of deference and decorum. For example, colonial synagogues assigned seats for male and female members so that everyone knew their place in the congregation. This not only eliminated shuffling and bickering over seating each week, but also established a sort of congregational hierarchy in which the best seats went to the most prestigious congregational families (who, in turn, paid the highest dues). (In Europe, so few women attended services that there was no need to designate seats; American women, in contrast, regularly attended religious services.)