Traditional Jewish Life, 1700-1914

Preserving customs during a time of upheaval and change.

Print this page Print this page

Coping with Change in the East

However, with the reforms of Tsar Alexander II in the 1850s and early 1860s, Russia's economic foundation shifted from serfdom to industrial capitalism, and Jewish settlement was no longer legally limited to the Pale of Settlement. These economic and legal changes uprooted the traditional patterns of Jewish life in smaller towns, shtetlekh (plural for shtetl), propelling many Jews into large and middle-sized towns, and ending the already diminished autonomy and authority of the traditional Jewish community.

In response to these changes, many Jews sought to continue to operate within the framework of tradition and the social frameworks that supported it. Thus, in opposition to Enlightenment and reform, Eastern European Orthodoxy crystallized. 

Also at this time a "third way" between the perceived outmoded forms of traditional life and the failures of Enlightened integration was to be found in the nascent Jewish nationalist movement, which transformed the symbols and social concepts of Jewish traditional society into secular instruments for national association. The preservation of Jewish traditional society and collective Jewish existence followed by its rapid disintegration were critical for the development of Jewish nationalism and Zionism in Eastern Europe in the later part of the 19th century.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Joshua Teplitsky is a doctoral candidate at New York University in the departments of History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies. His research focuses on the Jewish experience in early modern Prague, and the culture of Jews in early modern Europe more generally.