Long before there were Jewish communities in the land of the tsars, Jews inhabited a region which they called medinat rusiya, "the land of Russia." Prior to its annexation by Russia, "the land of Russia" was not a center of rabbinic culture. But in 1772, when it was absorbed by Tsarist Russia, this remote region was severed from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; its 65,000 Jews were thus cut off from the heartland of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Forced into independence, these Jews set about forging a community with its own religious leadership and institutions.
The three great intellectual currents in East European Jewry - Hasidism, Rabbinic Mitnagdism, and Haskalah - all converged on Eastern Belorussia, where they clashed and competed. In the course of a generation, the community of Shklov - the most prominent of the towns in the area - witnessed an explosion of intellectual and cultural activity.
The intrusion of modernity came through several avenues, including interaction with members of the Russian aristocracy and contact with Moses Mendelssohn and his circle of Enlightened Jews in Berlin. This intrusion led to a transformation of local Jewish culture and thought. Hebrew works of art and science flourished. Projects to reform Jewish education along European lines abounded. And activist efforts began to secure the political and social emancipation of Russian Jewry.
This book focuses on the social and intellectual odysseys of merchants, maskilim, and rabbis, and their varied attempts to combine Judaism and European culture. David Fishman here chronicles the remarkable story of these first modern Jews of Russia.
"A succinct and well-researched study. Essential."--Choice