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Jewish Life in 19th-Century Russian-Ruled Poland (Present-Day Belarus). Inadvertent Correction of Lanzmann's anti-Polish SHOAH,Journey to a Nineteenth-Century Shtetl: The Memoirs of Yekhezkel Kotik (Raphael Patai Series in Jewish Folklore and Anthropology) (Paperback)

jan peczkis|Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The setting of this work is the town of Kamenets (Kamyenyets, Kamieniec), which is located not far south of the famous Bialowieza Forest. Because there is so much information presented, I divide my review into specialized topics, and emphasize those of broader relevance to Jewish-Polish relations.

The setting of this work is the town of Kamenets (Kamyenyets, Kamieniec), which is located not far south of the famous Bialowieza Forest. Because there is so much information presented, I divide my review into specialized topics, and emphasize those of broader relevance to Jewish-Polish relations.

This work also includes specific citations from the Bavli. I encourage the reader to look up some of these references—in the online Babylonian Talmud (Soncino edition), as I did.


[I First Focus on Matters Related to Jewish Religion and Social Customs]:


Yekhezkel Kotik characterizes the mitnaggedim as arrogant, and tending toward status-seeking. They look down on the AM HAARETZ (common people, who are presumably unlearned), and despise laborers and craftsmen. Furthermore, one’s sense of status, in comparison with that of a fellow mitnagged, is based upon two criteria: lineage of wealth and lineage of learning. (p. 400). Seating in synagogues is based upon status. In contrast, the Hasidim, in addition to allowing joy during worship, have no set-asides on seating in the SHTIBL, and everyone can sit wherever a seat is vacant. (p. 406).


Assaf tells us that, according to the Talmud (KIDUSHIM 41a), a daughter should not be given in betrothal while she is still a minor. However, members of the Jewish elite circumvented this by betrothing their children at a very young age, but not actually celebrating this betrothal until the children reached the age of 12.5 (girls) and 13 (boys). (p. 443). The Jewish boy of 12, who was not a groom, felt ashamed, and his parents were concerned. (p. 460). Kotik characterized himself an “old bachelor” of 15. (p. 331).


Editor Assaf cites the Talmud (MEGILLAH 7b), wherein a Jew celebrating Purim should drink wine to the point that he cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai”, which means that one cannot differentiate good and bad. (p. 470). Kotik acknowledges that he got drunk on Purim in accordance with this teaching. (p. 374).


[I Now Focus on Matters Related to Polish-Jewish Relations]:


Editor David Assaf writes, (quote) NITL—a term for Christmas eve [Eve]. Found in medieval Hebrew sources, this word is probably derived from the Latin DIES NATALIS (day of birth); however, folk etymology linked it to the Hebrew NITLAH (lit. “the hanged”), an allusion to the crucifixion. It was a widespread custom not to study Torah on Christmas eve [Eve]. (unquote)(p. 452).

Assaf also affirms the sometimes-denied fact that the Talmud refers to Jesus Christ—albeit commonly in censored form: SANHEDRIN 43a and 107B, and SOTAH 47a. (p. 458).


Kotik relates the painful experience of being spanked with twigs by Yisrael, his Talmud teacher, for not interpreting an assigned Talmudic passage to the teacher’s satisfaction. He quips, (quote) We received his punishment gratefully, and to tell the truth, we were all absolutely convinced that we deserved the thrashing he gave us. We were all ignorant GOYIM, we did not know our Talmud, whereas he, Yisrael, was the true scholar. Even when we could no longer bear the pain and started crying out, Yisrael would not let up, but hit even harder, shouting, “That’s what you deserve, a GOY like you! That’s what you deserve!” (p. 226).


Kotik dwells on the experiences of a Hasidic Jew who was an earnest Polish patriot. (pp. 201-on). However, this should be kept in perspective. Assaf points out that, “…Jews in general tried not to openly identify with one side or another…” (p. 442). This is consistent with the premise that, until recent times, Jews were the “other”, in part because they did not generally have clear-cut loyalties to the nations among whom they lived.

Some Jews had spread lurid tales of the malevolence of Poles, and the Poles' intention of repeating the Ukrainian Khmelnitsky’s massacres of Jews centuries earlier. Kotik’s grandfather, Aharon-Leyzer, was somewhat successful in calming the Jews down. He stressed the rather-obvious-fact that, whereas individual Poles can mistreat individual Jews, Poles have never been known to engage in the mass murder of Jews. (p. 346).


[I Now Focus on Jews and Economic Matters]:


Yekhezkel Kotik summarizes this relationship, as stated by his grandfather, (quote) “If the lords are prosperous it will also benefit the Jews,” he used to say. “Where, after all, will all their money end up? With the Jews of course!” (unquote)(p. 172).


The student of Polish-Jewish relations probably remembers Claude Lanzmann’s SHOAH, in which he made a Polish peasant look foolish or bigoted by "remembering" a Jew once showing him a chest full of money. Interestingly, Jews sometimes thought the same way of wealthy Jews, as related by Kotik, (quote) I remember a certain ASSESSOR [local government official] called Sherinski, a particularly shrewd man, who knew how to squeeze money from Jews and gentiles alike. He was rumored to have barrels full of gold coins amounting to thirty thousand pieces…In time, in return for an enormous sum, he had himself appointed ISPRAVNIK [district governor] in Sokolka, in Grodno province. (unquote)(p. 126).


Kotik reports that Velvel, his great-grandfather, was a wealthy Jew who lived lavishly. He got wealthy by running a liquor distillery, and charging a good price for vodka. (p. 160). The pricing was facilitated by the absence of an excise tax on liquor (p. 160), which was not imposed until Tsar Nicholas I did so in 1850. (p. 436).

The author is also candid about the unsavory character of the liquor trade, and its impact on the reputation of Jews in general, (quote) By that time, Grandfather had stopped smuggling vodka in from Poland. He was delighted at the fact that the government had placed such a contract in Jewish hands. As it happened, at the time, his business was doing so well that he decided not to smuggle in any more vodka lest such an act bankrupt the Baron!...It would also harm the Jews in general and give the Jew-baiters an excuse to slander all Jews, accusing them of thievery. (unquote)(p. 218).


In a note, Assaf writes, (quote) The statute of 1804, which established the legal status of Jews in tsarist Russia, legislated that all rabbis must subsist on only their salaries and forbade them to collect fees for performing any religious ceremonies…In order to circumvent this law many communities had two budgets—one for the public record submitted to the authorities for confirmation and the other, a hidden one, where money was reserved for institutions or activities (such as bribery) not recognized by the authorities. (unquote)(p. 433).

[Although not elaborated in this book, the dual-ledger system is relevant to accusations of Jews cheating on taxes. One proffered exculpation for Jews underreporting their income was the unfairness and excessiveness of the tax burden falling on Jews. However, the authorities probably thought the same in reverse: Jews must be charged more taxes because they are using a dual-ledger system and thereby are not fully disclosing their income.]


Accusations of Jewish profiteering periodically come up in the context of Jewish-gentile relations, notably during wartime. Jewish merchants intentionally limit the availability of products in order to drive up prices (and profits). Gentiles feel angered to pay the obviously-inflated prices for goods, and they sometimes retaliate with boycotts and even violence against Jews.

Interestingly, Yekhezkel Kotik describes a similar event within the Jewish community. Jews were the ones who were the victims of profiteering—by other Jews, and Jews were the ones retaliating with boycotts and violence--against other Jews. Consider the selling of fish for Sabbath. Kotik writes, (quote) The fish were caught in the river next to the town and half a gulden for a FUNT [pound] was considered very expensive. If, as at times, the price was raised to twenty groshen, this would trigger a riot. The fishmongers were accused of selling most of their catch to Brisk, leaving Kamenets with a shortage of fish before the Sabbath. The fishmongers were warned that if they continued this practice, and caused prices to rise, they would not just suffer bodily harm, but they could be assured of never being called up to the Torah again. (unquote)(p. 138).

In an explanatory note, David Assaf points to the broad applicability of this incident, (quote) Hikes in fish prices caused intermittent scandals in Eastern European Jewish communities and sometimes even led to boycotts on buying fish for the Sabbath until prices were lowered. (unquote)(p. 429). [And when Poles did similar things, they were horrible anti-Semites.]
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