In 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated and, of course, Jews were blamed for his murder. Life for Jews in the shtetls of Czarist Russia was never easy and, after this, it deteriorated even more. Restrictions on where Jews could live and how they could make a living reduced shtetl life to one of poverty, punctuated by violent pogroms. Generations of young Jewish men faced bleak futures with little hope for escape from drab shtetl life. For Jewish women, their futures were strictly limited to marriage and motherhood; nothing else was even considered.
To survive, Jews relied on tight family and community ties to preserve them against the bitter existence of the shtetl. However, these ties would soon be broken when another move in the 2,000-year Jewish Diaspora took place.
By the end of the nineteenth century, social and political forces reached Russia that gave promise of a freer, more fulfilling life for Jews. Jewish enlightenment, haskalah, along with secular education, opened windows to a world of opportunity. That world was far from Russia in the goldene madina — the golden land of America.
Between 1881 and 1914, over two million Jews left Russia in the search for a life in which they controlled their own destiny. Some went to countries in the British Commonwealth, some to Palestine, but the majority came to America that welcomed immigrants to farm its boundless land and work its factories. The Jews who answered America’s call and emigrated fell into two groups: single young men and family men with wives and children.
The departure of the single men leaving for a better life was emotional with parents who feared they would never see their sons again. For married men, leaving their families behind was more wrenching as they were leaving their families in the unsettled life of the shtetl. Added to this highly emotional mix were the shtetl rabbis who strongly advised members of their congregations not to go to godless America.
The rabbis knew that many Jews left their Judaism in the ship’s steerage before they landed in New York. It was common for married Jewish men to come alone to America to find jobs and earn enough money to bring their families over. While the vast majority acted as responsible family men, there are examples of Jewish men who came to this country and then deserted their families.
Currently there is another form of Diaspora undertaken by young Jews in this country. This Diaspora has little to do with geography or movement but is equally significant in terms of the future of the Jewish community. The change now is spiritual, not geographical, as young Jews shift from a religious to secular way of life.
The fifty percent intermarriage rate of Jews calls into question the continuance of the American Jewish community. But history has taught us that Jews have been challenged through centuries as they marched through the perils of the Diaspora. Certainly there have been changes, but the ability of Jews to adapt to the conditions of new surroundings is time-tested and promises that Jewish life will continue as we hold our unique place among the peoples of the world.
Herb Belkin is a historian who writes and lectures on the Jewish march through history. Herb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.