At the turn of the twentieth century, 60 percent of Europe’s Jews (5.2 million out of 8.7 million) lived in the Russian Empire. Subject to a comprehensive range of legal disabilities and discrimination, the Tsar’s Jews were forbidden to own land, to enter the Civil Service, or to serve as officers in the army; there were strict quotas on Jewish admissions into higher schools and universities; and with a few exceptions they were forced by law to live in the fifteen provinces of western Ukraine, Belorussia, Lithuania, and Poland which made up the Pale of Settlement. The Jews were “middlemen between the overwhelmingly agricultural Christian population and various urban markets,” Yuri Slezkine writes in his bold interpretative history:
Most of the Jewish middlemen bought, shipped, and resold local produce; provided credit on the security of standing crops and other items; leased and managed estates and various processing facilities (such as tanneries, distilleries, and sugar mills); kept taverns and inns; supplied manufactured goods (as peddlers, shopkeepers, or wholesale importers); provided professional services (most commonly as doctors or pharmacists), and served as artisans (from rural blacksmiths, tailors, and shoemakers to highly specialized jewelers and watchmakers).
And then there was Tevye the Dairyman. Slezkine says that his main purpose is to “describe what happened to Tevye’s children.” As readers will recall, Tevye is the hero of Sholom Aleichem’s stories, which were adapted for the Western stage and screen as Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye has four daughters who break from patriarchal tradition: Tsaytl falls in love with a poor tailor and rejects the marriage that her father has arranged; Hodl marries a revolutionary and follows him into exile in Siberia; Beilke (who does not feature in the film) marries a shady businessman and runs away to America; and Chava elopes with a Russian peasant boy who shares her love of books. Fiddler on the Roof ends with Tevye, his wife Golde, and their two remaining daughters packing up their bags and emigrating to America. They are leaving with the rest of their village, following the pogroms of 1905–1906.
Imagining the destinies of Tevye’s children, Slezkine charts the three main paths of Jewish emigration—geographical and intellectual—from the shtetl and its traditions. Many Jews followed Beilke to America, a journey Slezkine links to their adoption of liberal and capitalist views (as well as to the spread of Freudianism). A much smaller number emigrated to Palestine (less than half of 1 percent, even at the height of Jewish immigration to the Holy Land). But Slezkine contrives to send Chava there (on the fanciful assumption that her repentant return to her Jewish home at the end of Tevye the Dairyman “stands for her emigration to the Land of Israel”); this allows him to place the emigration to Palestine in the context of a nationalism—Zionism—which developed from the persecution of the Jews. Finally, there were Jews like Hodl, the main subjects of The Jewish Century …