Jewish St. Petersburg

19 Feb 2019
In 2018, Jews all around the world start their Pesach (Passover) celebrations on March 30. It is one of the most important Jewish holidays because it commemorates their liberation by God from slavery in Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. To help you get in the holiday spirit, this edition’s special feature is dedicated to Jewish St. Petersburg!

Brief history of Jews in St. Petersburg
From the beginning of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th century, Jews were excluded from Russia’s main cities at the time due to religious enmity towards them. Although Peter the Great was known to be tolerant of Jews, for the first century of its existence, virtually no Jews lived in St. Petersburg. Like the rest of the Russian Empire, the city forbade Jewish settlement, although a small number of rumored converts occupied various posts in the city’s fledgling administration.
However, with the separation of White Russia from Poland and its addition to Russia proper in 1772, the numerous Jewish populations of White Russia came under Russian rule. It is estimated that around half a million Jews became Russian subjects. They were indeed the first Russo-Jewish
subjects. With the further addition to Russia of Polish territories, Jews from other governments came to Russia’s big cities at the time to try to make a living. Individual Jews, such as the tax farmer Avram Perets (1771–1833) and the founder of Chabad, Shneur Zalman of Liady (1745–1812), periodically traveled to the imperial capital to engage in commerce or to petition tsarist authorities. But the legal status of Jews visiting St. Petersburg was precarious, and forcible expulsions were common.
From the year 1827, during the reign of Nicholas I, Russian Jews were compelled to serve for 25 years in the army and many such Jewish soldiers were sent to the imperial capital. Thus the Jewish population of St. Petersburg started to increase rather suddenly.
During the reign of Alexander II, the Jewish population of St. Petersburg increased still further. The ghetto was abolished and certain classes of “useful” Jews (artisans, merchants, and persons possessed of a higher education) were even given the privilege of unrestricted residence. St. Petersburg quickly became the address of choice for privileged Jews: by the end of Alexander’s reign, roughly 16,000 resided in the city legally, making it the largest Jewish community outside the Pale. Contemporaries estimated that a nearly equal number of Jews were living in the city illegally.
In 1863, a self-appointed group of some 100 prominent Jewish residents, led by the father-and-son team of bankers Evzel’ (1812–1878) and Goratsii (Horace; 1833–1909) Gintsburg, hired the German-born Avraham Neiman (1803–1875) to become the city’s first officially recognized rabbi. With his combination of yeshiva and university training – a pedigree virtually unknown among rabbis in Russia – Neiman presided (in German and Hebrew) over the city’s first and sole officially recognized congregation, which was composed primarily of wealthy merchants. Other Jews were left to worship semi-legally under the guidance of “spiritual rabbis”. The Gintsburgs and other wealthy families financed the city’s first synagogue, dedicated in 1893 and presided over by Avram Drabkin (1844–1917) and Mosheh Aizenshtat (1870–1943), Neiman’s successors as official rabbis.
By the 1880’s, St. Petersburg had replaced Odessa as Russian Jewry’s most prolific cultural center, a place where, during the next decades, a relatively small community of intellectuals produced more than a dozen monthly, weekly, and daily periodicals in Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish for readers throughout the Pale of Settlement.
By 1910, the number of legal Jewish residents had reached 35,000. Prior to the Soviet period, Jews never accounted for more than 3% of the city’s population. But in such fields as banking, law, and journalism, they constituted as much as a third of the total number of professionals. Thanks to a large police and army presence, the Russian capital never experienced a pogrom.
During the Soviet period the authorities’ attitude towards Jews varied greatly, ranging from a struggle against the anti-Semitism of the Tsarist era to even greater and more explicit demonstrations of intolerance by bureaucrats in everyday life.
Starting in the late 1980’s, a fl ood of Russian Jews left the country for new homes around the world - nearly threequarters of Russia’s Jewish population emigrated! This resulted in a dramatic decrease of St. Petersburg’s Jewish population but, fortunately, after decades of Jewish emigration from Russia, today a new generation of young Russians is learning about their past with the help of a number of cultural organizations. These days, the Jewish population of St. Petersburg is estimated at anywhere between 80,000 and 200,000 (though there is no official data) and it is possible to see people wearing a “kippah” (a brimless cap) and “payot” (sidelocks) on the city’s streets!
Although the history of Jews in St. Petersburg (like everywhere else in Eastern Europe) has certainly been a very turbulent one marked by violence and repression, today the community is thriving, growing and actively rediscovering the city’s Jewish heritage.
For more information: Sightseeing and restaurants.
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