Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry Volume 30, Jewish Education in Eastern Europe edited by Eliyana R. Adler and Antony Polonsky is the most recent addition to the esteemed Polin series. As part of Jewish Book Week, Eliyana Adler discusses the importance of the study of education and what we can expect from this groundbreaking new volume.
Over the years, Polin has provided a forum for exploring a host of aspects of East European Jewish history. I am gratified to be able to add education to that list. It never ceases to surprise me that there is not more curiosity about education in the past and present. It is, after all, so fundamental to our lives and our society. This collection of essays helps us to think about the diversity of educational options available to Jewish children, as well as what that education meant to them and to the societies in which they lived.
The volume is organized chronologically and geographically, with contributions about Jews in schools in the Russian empire, in Hungary, and in Poland. By far the greatest concentration focuses on interwar Poland. The scholars in this section examine Yiddish schools, Orthodox schools, youth groups, and the experiences of Jews in Polish schools. Most of them make use of the remarkable collection of autobiographies young Polish Jews submitted to a series of contests sponsored by the YIVO in the 1930s.
Until the recent publication of selected anthologies of these autobiographies in Polish, Hebrew, and English, this was a relatively unknown source. Authors in the volume, making use of the anthologies as well as the complete archived collection, demonstrate the results of creative and sustained engagement with the youthful writings.
Although their topics and sources are related, this does not lead to overlap or repetition. On the contrary, the authors’ varied research approaches yield complimentary results that inspire further questions. For example, Ido Bassok notes the ways in which political youth groups took the place of religious affiliations while Naomi Seidman suggests that Orthodox youth groups incorporated many organizational techniques from their political counterparts. Sean Martin’s study of the development of Jewish religion classes in Polish schools provides a fascinating counterpart to Kamil Kijel’s exploration of the effects of exclusive and nationalist rhetoric on Jewish children in Polish schools.
The questions of pedagogy, school choice, educational ambitions, identity proliferation, financial constraints, and integration that animate these autobiographies, as well as the essays about them, should sound familiar to contemporary readers. Although interwar Poland was very different from the world in which we live, the intensity of aspirations makes it compelling and accessible.
In addition to the more obvious ties of period and place, a number of themes crisscross the volume as a whole. Several of the authors, for example, explore textbooks as historical sources. Daniel Viragh’s essay about modern Hungarian children’s books covers very different material from Vassili Schedrin’s study of Jewish history texts in Russia, but both showcase the benefits of probing this unique source base.
Others look at the way that wars impact upon educational institutions. While some of the essays look at political influences on Jewish education, others pay attention to religious trends. Two of the essays also contain rare photographs from late imperial Russia.
Some readers will pick up this volume out of a general interest in the history of Jewish education. Others may open it initially in order to read one particular essay related to their own research interests. We hope that they will all find themselves drawn to leaf through other essays on topics they had not even considered previously. It is also our hope that the volume will inspire further research and writing about aspects of Jewish education in the past.