Jewish Studies

Categorically Jewish, Distinctly Polish

Categorically Jewish, Distinctly Polish: Polish Jewish History Reflected and Refracted by Moshe Rosman is the latest title from the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. The collection of Rosman’s essays, written over the course of a distinguished career, forges a thematic survey of Jewish history in early modern Poland. In this blog post Rosman reflects on his scholarly interest in Polish Jewish History.

On July 4, 1949 when I was born in Chicago, the Chicago Metropolitan area boasted that it was home to more Poles than any city in the world, including post-war Warsaw. Growing up in largely Jewish neighbourhoods in the city, my own awareness of Poland and Poles was rather restricted. While, like many of the Chicago ‘Poles’, my own grandparents had emigrated from the same Polish or formerly Polish lands, I did not feel any kinship or heritage in common with Poles. We were Jews; they were Poles. My Polish consciousness was limited to that of the common American.  

Through high school and college I was somewhat conscious of Poland as a middle-sized non-democratic country, militarily weak, economically unimportant, with a history of being subjugated by Russia; currently a loyal member of the communist bloc. In addition, the Poland I knew about was virtually 100% ethnic Polish, 100% Roman Catholic and fairly anti-Semitic. 

In autumn 1973 I enrolled in the history PhD program of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York. From elementary school I had loved learning history. As an undergraduate it was the Jewish history courses at JTS that fired my imagination most of all. The past as the progenitor of the present fascinated me and I yearned to know as much as I could about how the present came to be.

Choosing to become a historian of the Jewish experience, I also chose Eastern Europe. My personal roots were there, but I believed that much more significant was the role of Eastern Europe in shaping modern (and postmodern) Jewish history:  Jewish Cultural and National Renewal, American Jewry, Holocaust, Israel were all intricately connected to Jewish history in Eastern Europe. As for period, I chose the early modern, the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which to me was the classic period of Polish-Jewish history. Later, I was to discover that many consider it to be the classic period of Polish history, as well.

The JTS doctoral program entailed a free course exchange arrangement with Columbia University.  While studying Jewish history in JTS courses, I also began learning both Polish and Russian history and Russian and Polish language at Columbia.

It is not hyperbole to say that my history studies at JTS and Columbia were inspiring for me. Our Thursday evening graduate seminars with Gerson Cohen at JTS were freewheeling discussions of big themes of Jewish history: economics, acculturation, Jew-hatred, nationalism, rabbinic culture, etc. At Columbia I was introduced to Poland, Polishness, Polish history and Polish historiography by Andrzej Kamiński. Born in Poland in 1935, Andrzej had arrived in the USA on an exchange program in the late 1960s and stayed on to become a USA citizen, teaching at Columbia, and later at Georgetown.

That autumn, Andrzej offered his bread and butter introductory course to Polish history until the partitions of the late eighteenth century. This was the story of the Commonwealth of Two Nations (Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów), or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Learning from Andrzej  in that course and subsequent ones, I realized that everything I thought I knew about Poland was wrong; or at least did not apply to the four hundred year history of the Commonwealth. Among its many surprising features, the Commonwealth was multi-ethnic, multi-religious and proto-democratic, with an elected king and parliament. It also fancied itself “a paradise for Jews”.

I have spent the subsequent forty-five years or so learning as much as I could about this surprising early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the life of the Jews within it. Categorically Jewish, Distinctly Polish has been a work in progress through all that time. Twenty-eight of the scholarly essays I published over the course of my career turned out to be the first draft of this book. It transformed the raw material into nineteen chapters, newly contextualized, revised, updated, expanded and translated where necessary. They constitute a thematic, as opposed to chronological, survey of some of the key components of the Jewish experience in the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. These are: relations between Jews and others, the Jewish community, the lives of Polish Jewish women and Hasidism. The section on historiography surveys ways in which this history has been portrayed. The Introductions, both the general one opening the book and those prefacing each section, are intended to provide a common context and connection to research subjects originally conceived separately.  

Categorically Jewish, Distinctly Polish asserts that the ‘marriage of convenience’ between the Jews and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was a dynamic relationship that, though punctuated by crisis and persecution, developed into a saga of overall achievement and stability. The book’s Conclusion is a bid to answer the unspoken “So what?” diligent readers may be asking at the end of this extended attempt to prove the central postulate. They are invited to compare their answers to my own.

Categorically Jewish, Distinctly Polish is available to order on our website.


Follow us for more updates
Sign up to our mailing list
Twitter | Instagram