…And the Wind swept over it… The life of a Jewish Settlement in Tsarist Russia

The Jewish collections of the Russian Museum of Ethnography represent a comprehensive historical and cultural heritage covering the period from the late 18th – to the early 20th centuries. In geographical terms, the collections embrace most of the area encompassed by the Pale of Settlement after its introduction in 1795 (the third partition of Poland). The Pale of Settlement included a number of provinces in the Russian Empire to which Jews were restricted in making their homes. More specifically, it included 15 Russian and 10 Polish provinces. The museum collections correspondingly represent the provinces of Volhynia, Podolia, Kiev, Poltava, Yekaterinoslavl, Chernigov, Bessarabia, Minsk, Mogilev, Vitebsk, Vilna, Grodno, Warsaw and Sedltez, as well as Galicia, the Slavonic province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The first entries to the collections were contributed during the years 1904-1912, when an enlightened segment of the Russian intelligentsia realized that traditional, or folk, forms of Russian culture, including that of the Russian Jews, were being eroded by the rapid urbanization that was spreading throughout Russia. The group of intellectuals included, among others, F.Volkov, an expert in Ukrainian ethnography, A. Serzhputovdky, a researcher in Byelorussian ethnography and A. Miller, a specialist in the peoples of the Caucasus.

One of the pioneers in the work of preserving the Jewish heritage of past generations was the well-loved writer, poet and collector, Shlomo An-Sky (Shlomo Zanvil Rappoport), who dedicated his life to this work. The present exhibition is based primarily on objects from his collection. An-sky headed a number of ethnographic expeditions to the provinces of Podolia, Volhynia and Kiev during the years 1911-1912. The items collected were intended for the exhibition in the Jewish Museum, formed as a section of the St. Petersburg Society of History and Ethnography. In 1914-16 An-sky was known to be working on the front lines of Galicia, helping to evacuate historical values. As the documents related to these expeditions have, unfortunately, been lost, it is quite difficult to identify whether certain An-sky exhibits date back to 1911-12 or, instead, to his expedition of 1914-16; hence, it proves impossible to identify the precise geographical source of artifacts from his collection. We can only make guesses as to the routes An-sky followed and the places where he found his artifacts, threading our way to the reality through the legends, subjective interpretations, and mysteries, surrounding his name and collection.

Judaica occupies the central place in the Museum’s collection. It is represented through a range of exhibits related to the synagogue, the annual cycle of Jewish festivals, and the objects and personal belongings found in the Jewish household.

Among the items connected with the synagogue are the parochets: splendid curtains that cover the front of the Holy Ark in which the Torah scrolls are kept. The Book of Exodus (25:10-21) provided instructions for making the whole Ark. In Exodus 26:31 we read the following: “And thou shalt make a veil of blue and purple and scarlet and fine twined linen of cunning work…” The parochets are thus produced from very precious textiles, while the motifs and decorations had biblical associations. The earliest parochet collected by An-Sky (during his expeditions to the provinces of Volhynia and Podolia) bears the date of 1751. This parochet is decorated with an inscription embroidered in gold and depicts two deer in the central part; the deer are thought to symbolize the names of donors, Hirsh and Naftaly. Usually, the upper part of the parochet was made of simple textiles and was covered with an elaborate flounce, or valance, called a caporet. Caporets were also decorated with symbolic pictures and texts, such as quotations from the Book of Exodus or pictures of Keter Torah (The Crown of Torah), lions, or double-headed eagles.

A Torah mantle, a special cover for the Torah scroll, was another of textile items used in the synagogue. The earliest in this collection dates back to 1745. It is decorated, according to the local Polish tradition, with gold embroidery.

The Jewish religion is far more than a complex of certain rituals; rather, it is all-encompassing way of life. Part of it takes place in the synagogue, where the services are held, furthermore in Jewish life the home is of exceptional importance; hence the special significance attached to those objects used in the home during religious ceremonies. Their sacred meaning is established by traditional form and design.

Wine is drunk from the Kiddush cup on the Sabbath and on festival days to mark their holiness. These cups are made of silver. In Poland and Russia, small ornate crockery cups, as well as silver and copper drinking vessels, were used for Kiddush. Jewish craftsmen would decorate the crockery cups by engraving biblical scenes or sacred symbols on their surfaces. A Ukrainian glass factory of the late 19th century produced festive pieces to be used at Passover. Hebrew inscriptions, produced in an excellent square typeface, proved to be the best decoration for these items.

A mezuzah, a small piece of written parchment (Deut.6: 4-9; 13-21), protects the Jewish house and reminds everyone that the home is a sacred place. Special cases to hold this parchment were made of various materials, including tin, glass wood, or beautiful silver filigree. Some of these mezuzah cases are most unusual; for example, in some, we find an architectural design; in others, a certain Carpathians influence can be seen in the woodcarving.

The exhibition also includes items of traditional Jewish clothing, amulets, luboks (folk paintings on wood), paper decorations, and a collection of unique photographs. The museum houses all of these artifacts; it has become their home. The mezuzahs seem to be playing their pars quite well.


Exhibits: 200 items.

Exhibition area: 150 square meters and more.