Collection of Relics of the Ashkenazim Culture

Liudmila Uritskaya

As a result of Poland's Partitions (1772, 1793 and 1795) the Ashkenazim became Russian subjects and found themselves bound by Russian law within territorial and legal confines of permitted areas of settlement. Here the traditional culture of Polish Jews underwent a process of slow but inexorable degradation, while transforming at the same time into a new ethnic and toponymic type — a Jewish stettl (mestechko) community in Russia.

The orthodox world of the community protected by the ethical and moral traditions of Judaism and totally centred round the mestechko in the conditions of limited living space and religious alienation, produced a unique subculture. It included religion as the foundation, a conscious ethnic identity, a highly devel­oped system of religious and social institutes and finally, an age-long collective memory of the diaspo­ra, which materialized itself in traditions of folk art.

The physical features of the Jewish mestechko settlement, such as its housing, civil and religious architecture, its cemetary, its communal documen­tation and personal archives, its lore and its religious rites and practices, the institute of the Jewish family and home, etc. — assumed the importance of Jewish national heritage at the time this culture began to dwindle away in the late nineteenth century.

The Ethnographic Department of the Russian Museum (the present Russian Museum of Ethnography ) was one of the first museums in Russia to include the Ashkenazic culture in its search and collecting programmes. From the outset of its activities priority tasks were a systematic accumulation of materials and their accurate description. Uniform accumula­tion of exhibits for every ethnic entity was hindered by the fact that the staff was limited and lacked specialists in some nationalities. It was not until the mid-1930s that the Museum employed a specialist in the history, culture and languages of Jewish communities. The Ashkenazim collection was started in 1907 by F. Volkov, a Ukrainian anthropologist and ethnographer, who gave the Museum fifteen objects and five photographs brought from his "ethnographic excursions" (1904 and 1905) to Eastern Galicia, a Province of Austria- Hungary inhabited by Slavs, and later to Volhyn (1909). The small collection was a random selection of garments and objects of religious designation. The photographs show the mural of a wooden synagogue (not surviving at present) at the settlement of Norinsk in the Ovruch Uyezd of the Volhyn Gubernia.

The Ashkenazim collections were further increased as a result of subsequent field trips by some other staff of the Museum, such as A. Miller's to the Mogilev and Vitebsk gubernias (1908 and 1911) and A. Serzhputovsky's to the Kingdom of Poland (1909). A. Miller's lot consisted of 54 objects of very diverse description: palls for Torah scrolls, attributes of fes­tive community and domestic rituals, texts of prayers, marriage documents, clothes and so on. Two groups of objects are of particular interest: a loom and tools for processing parch­ment and a tahrihin burial set made up of seven parts. The collection is complete with a thorough description, all the indigenous names retained. Later, in 1911, A. Miller bought for the Museum a unique silver hannukkia — a symbolic lamp for the Hannukkah festival. Recent _work on decyphering marks on Jewish silverware gives grounds for regarding the lamp as one of the finest examples of eighteenth-century Jewish silver. A. Miller's interest in Ashkenazic culture was quite professional. As a leading specialist in ethnography he had previously made up one of the first ethnographic collections on Mountain Jews, one of the numerous ethnic minorities in the Caucasus. His Ashkenazic and Caucasus Jews collec­tions demonstrate a profound understanding of the common religious foundation and indigenous specificity of either of the two subcultures.

A. Serzhputovsky's trip to Poland augmented the Ashkenazic section with twelve objects he had bought in the town of Lovich of the Warsaw Gubernia. Among them there were several women's hats and men's outer clothes of considerable interest to researchers. At that time it was Serzhputovsky who was responsible for the registration of newly-arrived Jewish articles because he was one of the few staff members knowledgeable about Jewish material culture and life. Born and raised in Byelorussia, Serzhputovsky had long lived in different towns and mestechko settlements where the Ashkenazim were permitted to reside, and was there­fore well familiar with the life of their communities there, as well as with some of their national traditions manifest in certain outward features of their religious rites and everyday customs. While being engaged in the study of a whole gamut of the ethnography of Byelorussians, A. Serzhputovsky for a long time remained the main authority on all acqui­sitions for the Ashkenazic section. In 1923 he brought from his expedition to Byelorussia a collection of Jewish women's toupees and head-dresses.