Community Leaders and Everyday Folk

Kings, military leaders, and cultural icons - persons who lead others into action - make history. The names and accomplishments of famous people are most often recorded, and their actions have wide-ranging influence. They are the ones who lead groups or nations, produce new ideas and technologies, espouse revolutionary views, wield power over populations, start wars, and resolve political conflicts. They are the "movers and shakers". Yet, it is the ordinary people who actually turn the wheels of history. Shoemakers, peddlers, teachers, peasants, and others follow their leaders into action. A war cannot happen without soldiers. A king cannot rule without subjects, and a president cannot govern unless the people vote for him. A social movement does not spread without adherents, no matter how charismatic or intelligent the leader may be. With this in mind we must also look at the everyday folk - those who work, play, shop, vote, fight, listen, and follow - to understand fully how people really lived and what life was like in a certain time. To paint a more complete picture of history, we must examine the experiences of the non-famous as well as the famous (and infamous). Each provides only one piece of the puzzle.

It is, of course, harder to find historical sources that inform us about everyday people and their lives. We must be clever in how we interpret what we can find. Paintings and photographs, for example, might show what people were wearing at the time. They can give us clues about wealth and social class, trends in fashion and social life, and even the health of the textile industry. Documents relating to economic issues, posters, newspapers clips, postcards, and other sources can tell us about the occupations people had, the way people spent their money and their time, and the social and economic distinctions that existed in a society in a certain era.

Of course, the vast majority of Eastern European Jews were not famous. Men worked as merchants, craftspeople, small town rabbis, estate managers, toll collectors, and later on as tailors, glass workers, shoemakers, teachers, doctors, and in a variety of other trades. Children went to school, attended youth group meetings, and played with friends. Women most often took care of the home-cooking, cleaning, and raising the children, although many also attended small businesses in tiny storefronts that contained scant quantities of goods. Families often gathered together to celebrate the Sabbath and holidays.

We can learn a lot about daily life by exploring candid photographs taken at the time. Visit our photo gallery and examine the images you see there. What are the people in the photographs doing? What are they wearing? What do the buildings in the background look like? What does this tell you about their social, economic, or religious life? We can also explore daily life by reading the personal stories written by those who lived at the time. Read the autobiographies of Polish Jewish teenagers from the 1930s to see how their experiences and lives are similar to or different from yours. This is just the beginning of what can be researched and explored. The YIVO Library and Archives have extensive collections and holdings covering each of these topics (and many more), and on all aspects of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. If you develop a special interest in a particular subject matter, you have a new world of materials waiting for you to explore.

In each era, a few individuals also rose to prominence within the political, religious, and cultural realms of the Jewish community. By examining the impact of these distinctive men and women, as well as the particular roles they filled, we can gain important insights into the charismatic leaders of the times, their ideas, their creeds, and the reasons that particular groups of people or whole communities followed them. We also get a depiction of the life of the community, as well as a picture of how an extraordinary individual impacted that community and society.

Depending on your interests, you can explore different periods in Eastern European Jewish history. During the early Jewish settlement in Poland, rabbinic figures served as ethical role models, spiritual advisors, and educational leaders. If you want to study these periods, you might start with information about the rabbinic leaders.

On the other hand, if your interest is in a later time period, you might examine the 18th century split between the Hasidim, led by the Ba'al Shem Tov, and the Mitnagdim, whose greatest proponent was the Gaon of Vilna. As Hasidism grew, a number of Hasidic rebbes, including the Seer of Lublin and the Gerer Rebbe, amassed wide followings and developed impressive reputations.

Although rabbis and Hasidic rebbes maintained their authority over many segments of the community, later years also saw the rising influence of ideologues who led their followers in new directions politically and socially. Zionist leaders such as Theodore Herzl, Ahad Ha-Am, and Ze'ev Jabotinsky pushed hard for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Other leaders had different ideas about what was best for the Jews. Simon Dubnow of the Folkspartei, believed in Jewish autonomy in the Diaspora. He influenced many other groups as well as many intellectuals of the time who read his writings. Other important leaders included Noam Priludski, Bela Shapira, and Yakov Nissenboim - political activists who played important roles in their communities. Victor Alter and Henryk Erlich were well known political figures who were active internationally; Shlomo Mikhoels and Itsik Fefer were leaders in both the arts and in the world of politics in the USSR.

The literary world played an important educational role-and a challenging one-for the Jewish community beginning in the 19th century. In the interwar period, individual writers, musicians, and artists emerged as key figures in their local and regional communities, nourishing the Jewish cultural life of the area. Some of the most influential Jewish writers were Mendele Moykher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, Y. L. Peretz, Haim Nachman Bialik, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and S. Y. Agnon.

All of these personalities mingled on the streets of the cities and towns of Eastern Europe. The famous and the non-famous communicated ideas and opinions, through lectures, through the local press, and through other daily interactions. For a glimpse into the complex social interaction that took place in the cities of Eastern Europe, explore the Places section. Explore the different cities in which Jews made Jewish worlds spin and vibrate: where the culture was alive, where it was produced by the community, and where the same community participated in that culture, and enjoyed it. A good place to start is with the panoramic photograph of a Jewish street in Lublin, Poland.

As you take this tour within the website, try to consider what we know about both the leaders and the lives of everyday people, and how we have this knowledge. In your own research you might choose to explore a specific topic. For example, you might analyze one of the individuals featured in the Lives section, and then try to reconstruct this person's life at the time. If the person was a tailor, explore what kinds of tailors there were, where they trained, and how they set up shop. Why were tailors in such demand? Investigating one occupation can help you begin to reconstruct more pieces of the life that was. You might want compare two different leaders in a period of time. How were they similar or different in their leadership and influence? How did the role of the individual you are analyzing change over time? What was the impact of that particular personality on the political, social, or religious life of the Jewish community? Consider: How does leadership change over time? Do you know who the leaders are of the Jewish community in your city or country?