Torah crown with the signs of the Zodiac. Moscow, 1845. Silver: gilded, wrought, engraved. Ukrainian Museum of Historical Treasures, Kiev. Photograph by Dmytro Klochko. (MIDU Inv Nr DM-1031. Ukrainian Museum of Historical Treasures, Kiev)

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The crafts practiced by East European Jews in the medieval period were a direct outgrowth of Jewish ritual requirements, and therefore were protected by rights and privileges granted by monarchs and other rulers. Such crafts included those associated with slaughtering and baking (due to Jewish dietary laws); with textile manufacture and tailoring (due to the biblical prohibition against mixing linen and wool); and with hairdressing (due to religious restrictions on shaving beards). In 1389, the Grodno Jewish community was granted a charter in which the right of local Jews to “work in various crafts” was expressly guaranteed. Though special privileges granted by local authorities would, as a rule, only allow Jewish artisans to perform work for their fellow Jews, it was invariably the case that Jewish butchers, tailors, and barbers would cater to Christians as well. Moreover, reports from Lwów in 1460 make specific mention of Jewish artisans involved in work unconnected to Jewish ritual. They also mention that some of Lwów’s Jews were leather tanners and that this profession had been widespread among Jews from time immemorial.

The Milshtein brothers (standing in doorway) with employees of their shoemaking business, Luboml, Poland (now Lyuboml’, Ukr.), ca. 1920. (Alexander Ostapyuk, Lyuboml’ District Museum)

Jewish crafts, in fact, became an increasingly common feature of sixteenth-century Polish towns, as is evidenced by the repeated complaints of non-Jewish guilds and of the municipal authorities, who objected to being forced to compete with Jewish artisans. One factor that explains the success of Jewish artisans is the reduced prices they charged. These artisans, who had been ineligible to join Christian guilds and thus had not completed the formal requirements for their profession, were obliged to operate under legally ambiguous rules and to sell their goods at the lowest possible price.

In all probability, before 1650 the number of Jewish artisans remained rather low. Jews suffered from discrimination by the guilds, which were strongly organized against Jewish activity. Without guild support, it was difficult to gain adequate training or to open an independent business, and anyone who ignored the guild monopoly was classified as a partacz (bungler) and was liable to violent attack. Nonetheless, through adopting an itinerant lifestyle (walking to neighboring villages and any other concentration of potential buyers) and cutting prices, Jewish artisans managed to gain a foothold in the non-Jewish market. Indeed, over the course of the sixteenth-century Jews continued to make inroads into a variety of trades despite obstacles placed in their path by Christian guilds.

Young seamstresses, Zhizhmory, Russia (Yid., Zezmer; now Žiežmariai, Lith.), 1906 or 1907. (YIVO)

In 1764 and 1765, between one-quarter and one-half of Poland’s Jewish population was involved in some sort of craft, the exact percentage varying by region. In Vilna, for example, 324 of 743 heads of household were employed in skilled labor. In Rzeszów, this proportion was lower, with 111 of 292 families being supported by an artisan. In some places, the number of Jewish artisans exceeded those of non-Jewish ones. The expansion of Jewish artisanship during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a result of demographic growth, the various wars that befell the country, and the deep economic changes in their wake. During that period, both leasing contracts (arenda) and commerce declined. Jews increasingly turned to skilled labor as their source of income. The weakened position of non-Jewish city residents led them to reduce their antagonism toward Jews despite the continuing, if less effective, opposition of Christian guilds to the entry of Jews into the skilled workforce.

In private towns, Jewish artisans were often protected by the noble owners. The Polish nobility, as consumers of artisans’ wares, had a vested interest in restricting the Christian guilds’ monopolies so that goods could be acquired at the lowest prices. Nobility consequently encouraged the legal recognition of Jewish artisans, either through their joining Christian guilds and paying those organizations for the right to work freely (without taking part in any of their activities), or by organizing Jewish guilds, which, on rare occasions, could even take the form of Jewish sections of Christian guilds. Jewish guilds in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, particularly in PolandLithuania and Bohemia, often took on trappings similar to those of Christian guilds—they had their own flags, annual feast days, places of prayer, preachers, and judges.

Shpanyer arbet loom. Sasów, Poland (now Sasiv, Ukr.), late 19th–early 20th century. (Museum of Ethnography and Crafts, L’viv)

Having achieved a foothold, Jews became involved in an increasing number of crafts over the course of the eighteenth century. They turned to new forms of skilled labor such as metalwork, haulage, carpentry, and soap and candle manufacture, fields in which Polish artisans had not yet organized into guilds. Jews dominated the fur trade, which allowed them to establish Jewish guilds of furriers and of milliners that almost completely monopolized these sectors. Jews were also prominent among goldsmiths and silversmiths, crafts that were fairly profitable (thus allowing Jewish artisans to invest in technological innovations) and that accorded their practitioners a higher social status than any other craft. Nonetheless, most Jewish artisans still preferred to be established in traditional religion-based crafts.

During the tsarist regime, Jewish artisans formed half of all the artisans in the Pale of Settlement. They were more heavily represented in towns than in the main cities, and the number of those employed in traditional crafts remained high. In 1807 in the Minsk, Kiev, and Ekaterinoslav regions, 67 percent of Jewish artisans were involved in textile-related activities. Indeed, tailoring remained an important profession among Jews, who were able to maintain their monopoly over it because a large investment of capital was unnecessary, it catered to a mass market, and consumers would often order clothes from the comfort of their own homes. Furthermore, Jews regularly visited the homes and courtyards of the aristocracy, and had an advantage over their gentile competitors, who tended not to leave their shops. Jews were the first in the garment trade to produce clothes that were sold to retailers, and they also developed the first piecework business models: they would provide artisans with raw materials and reimburse them for labor on receipt of the finished product.

Itinerant carpenter with tools of his trade, Vilna (now Vilnius, Lith.), 1920s. (YIVO)

In 1816, the royal commissioner of Congress Poland repealed the law requiring artisans to belong to guilds, thus introducing freedom of occupation in skilled labor. As a result, Jews were able to enter any trade they wished. Subsequently, Jewish artisans began to experiment with new forms of skilled labor, though they generally confined themselves to fields that did not require formal training and did not entail large capital outlays. They therefore opted for professions associated with the leather industry (especially shoemaking) and transport. Nonetheless, the percentage of those employed in traditional crafts remained high even by the turn of the century, and almost half of the Jewish artisans were involved in the garment profession.

According to the 1897 census, 35.43 percent of Imperial Russia’s Jewish population was employed in crafts and industry, with the overwhelming majority in crafts. Half of these were independent artisans who were either self-employed or working in a family business. The rapid increase in the number of artisans generated stiff competition among the Jews themselves. In addition, they found it increasingly difficult to compete with Russia’s developing industries, so many either emigrated or were forced to work as hired laborers. This situation was exploited by various employers and led to some spontaneous strikes; other work actions were organized by trade unions of unskilled and skilled laborers. Indeed, needleworkers formed the backbone of the Jewish socialist (Bund) party.

The number of Jewish artisans in Moldavia was very low before 1800 despite the prominence of Jews in alcohol production. During the first half of the nineteenth century, however, the proportion of Jewish artisans grew steadily. In Iaşi, for example, 11 percent of economically active Jews were artisans in 1808. This proportion grew to 33.2 percent in 1820 and to 36.9 percent in 1845. The situation in smaller towns was somewhat different, though; in 1845, only 20 percent of the Jewish workforce was made up of artisans. The more pronounced growth in urban environments may be attributed to the steady influx of Jewish artisans from Russia and from Galicia.

Shpanyer arbet ‘atarah. Eastern Europe, late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Gift of Joseph Arnon, 1983.84. (Collection of Yeshiva University Museum, New York)

The increase in the number of Moldavian Jews in the skilled workforce translated into an increase and diversification of the number of crafts in which they were involved. Nonetheless, approximately half of the Jewish artisans were engaged in trades connected with the cloth and shoe industries. By the end of the nineteenth century, 43 percent of all tailors in Romania were Jews. The modernization of Romania’s cities after 1878 set the stage for a whole new range of crafts that Jewish artisans quickly mastered. The inevitable upsurge in building projects led many Jews to construction-related activities, so that in Bucharest, for instance, there were 1,869 Jewish roofers and only 956 non-Jewish ones. By the end of the nineteenth century, the proportion of Jewish pavers in Romania had risen to 48 percent.

In interwar Poland, skilled labor was the second most important source of income for the Jewish population after commerce. Approximately half a million Jews were registered as being employed in “industry.” Included in this number was a small group of factory owners, although the vast majority of Jews in “industry” were either factory workers (approximately 200,000) or self-employed (approximately 250,000). The latter were primarily artisans employed in the traditional garment and food sectors. At the end of World War I, Jews comprised 68 percent of all tailors, 86 percent of all watchmakers, and 95 percent of all hatters. Jews registered as employed in industry were typically tailors working either at home or at small workshops, where they employed a few assistants.

A survey conducted in 1918 shows that half of Warsaw’s artisan workshops were owned by Jews, but at the same time these were smaller than the non-Jewish ones. Between 1918 and 1926, the number of Jewish-owned artisan workshops rose by 38 percent, whereas the number of gentile-owned ones rose by only 26 percent. About 60 percent of Jewish skilled labor was concentrated in central Poland. The remaining 40 percent were mainly in the south and the east, areas considered economically backward—that is, Jews featured more prominently among the ranks of the artisans in economically backward regions than they did in the more developed ones. In 1919, Jews totaled 81 percent of the artisans in the Polesia region and 77.1 percent in the Novogródek region, whereas in the Warsaw region the Jewish proportion was 44.2 percent, even though 57.3 percent of the artisans in the city of Warsaw were Jewish.

Young women embroidering, Kozienice, Poland, 1920s. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. Kacyzne often suggested captions for the photographs he sent to the Forverts (The Forward) in New York. On this one, he wrote: “Embroidery is a widespread trade in the city.” (Forward Association/YIVO)

The proportion of Jews in skilled labor began to change in Poland especially after 1927, with the passage of the Industry and Craft Law. This legislation specified that one could practice a craft only if licensed to do so. The law was specifically designed to curb the expansion of Jewish skilled laborers. Since Jewish artisans were often unable to obtain a license, many were forced to operate illegally. The proportion of those artisans who worked illegally was greater in the towns where they were able to evade the authorities, and in occupations that did not require large and conspicuous workshops. The proportion of licensed Jewish artisans was greater in smaller towns and sectors that either required constant consultation with the authorities because of potential sanitary problems (barbers, bakers), or those that needed to be housed in relatively large workshops (hatters or polishers of precious stones).

Lithuanian Jews, despite the traumatic transformations of World War I, were occupied in the same crafts and in the exact proportions after the war as they had been before it began. Both the 1897 and 1923 censuses showed that 52 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish artisans were in the textile and leather industries. The percentage of Jews working in the food industry in 1897 was 13.4, but in 1923 it had risen to 15.6. Over the course of the 1930s, there were attempts to make skilled labor more Lithuanian. Ethnic Lithuanians were spurred by their government to master a craft, and in fact a special law was passed that made it mandatory for artisans to be completely proficient in spoken and written Lithuanian, and to manage accounts in this language. Many Jewish artisans found it increasingly difficult to abide by these regulations.

In the Soviet Union, Jews tended to shy away from the skilled labor sector. During communism’s aggressive period, artisans were forcibly deprived of their income. Their situation improved somewhat under the NEP (New Economic Policy). However, by the end of the 1920s, their position was once again undermined. Obtaining raw materials and restoring old equipment became a very daunting task; it was equally difficult to market their products, and taxation was very high. Aside from conditions that made it difficult for artisans to continue operating independently, such workers were forced to join an artel—in theory a cooperative, but in practice a body that was wholly supervised by the government.

In the 1926 census, 23 percent of the Soviet Union’s economically active Jews were artisans. In Ukraine, the proportion of artisans was 20.6 percent, but among the general public only 1.4 percent could be classified as skilled laborers (in the urbanized areas of Ukraine, 5.6 percent of the general population and 19.6 percent of the Jewish population were classified as artisans). Nevertheless, in the Soviet Union, too, Jews were mainly employed in traditional sectors. In 1929, 53.6 percent of Jews in Ukraine and 59.7 percent of Jews of Belorussia who were classified as occupied in “industry and skilled labor” were involved in the tailoring, leather, printing, and food industries. In Ukraine, the garment industry continued to be in Jewish hands. In 1929, 67 percent of all those occupied in this sector were Jewish. In 1939, the proportion of artisans among the Soviet Union’s Jewish breadwinners and their dependents was 20.1 percent, whereas this proportion among the gentile population stood at less than 5 percent.

Banner of the cooperative of Jewish shoemakers, Czechoslovakia, n.d. Klaus Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic. (Scala/Art Resource, NY)

In interwar Czechoslovakia, 22 percent of economically active Jews worked in industry and crafts. In Bohemia and Moravia, the greater part of them were active at different levels in industry; in contrast, the majority of Jews in Slovakia and Subcarpathian Rus’ (Ruthenia) who were active in industry and crafts worked at small factories and workshops, processing agricultural and wood products in small sawmills, lumber mills, flour mills, distilleries, and the like.

By the end of World War II, the number of Jewish artisans had rapidly decreased. Artisans from among the small Polish Jewish community of Holocaust survivors unionized themselves into cooperatives in order to better equip themselves to deal with the new economic realities of liberated Poland. American Jewish organizations, headed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, assisted these artisans. The cooperatives that Jews had established were involved in a variety of crafts, including tailoring, shoemaking, weaving, baking, and building. The first four cooperatives were established in 1944 in Lublin. By 1949, there were 220 Jewish manufacturers’ cooperatives, boasting a cumulative membership of 9,000 Jews. This was the year in which the cooperatives reached the peak of their success, and from then on they began their slide to oblivion.

Suggested Reading

Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson, “Crafts,” in Economic History of the Jews, ed. Nachum Gross, pp. 151–157 (Jerusalem, 1975); Eliyahu Feldman, Ba‘ale melakhah yehudim be-Moldavyah (Jerusalem, 1982); Bina Garncarska-Kadary, Żydowska ludność pracująca w Polsce, 1918–1939 (Warsaw 2001); Jacob Litman, The Economic Role of Jews in Medieval Poland (Lanham, Md., 1984); Raphael Mahler, Yehude Polin ben shete milḥamot ‘olam: Historyah kalkalit-sotsya’lit le-or ha-statistikah (Tel Aviv, [1968]); Mark Wischnitzer, A History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds (New York, 1965).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler