Working around Prohibitions

Members of the managing committee and staff of a gemilut

Economic opportunities for Eastern European Jews were limited by regulations and laws prohibiting them from participating in businesses open to non-Jews. So Jews often had to outmaneuver these regulations in order to earn a living.

For example, regulations dating from the Middle Ages prohibited Jews from owning land, preventing them from working in agriculture. As a result, Jews pursued opportunities in urban areas, including banking and finance. Two professions that had traditionally been open to them were moneylending and leasing. Jakub Becal, for instance, who had ties to the seventeenth-century Polish royal court, was one of the first general leaseholders. Even as early as the fifteenth century, Josko of Hrubieszów was the most important customhouse leaseholder of pre-imperial Russia . He also served as financer and supplier of items such as spices, cloth, and velvet to the king and his courtiers. Jews’ service to and close association with the nobility, particularly as tax collectors, sometimes caused animosity between Jews and the local rural populace.

One common leasing activity for Jews was in the production and sale of alcohol. In fact, in some regions of Poland , the majority of tavernkeepers were Jewish. This was so significant an industry for Jews that when, in 1784, an imperial patent ordered that Jews in Galicia be removed as tavern and brewery leaseholders, fully one-third of the Jewish population faced losing its source of income.

Slideshow: Daily Life

A glimpse of everyday life for Jewish people living in Eastern Europe.


Life in the Shtetl

Der Krieg im Osten—Russische Typen in der Königsberger S

The shtetl was an integral part of Jewish culture, facilitating a community’s social and economic livelihood. These small market towns in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe had large Yiddish-speaking Jewish populations. Each shtetl was part of a local and regional economic network, and unlike previous kinds of Jewish settlements in France, Spain, or Italy, the prewar shtetl consisted mostly of Jews, who sometimes comprised 80 percent or more of the population.

Read more about life in shtetls.