(Eng. and Fr., Jassy; Yid., Yos; Heb., Yas), town in Moldavia (northeastern Romania) on the Bahlui River; an important trading center with links to Bucovina, Bessarabia, Ukraine, and Russia; capital of the former principality of Moldavia (1565–1862). The largest and most important Jewish community of Moldavia lived in Iaşi. The presence of Jews was first documented in the late sixteenth century when Sephardic Jews arrived accompanying the new rulers appointed by the Turkish sultan. The oldest tomb inscription in the local cemetery probably dates to 1610.
La Naturalisation des Israélites en Roumanie (Naturalization of the Jews in Romania). Lithograph by Kaufmann. The print depicts Jews registering for citizenship in the police station in Iaşi, ca. 1880s. (Moldovan Family Collection)
In 1622, the ruling prince guaranteed the small local Jewish community the right of residence and juridical autonomy, as well as its legal status as a religious guild (breasla jidovilor). The status of Iaşi’s Jewish guild was redefined in a similar document in 1666. The Jewish community resided in a special district (Târgu Cucu), had the right to erect a synagogue, owned a vast plot of land for the cemetery (in the Ciurchi district), and was bound to pay a special collective tax to the prince. The guild was led by a master (Rosh Medinah), who was elected by its members. His main task was to collect and pay the collective tax. Most of the Jews were Ashkenazic from Poland and Lithuania. They were involved in local commerce and trade with Poland and Turkey (including in wine and fish), in the production of local brandy (țuică), as well as in crafts. Contemporary documents also mention several doctors, among them the Venetian Sephardic doctor attending to Prince Vasile Lupu, and a healer by the name of Moise.
As a result of the pogroms led by Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi in 1648–1649 (gzeyres takh vetat), many Jews from Ukraine took refuge in Iaşi. In 1652, Timus Khmel’nyts’kyi (son of Bohdan) married the daughter of Prince Vasile Lupu, and the Cossacks who came to Iaşi for the wedding organized a pogrom in which about 60 Jews were killed.
The Great Synagogue, built in 1670, and believed to be the oldest synagogue building still standing in Romania, Iaşi, 2006. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber. (Courtesy of the photographer)
The synagogue (in late Baroque style), in the Târgu Cucu district, was finished in 1670 (it still exists today as the Great Synagogue). The seventeenth-century cemetery in the Ciurchi district was used until 1881, and destroyed in 1943. Among the rabbis who lived in Iaşi during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were Natan Note Hannover (1660–1671), Aryeh Leib ben Shemu’el (died in Iaşi in 1671), and Petaḥyah ben David Lida (1705–1711).
Demographic changes, as well as changes in the status and organization of the Jewish community occurred in the eighteenth century. In 1755, of the 1,353 houses in Iaşi, 65 belonged to Jews, 30 to Jews who had converted to Orthodox Christianity, and 33 to Christians married to Jewish women. The converted Jews enjoyed a privileged status; some of them were ennobled. The Jewish population of Iaşi increased in the late eighteenth century with the development of the Moldavian economy after the conclusion of the Russian–Turkish peace treaty of Kücük-Kainargi (1774). This trend continued in the first half of the nineteenth century, especially as a result of the Russian–Turkish peace treaty of Adrianople (1829), until the unification of the principalities of Moldavia and Walachia (1859). In 1803, there were 2,420 taxpaying Jews living in Iaşi. In 1808, there were 432 raia (native) Jewish families, accounting for 1,822 persons, and 142 families of Sudit (protected by foreign powers) Jews, accounting for 582 persons. In 1831, the number of Jews living in Iaşi reached 17,570, then 29,652 in 1838, and 31,015 (47.1% of the population) in 1859.
Jews settled throughout the town, including on the main street, and only the poor remained in the Târgu Cucu district. Jews were active in banking as well as domestic and international trade and crafts. There were also Jewish doctors, musicians, and private servants. In the first half of the eighteenth century, Jewish merchants traded in wine, local brandy, tobacco, cotton, iron goods, rice, copper, and salt. The foreign trade with Brody in southern Poland developed to the point that Jewish merchants from that town established their own synagogue. Jewish artisans included tailors, shoemakers, milliners, glaziers, bakers, butchers, silversmiths, masons, clockmakers, carpenters, and seal engravers. Jews were also active in promoting small industries, producing spirits, paper, and gunpowder. The success of Jewish artisans was due to the fact that, as immigrants from Galicia under Austrian rule, they had brought along products different from those existing on the local markets: “German” clothes, European-style shoes, German-style furniture, Western hats, foods from Central Europe (e.g., bread baked with yeast), and Western-style watches. Several Jewish artisan guilds were established during the last decades of the eighteenth century. Some had their own synagogues. Such associations operated officially until 1862 when all guilds were closed down by law as a result of the transition to the free market economy.
From 1733 to 1749, princes Constantin Mavrocordat and Grigore Ghica introduced several changes related to the Jews’ status in Moldavia in general and in Iaşi in particular. To avoid administrative and fiscal abuse, Mavrocordat ordered that Jewish guild documents be copied in the register of the kingdom’s chancellery, and some were translated from Hebrew into Romanian. Ghica confirmed the obligation of each Jew to pay the crupca, an indirect tax on kosher meat similar to the korobka tax collected in Poland (1741). Under Ottoman influence, the authorities gradually changed the role of the rabbis, assigning them the responsibility of collecting and paying the collective tax, as well as of representing the Jews’ guild before the ruling prince. At the same time, rabbis ceased to be elected by the guild, but were now appointed by the prince. The rabbi of Iaşi became an administrator, acquiring the title of baş-haham (also hahambaşa; Heb., ḥakham bashi), and his authority was expanded to include the entire principality of Moldavia. The office of hahambaşa was disestablished in 1834.
A majority of Jews who settled in Iaşi in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were Hasidim; most of them were Sudit, under the protection of the Austrians or Russians. Although they tried and failed to organize into a separate community, Hasidic Jews came to form a majority and were a dominant element in the culture of the town’s Jews. Among the Hasidic rabbis of Iaşi in the early nineteenth century, the most prominent was Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Opatów, who lived there from 1808 to 1813.
A reorganization of local Jewish life began in 1831 when the banker Yeḥi’el Mikhl ben Dani’el was appointed by the authorities to set up a ruling board of the community. He was follower of Yisra’el of Ruzhin, who had settled in Sadagora. The banker succeeded in setting up an organized community that included all local and Sudit Jews. The office of town rabbi, which had been previously held by the last hahambaşa, Yesha‘yahu (Shaye) Naftulovici, was given to the Talmudic scholar Yosef Landau (1791–1853; in Iaşi: 1834–1853). Another distinguished rabbinic authority, Aharon Mosheh Taubes of Śniatyn, arrived in Iaşi in 1842 (d. Iaşi, 1852).
A group of Jews who tried to emigrate from Iaşi to a Turkish-controlled area in Galați and were expelled, with the corpse of a man drowned when Romanian soldiers refused the group reentry to Romania and threw them in the Danube, 1866. Postcard printed in Germany, captioned with a quote by Romanian Prime Minister Petre P. Carp (1900–1901; 1911–1912): “We no longer live in times when it is permissible to throw Jews in the water.” (YIVO)
In 1855, the most prominent members of the community decided that the community board was to be elected by the 23 heads of the Jewish guilds and by 22 other notables appointed by local authorities. Elections were to be held every two years at the community premises. The members of the board (epitropi) were to be confirmed in office by the prince. The community budget had to be endorsed by the Administrative Council of Moldavia. The elected epitropi appointed the administrators of the community schools and institutions, assured their proper operation, controlled the community funds, and could impose new taxes.
The repeal of the indirect tax on kosher meat in 1862, as well as conflicts between Hasidim and maskilim hampered the development of community life in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. As a consequence, the Jewish hospital, which separated from the community in 1891, became the de facto representative of the Jewish community of Iaşi in relation with the authorities. In 1916, the banker and industrialist Moritz Wachtel, administrator of the hospital, became the de facto president of the community. The hospital board represented the Jewish community of Iaşi until 1919.
The first Hebrew printing press of the city was established in 1833, when it printed the calendar of the Hebrew year 5594. Another printing press, owned by the Romanian scholar Gheorghe Asachi, printed several religious books in 1842–1843. In the same period, a press owned by Herş Goldner printed several books in Hebrew and Yiddish. The books were subject to censorship conducted by Mihail Vitlimescu, a Jewish convert to Christianity, who had also written a textbook for Jews to learn Romanian (1855).
In 1840, there were 12 traditional elementary schools in Iaşi with 653 pupils. Some of the affluent Jews in town, under the influence of the Haskalah, hired private tutors from abroad to teach their children. In 1847 a group of maskilim, led by Moshe Eisic Finkelstein, decided to dress in European-style clothes, and this stirred violent protests from Hasidim. A group of maskilim, after initial failure, established a “modern” boys’ school in 1852; its headmaster was the maskil Beniamin Schwarzfeld (1822–1896). The Hasidic rabbis boycotted the school, which closed in 1857. A “modern” girls’ school was established in 1854. Under pressure from Prime Minister Mihail Kogălniceanu to replace traditional forms of schooling, the community opened three “modern” elementary schools in Iaşi. In 1867 there were 352 pupils in attendance.
In October 1855, the first Yiddish newspaper in Romania, which bore the Hebrew title Korot ha-‘itim, was published in Iaşi. It was issued twice a week until 1871, with a few interruptions. The bilingual newspaper Gazeta Româno-Evreiască (The Romanian Jewish Gazette) was issued in 1859; it was edited by Marcu Feldman-Câmpeanu and championed emancipation and the modernization of the education system.
In 1803, a leaflet attacking Jews and Judaism, Infruntarea jidovilor (Confronting the Jews), was published in Iaşi; its author was the converted Jew Noah Belfer, who had become a monk under the name Neofit. The leaflet was published with the approval of the metropolitan of Moldavia, Iacob Stamate, but the new metropolitan Veniamin Costachi came to the Jews’ defense. In 1821, during the Greeks’ rebellion against Ottoman rule, the Jews in Iaşi living in the same district as the Turks were attacked along with them by the rebelling Greeks. In 1835, Prince Mihail Sturdza determined to expel Jews without legal rights of residence, but he eventually abandoned the idea when the banker Yeḥi’el Mikhl ben Dani’el forgave a large debt owed to him by the prince.
The number of Jews in Iaşi increased in the second half of the nineteenth century, reaching 39,441 (50.8% of the town’s population) in 1899. This growth was due both to natural increase and to the arrival of Jews who had been expelled from surrounding villages. In the early twentieth century, the number of Jews fell as a result of economic crisis, discriminatory laws, and emigration. In 1910, there were about 35,000 Jews living in Iaşi.
In the late nineteenth century, Jews were active in small industry and crafts, local and international trade, finance, and liberal and intellectual professions (they were doctors, teachers, writers, journalists, bookshop keepers, editors, public servants, and musicians). They also contributed to the setting up of steam mills and mechanical workshops, as well as to organizing freight. In 1890–1892, there were 3,048 Jewish artisans and 3,404 Jewish merchants. By 1909, Jews accounted for 77 percent of the craftsmen in Iaşi.
Most rabbis in Iaşi in 1859 to 1919 were Hasidim. They included Shemu’el Shmelke Taubes (in Iaşi 1852–1865); his son, Uri Shraga Feivel Taubes; Yeshayahu (Isaia) Shor, an adept of strict Orthodoxy (1854–1879); Dov Ber Rabinovici, also called the Folticener Rebbe (d. 1865); Ḥayim Landau (d. 1908), rabbi of the town, an adept of strict orthodoxy; Yisra’el Gutman (1820–1894), and his son, Shalom Gutman. In 1865, the banker Jacob of Neuschatz established the moderate reform temple that carried his name, Bet Ya‘akov. The preachers in this temple included Antoine Levy of Alsace and eventually Matityahu Simḥah Rabener. Later (from 1897), this position was filled by Iacob Isac Niemirower, who subsequently became the chief rabbi of Romania. Another modern rabbi in Iaşi (in 1915) was Meyer Thenen. A Jewish secondary school was also set up in the early twentieth century.
In 1872, Matityahu Simḥah Rabener published the Hebrew literary–cultural review Zimrat ha-arets. Although only two issues were published, it managed to bring together Hebrew writers from Iaşi with others, especially from Bucovina and Galicia. In 1878, a group of maskilim in Iaşi established the cultural association Ohale Shem, whose purpose was to develop the Hebrew language and spread Jewish culture. Hebrew writers involved in the association included Beniamin Schwarzfeld (1822–1897), Naḥman Fraenkel, Menaḥem Mendel Braunstein (1858–1944, known as Mibashan), and the physician Karpel Lippe (1830–1915). The journalist Eli‘ezer Rokeaḥ (1854–1914) lived for a while in Iaşi, where he published the Hebrew newspaper Yisra’el in 1881, as did the poet Naftali Herz Imber (1856–1909), author of “Hatikvah,” which eventually became the anthem of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel.
Daramarea Templului (Yid., Khurbn beysamigdesh; Destruction of the Temple). Romanian–Yiddish poster advertising a performance of a play by Goldfadn. Iaşi, 1903. (YIVO)
In 1876, the first performance of the Yiddish theater, established by Avrom Goldfadn, was given in Iaşi. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Iaşi became a center of Yiddish literature. In 1896, the socialist weekly Der veker (edited by Max Wexler [1870–1917], Litman Ghelerter [1873–1945], and Leon Gheler) was issued in Iaşi; it was published again in 1916, edited by Isac Moscovici. In 1899, the Zionist weekly in Yiddish (with a German title) Die Jüdische Zukunft was published in Iaşi; it was a cultural and general Jewish-interest magazine. Between December 1914 and September 1915, the first literary review in Yiddish in Romania, Likht, was issued in Iaşi; it was edited by a group called by the same name, with Efraim Waldman as editor, and Iacob Botoshanski (1892–1964), Iacob Groper, Lascar Şaraga (Lazar Samson; 1892–1968), Moti Rabinovici, and Arn Matisyahu Friedman as contributors. Several Jewish periodicals in Romanian were also issued in Iaşi. One of them, Vocea apărătorului (The Voice of the Defender; 1872–1873), was edited by Marcu Feldman and Marcu Rosenfeld, and advocated Jewish emancipation and tried to fight against the anti-Jewish attacks in the local Romanian press. The Revista Israelită (The Israelite Magazine), edited by Elias Schwarzfeld, was issued in 1874. Other periodicals issued in Romanian in Iaşi before World War I included Lumina (The Light, 1887) a socialist weekly, edited by Ştefan Stâncă; Propăşirea (The Thriving, 1889–1891), edited by Max Caufman; and Răsăritul (The Sunrise, 1899–1901).
In Iaşi, Jewish writers and journalists writing in Romanian before World War I included Adolf-Avram Steuerman-Rodion (1872–1918), Horia Carp, Enric Furtună, A. Axelrod, the brothers Joseph and Marco Brociner (the former an essayist and historian, the latter a novelist in Romanian and German), the epigrammatist Bernard Goldner (Giordano), the poet Adrian Verea, the journalists Jean Hefter, Alfred Hefter, Carol Schoenfeld (C. Săteanu), Clement Blumenfeld-Scrutator, and A. Glicksman (“Dr. Y”).
Jewish musicians in Iaşi played an important role as preservers of Yiddish folklore, as performers and composers. The most prominent musicians were the Lemes family, Avram Bughici, Berl Segal, and Haim Israel Bernstein. In 1906, a group of maskilim, including Niemirower, Iacob Nacht, Abraham Leib Zissu, Iacob Groper, Iacob Botoşanski and others, founded the Toynbee Hall Association, which was a sort of Jewish popular athenaeum, and organized public lectures on Jewish and general topics in Romanian and Yiddish. Among the lecturers who appeared in Iaşi were Sholem Aleichem, Bernard Lazare, Franz Oppenheimer, and Naḥum Sokolow. The first local committee of the Yishuv Erets Yisra’el organization was elected in February 1882; Karpel Lippe became its president. He eventually participated in the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897.
Antisemitism was rife in Iaşi at the turn of the century. Several academics at Iaşi University were prominent antisemitic propagandists, among them the economist Alexandru Constantin Cuza and the chemist Constantin Şumuleanu. Antisemitic students organized a violent demonstration in May 1899, beating Jews and attacking Jewish shops. Several antisemitic incidents also took place during the peasant uprising of 1907, as well as in 1909 when the play Manasse by Ronetti Roman was performed at the National Theater in Iaşi.
The Jews’ situation in Iaşi was aggravated during World War I when numerous refugees arrived. About 75 percent of them needed support from the community. Approximately 1,200 Jews died in the typhus and typhoid fever epidemics of 1917.
During the interwar period, the situation of the Jewish community in Iaşi improved. Along with refugees, the town received immigrants from Bessarabia, Bucovina, and Russia. In 1921, there were 43,500 Jews living in Iaşi. As the decade progressed, their number diminished, reaching 35,465 (34.4% of the population) in 1930, as a result of domestic migration, especially to Bucharest, and to other countries. Iaşi had lost its economic and political importance to a certain extent.
In 1919, an assembly of representatives of synagogues, Jewish associations, and institutions declared the reestablishment of the community as a modern voluntary association. In 1927, the community was officially acknowledged by central and local authorities. In 1939, there were 140 synagogues in Iaşi. Among the 10 rabbis there in 1939, the most prominent were Shemu’el Schwemer (rabbi in Iaşi, 1909–1950); Menaḥem ben Shalom Gutman (d. 1992, leader of the Zionist movement in Romania); and Yosef Şafran (rabbi of the town during World War II). A school for teachers was opened in 1922, with teaching in Hebrew, but it was closed down by the authorities after just one year. In 1939 there were four Talmud Torahs, a yeshiva (Bet Aharon), three boys’ elementary schools, three girls’ elementary schools, a vocational school for girls, and one kindergarten. Beside the old Israelite hospital, there were also a children’s hospital, a clinic for the poor, an old people’s home, and an orphanage. These institutions relied on local funding as well as on support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. A cooperative credit bank for craftsmen was set up in 1924.
Flyer advertising an event sponsored by the Oineg Şabat cultural organization at the Rabbi Gutman Synagogue on Hagi-Lupu Street, Iaşi, Romania, 1928. Printed and handwritten in Yiddish: "Jews! If you consider yourself connected to Judaism, if you have God in your heart and hold dear yidishkeyt and the Jewish Torah, come to the big folk gathering at 3:00 on the Sabbath on October 20." Speakers at the event included "Dr. Glukman" and "dentist Moldovan-Grinberg. (YIVO)
During the interwar years, Iaşi’s Jews were active in Romanian political parties (mainly left-wing), and some became members of the city council. Within the community, an important part was played by the Zionist organizations. A He-Ḥaluts farm was set up in 1924 and operated until 1940, when it was closed down by the authorities. The Zionist students’ association, Hasmonaea, was set up in 1925. There also was a local organization of the Jewish Party. There were Yiddish poets in Iaşi, among them Itsik Manger, Leib Drucker, and Srul Braunstein; Hebrew poets, including Eliyahu Meitus (1892–1979) and Ḥayim Rabinsohn; and Romanian writers, Geri Spina (Schreiber; 1896–1944), Moses Duff (translator of the Psalms, together with the Romanian writer Mihail Sadoveanu), Jacques Pineles, Carol Drimer, Enric Furtunǎ, (pseud. Henry Peckelmann, 1881–1965), and Isac Ludo. The poet and philosopher Beniamin Fundoianu also began his literary work in Iaşi. The main Jewish periodical was the newspaper Tribuna Evreiască (The Jewish Tribune), in Romanian.
The university continued to be a locus of antisemitic activity; several separate dormitories and canteens were set up for Jewish students. The antisemitic League for National-Christian Defense was established in 1923. Violence and discrimination against Jews escalated in the 1930s, especially during the Antonescu government and the Iron Guard regime (September 1940–January 1941). A synagogue located close to the local headquarters of the Iron Guard was torn down, the Torah parchments desecrated, and the valuables stolen. As Jewish pupils were banned from the public schools, two Jewish general high schools were established, one for boys, with 400 pupils, and one for girls, with 300 pupils; a higher commercial school for boys was also set up, enrolling 200 students.
The situation worsened further when Romania joined the war on the side of Nazi Germany. One week after the war began (29–30 June 1941), the town of Iaşi witnessed an anti-Jewish pogrom, staged by the local authorities with support of German troops. Some 4,332 Jews who survived the first day of the pogrom were deported in death trains to Podul Iloaiei and Călăraşi; 2,205 died because of the subhuman transport conditions. The pogrom had almost 14,000 victims, including those on the death trains.
As a result of the pogrom, the number of Jews living in Iaşi dropped to 32,369 people (according to official records) in 1942. In August 1941, some 4,000 Jewish men were recruited for forced labor and sent off to work in Stânca Roznovanu. Many others were deported to Transnistria with their families. In April 1942, Jews from the small town of Podul Iloaiei (about 1,500 people) were transferred to Iaşi by force and dispossessed of their belongings. In 1943, the old Jewish cemetery from the Ciurchi district, which counted 27,000 tombs, was destroyed. Elections were organized within the community to replace community leaders who had been killed in the pogrom.
On 21 August 1944, the town was occupied by the Soviet army. Most inhabitants who had remained were Jews, employed to reorganize local administration. Many who had been displaced by force to Iaşi stayed in town. At the same time, many young Jews chose to emigrate to the West or to Palestine with the support of the local Zionist organizations, which had resumed their activity. Community president Avram Hahamu and town rabbi Yosef Şafran were among the emigrants.
In 1947, there were about 38,000 Jews living in Iaşi. In June 1947 a monument was erected to commemorate the victims of the 1941 pogrom in the Jewish cemetery in the Păcurari district. The pogrom was declared a war crime, and the members of the military and the local police who had been responsible for it were arrested. On 26 June 1948, 50 people were condemned to prison.
During the Stalinist period, the procommunist Jewish Democratic Committee developed rich cultural activity in Yiddish. Jewish schools were nationalized, but a state-owned public school functioned with Yiddish as the language of instruction. A state-owned Yiddish theater operated between December 1949 and February 1963. Victims of the pogrom were commemorated every year with the participation of local authorities, and on each occasion stress was laid on the fact that the new regime had eliminated antisemitism. Religious life carried on. The Great Synagogue in the Târgu Cucului district was restored and declared a historical monument. The intellectuals of Iaşi included many Jewish academics, scientists, writers, journalists, doctors, lawyers, and engineers. The brothers Mendel (1906–1973) and Adolf Haimovici (1912–1993) were prominent mathematicians. Ițic Şvarț-Kara (1906–2001), a professor specializing in Yiddish and Hebrew, published studies on the history of Jews in Romania and on local Jewish folklore. Iaşi became an example used by the Communist regime to claim the improvement of the Jews’ situation in Romania.
More and more Jews from Iaşi emigrated when the nationalist tendencies of the official policy became stronger. The Yiddish school was turned into a Romanian school, the Yiddish theater in Iaşi was closed (some of the actors were accused of Zionism and spying for Israel, and were arrested). The Great Synagogue in Târgu Cucului was erased from the list of historical monuments. Leadership of the community was taken over by representatives of the Federation of Jewish Communities. Religious life persisted, although most rabbis in Iaşi had emigrated. A Talmud Torah was established within the Great Synagogue and was managed by Kara. After 1968, the community organized classes in Hebrew and Jewish history for the youth and students. In 1988, a museum of history of the Jews from Iaşi was established in one wing of the Great Synagogue. In 1975, there were about 3,000 Jews living in Iaşi and four synagogues were active. However, the number of Jews continued to drop because of massive emigration to Israel.
After the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, the Jews’ situation in Iaşi improved. Existing institutions continued to operate. The Great Synagogue in the Târgu Cucului district was declared a historical monument once again and was restored. An annual festival of Yiddish theater is organized in town. Since 1996, an annual publication on the history of the Jews in Romania, Studia et acta historiae Iudaeorum Romaniae, has been published by the local history and archeology institutes of the Romanian Academy. In 2005, a center for the history of the Jews was set up within the local university coordinated by Professor Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu. In 2003, there were 540 Jews living in Iaşi and four synagogues were active.