while looking around for books about mating patterns in eastern europe, i came across this very interesting book: Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia.

according to the author, there are, unfortunately, not a whole h*ck of a lot of surviving records related to births/deaths/marriages of russian jews from this era — most were destroyed during wwii. d*mn. however, she did find nearly complete records from a town called korostyshev in the ukraine (pale of settlement).

in 1847, there were 2,657 people (jews — it was a shtetl) living in korostyshev and they pretty much all married locally. now not all those 2,657 people would’ve been of reproductive age — there’d have been children and old folks in there, too. so, i dunno, let’s guess that around a quarter of them were of reproductive age (i don’t know if that’s right — i’m just guessing — take this with a grain of salt). that’s only ca. 664 people mating — 332 couples. that’s a pretty small group, i.e. it would’ve inevitably been pretty inbred.

and the author points out that cousin marriage was reportedly common amongst jewish in nineteenth century russia — and that certain networks of families inbred with each other over and over again. (this is reminiscent of well-to-do families in medieval european cities.)

i don’t know for how long these close mating patterns were practised amongst russian jews. obviously, as a separate ethnic group, ashkenazi jews mostly traditionally bred within their own group. but for how long did they marry cousins/within small family networks/mostly within the shtetl? from the beginning of the pale of settlement? earlier than that? i don’t know. what i do know — what i have learned over these past few months of reading about mating patterns — is that the patterns can change. peoples will alter their mating patterns as their circumstances change, so you can’t assume anything.

russian jews definitely married very closely during the nineteenth century. my guess is that they did so earlier as well, but that’s just a guess.

given the fact that ashkenazi jews in russia (and elsewhere in europe?) bred so closely for probably many generations, it’s not strange that geneticists have found that ashkenazi (and other populations, like sephardic) jews are related to one another within their respective sub-populations, on average, as though they were all fourth or fifth cousins.

here are some excerpts from Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia [pgs. 25-27]:

“Yikus (Family Lineage)

“‘As is well known, Jews are excessively picayune about good lineage,’ wrote a commentator in ‘Evreikoe obozrenie,’ and thus ‘yikus plays an extremely important role in marital matters.’ One need only peruse the genealogical histories of famous Hasidic dynasties or rabbinical families to ascertain the importance of lineage in marital unions. Despite the adage that ‘a shoemaker’s son does not marry a rabbi’s daughter,’ it was possible, if rare, for someone of modest descent to marry into a distinguished family….

“The emerging class of Jewish entrepreneurs, intent on gaining elite respectability, place a high premium on family status in choosing partners. According to Aleksandr Poliakov, his grandfather’s cousins — the illustrious bankers and railroad financiers Iakov, Samuel, and Lazar Poliakov — married off their daughters to ‘different dynasties of European bankers, as well as French and German aristocrats.’ Bound by commercial as well as cultural ties, upper-class Jews often met in salons or over intimate Sabbath dinners, where their children were introduced to one another. Aleksandr Poliakov’s own father met his wife, Flora Shabbat, the daughter of a prominent first-guild merchant, over a Sabbath meal in Moscow.

“No matter how distinguished the family lineage, it had to be ‘pure’ — that is, there was to be no suspicion that ‘he or she was the offspring of an illicit union’ or a convert from Judaism. One way to avoid a ‘tainted’ individual was to limit marriages to relatives or a close circle of known families. Judaism even encouraged cousin marriages, particularly during the Middle Ages, when relatives were given priority over strangers. These marriages were deemed advantageous not only because they strengthened common bonds but also because they provided an opportunity to combine assests and expand markets.

Although data on consanguineous marriages in Russia are lacking, contemporaries claimed that they were ‘very common,’ largely because of the narrow circle of eligible partners for any given class of Jews. This geographic endogamy impelled one Jewish observer to write that ‘the expression “Kol Yisrael ahim” or “all Jews are brothers” is true in this sense, that Jews [who] belong to one strata of society and reside in one area, always find out that they are related when discussing their family backgrounds.’ The strategy of marrying relatives was particularly pronounced in small towns. It was due to concerns about family lineage, as well as to restrictions on geographic mobility (i.e., legal restrictions on residency, poor communications and transportation, and the high costs for travel).

That observation indeed finds confirmation in the metrical records. These archival materials are unusually complete for Korostyshev, a small town in Kiev province with 2,657 Jewish residents in 1847. Unlike many Ukrainian towns where the metrical records were destroyed during World War II, Korostyshev preserved metrical books from the mid-nineteenth century to 1915, thus representing some of the most complete runs of Jewish metrical books in the entire Ukraine. Significantly, they reveal that most residents married locally — that is, to people from Korostyshev or, at most, from nearby villages and towns (Zhitomir, Berdichev, and Radomysl’). Still more striking were the marital bonds between small family networks — for example, the countless marriages among the Fuksmans, Gershengorens, Trakhtenbergs, and Ratners (all of whom lived in Korostyshev or nearby Zhitomir). Another network included the Vinikurs, Tsiponiuks, and Abrumovichs; this cluster overlapped with a group that included the Kagans, Umerskiis, and Peigers. And so on until, several decades later, many Korostyshev residents were distant or even close relatives. Devorah Baron’s description of small shtetl families was indeed perspicacious: ‘In our little town, families joined together by marriage ties often resembled well-fitted but separate sections of garment; all that was needed was the skillful hand that would join the seams.’”

“Jews [who] belong to one strata of society and reside in one area, always find out that they are related when discussing their family backgrounds….” sounds like what happens to me whenever i travel back to the “old country.” (~_^)

previously: jewish inbreeding and jewish endogamy on mallorca and cousin marriage rates amongst nineteenth century english and english jews and inbreeding in nineteenth century alsace-lorraine (including jews)

(note: comments do not require an email. shtetl.)

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