Religious Lifestyles

Himelhoch's Ancestors-Assimilated Jews

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In all Courland, there was no Yeshivct (Talmudic academies training rabbis). All religious instruction was limited to Heders (teaching of Hebrew and prayers) by private individuals. Many Courlanders did not even understand the prayers they repeated three times a day. In 1840, the Russians sanctioned establishment of a religious school in Riga, which became the catalyst for Jewish teaching throughout the Courland. All teaching was in German and it was not until 1888 that Russian was allowed in the schools. German translation of the Bible by the famous German Rabbi Moses Mendelsohn was utilized.

The school was headed by a director from abroad, Dr. Max Lilianthal. Charles Himelhoch, who conducted this research, said “I could not find the word Reform, but I read of 'winds of knowledge and enlightenment that blew in from the West, and that Jews were adaptive to Western culture as their language was German,' so what else could it be?”

Reuben Joseph Wunerbar, who wrote the first history of Courland Jews in 1853, speaking of Jewish education in the Courland wrote “It is most satisfactory even the poor give their children a fair education, and among adults, there are none who do not command the German language.”

Largely self-educated, he taught in schools in Riga, worked for the government as a translator, and became Crown Rabbi of Mitau, the capital of Courland, immediately adjacent to Riga. He wrote the purpose of his history was, “to show the need for close ties between the Jews and their environment and the neighbors by breaking down barriers through the use of the German language, productivism, and stressing the benefit that the Jews brought to the country - a very assimilationist concept!

In the last half of the 19th century, wealthier Jews began sending their sons for study to Lithuania with its “imposing list of Yeshivct and outstanding rabbinical authorities.” They came back as rabbis concurrent with a new wave of Lithuanian/Jewish immigration and made serious inroads in the establishment of traditional Jewish religious life, but mostly in Riga.

This was only an introduction. The real impact did not come until later in the century when the much larger lumber industry-oriented immigration of Russian Hassidic Jews implemented its own brand of stricter all-inclusive religious and cultural observance. Most of this influence had to be after the Himelhochs had left in the early 1870s.

The Himelhochs could have already been experiencing some cross currents that challenged their secular Germanized assimilationist background. However, in 1870 there were only approximately 50,000 Jews in all Courland, including Riga. Therefore, the family was most likely influenced by assimilationist values at the time.

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