Marriage, Sexuality and Gender: The Essence of Pre-20th Century Eastern European Jewish Survival


As the first of 613 commandments, the instruction to procreate and fill the earth is the most important to Judaism and can be found in Genesis 1:28. At the core of this procreation doctrine is the Jewish institution of marriage and the family. With the highest concentration of Jews in the pre-20th century, Eastern Europe Jewish communities functioned on strict social structures that determined almost every aspect of gender, sexuality, marriage and family of those within. Through the study of these Jewish gender roles and customs, as well as many Jewish reform movements, historians can fully understand the overall structure of life and the roles that each family member played. These firm modes of living were critical in keeping Jewish society and religious observance alive in pre-20th Century Eastern Europe amidst the backdrop of Christian society.



Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity

This book provides an extensive chronological history of the Jews in Eastern Europe as well as context into the Hassidic and Haskalah movements. The book also details Jewish views, practices and customs towards masturbation, pre-marital sexual intercourse, nocturnal emissions and other issues dealing with sexuality.

Hundert, Gershon David. Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century . Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.


The Life of Judaism

This book provides a basic overview of the gender and marriage customs that took place in Eastern Europe. It examines how men and women were treated differently according to religious tradition in terms of sexuality, virginity status, marriage customs and laws. This information provides the background and context of marriage and sexuality customs in pre-20th century Europe. Information including military conscription, the kettuba, views on masturbation and other key topics.

Goldberg, Harvey E. The Life of Judaism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press , 2001.


Gender and Sexuality

Jewish Women in Eastern Europe

This collection of scholarly articles from the Polin Institute for Studies in Polish Jewry examines the history of Jewish Women in Eastern Europe both from a factual and exploratory standpoint. The information covers big issues such as women’s involvement in society, Yiddish literature’s view of women and how the Haskala movement changed Judaism’s stance towards women. The book also sheds light on interesting topics not usually found in the discourse, such as the Russian push for Jewish female education in the later 1800s and push for females in medicine.

Polin Studies in Polish Jewry. Jewish Women in Eastern Europe. Edited by Chaeran Freeze, Paula Hyman and Antony Polonsky. Vol. 18. Portland, Oregon: Oxford, 2005.


Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man (Book)

This book has a more theoretical and sociological perspective on Judaism and its views on masculinity and sexuality. The book delves into the culture of Eastern European Judaism and its views toward sex and a man’s role. It examines various gender roles throughout the history of Judaism. The material on pre-20th century Eastern European Judaism takes into account such topics as how Hassidism changed religious custom and the way men should act and interpret the Torah and Talmud. As well as other gender custom changes such Hasidism’s push to strengthen the bonds between men and their children.

Boyarin, Daniel. Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.


This YIVO article provides a great background and context to work off of. The article describes women’s specific gender roles in Eastern Europe and the many ways in which their role was similar to society at large and specific to the Jewish community. For one, women’s religious duties were much less of a commitment than men. Women were expected to be the caretakers and light the Sabbath candles, observe the rules of nidah and mikveh and to properly maintain a kosher household. Men on the other hand were expected to study Torah daily and follow all of the commandments. The article also explains how the Maskilim and their Jewish enlightenment movement affected gender.

Hyman, Paula E. 2010. Gender. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. (accessed December 6, 2012).



Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia

This book provides a detailed summary of how marriaged functioned in Eastern Europe from the matchmaker to the actual ceremony. It also provides analysis into the Haskalah movement and how the maskilim reformed the institution of marriage.

Freeze, ChaeRan Y. Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia . Hanover, NH : Brandeis University Press , 2002 .



This article from the YIVO encyclopedia provides a basic overview of the Jewish institution of marriage in Eastern Europe. It highlights the general information regarding the qualifications, role of the family, rabbi and matchmaker in the process. I will use this article to develop the background of my topic before getting into the more theoretical and sociological perspectives to sexuality, marriage and gender in Eastern European Judaism.

Freeze, ChaeRan. 2010. Marriage. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. (accessed December 6, 2012).




This article provides context about the history of childbirth in Judaism and the prayers and customs that were held both during and after birth. It also describes the risks involved with home births and the eventual move to hospitals. It discusses the role of the rabbi in providing his blessings and the often mystical take that many facets of Judaism held in this time period. It provides facts on the mortality rate, average age of mothers and others.

Chovav, Yemima. 2010. Childbearing. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. (accessed December 6, 2012).



This article provides insight into the tradition and customs behind Eastern European Jewish weddings. It highlights the process behind the marriage and huge celebrations that marked the beginning of Jewish family life.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 2010. Weddings. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. (accessed December 6, 2012).




The article on the Haskala movement provides great context into their role as reformers to Eastern European Judaism and the old establishment. In addition to a historical synopsis, the article provides great insight into how the movement changed Judaism’s approach towards marriage, gender and sexuality. For example, the maskilim completely changed Jewish marriage from an arranged situation to one based on love and deeper factors. The movement also greatly changed the Jewish education system and moved towards a secular model.


Etkes, Immanuel. 2010. Haskalah. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. (accessed December 6, 2012).


This article provides great historical background into the Hasidic movement that swept through Eastern Europe and brought in many young Jewish followers. The movement sought to bring a religious revival back to Judaism by enhancing the spirituality and meaning behind Torah study. The article also explains the conflict and differences between Hasidism and Haskalah.


Assaf, David. 2010. Hasidism: Historical Overview. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. (accessed December 6, 2012).