The majority of Jews were not Orthodox or assimilationist
between World Wars I and II. They were somewhere between tradition and assimilation,
between the tribe and between the state. Many questions faced these Jews: Where did they
fit in on the national map? If Jewishness was not the same as Judaism, what is Jewishness,
as opposed to Polishness? How were Jews going to define what they were, and what they
wanted to accomplish? The Jewish family was not the place to go to heal--the Jewish family
was at a crossroads at this time. It was being pulled in the directions of competing
values, behavior, and views of life.
The two main threads pulling most Jews away from traditional Jewishness
was acculturation, becoming more Polish in way of life, and secularization, becoming less
Appearance figured into both of these changes. Some of Polish Jewry's
older generation had already changed the traditional Jewish look at the end of the 19th
and beginning of the 20th century. This was especially true of those in large cities and
the upper class. After the Great War, the younger generation was more quickly deleting the
beard and changing appearance. One of the adopters from a small town noted: "You
know, the first step was to shorten the kapote [the black caftan and the next to wear a
European suit with a Jewish hat. THe final was to start wearing a European hat, too."
This was the most common method of changing styles. Other people simply abandoned the
traditional dress all at once as a sign that they were emancipated and modern. In fact, a
strongly negative attitude towards the traditional Jewish style spread quickly between the
Wars. Some even saw it as an embarrasing sign of backwardness.
Secularization also moved quickly during this era. Although widely
practiced, strict observance of Jewish teachings was breaking down, especially, again,
among the young. To add pain to pain, revolt such as what was going on at this time was
probably the most painful to the Orthodox, as a large part of the traditional life
revolves around children. Before, it was simply enough to distance the child for a while
to discipline it, but now the child was distancing him/her self. A large number of these
young people could not see their traditional parents as anything more recent than the
Middle Ages, while they saw themselves as sophisticated 20th century people. The lower
classes were more struck by secularization than anything else, but secularized quickly.
This has been attributed to less expectations and less public notice for following the
traditions. Becoming secular opened up an ease of going about in the new Polish world.
But, as a note, secularization in Poland does not mean a move to Reform Judaism, etc.
Reform movements were literally unheard of in Poland.
Jews may not have been studying for G-d's sake, but the culture of learning and educating
had stayed with the community.The entry to the "educated" intelligencia was the
high school, the gimnazjum. Pure knowledge wasn't always the reason, as one Cracow girl
explains: "There were various reasons for my wanting to got to gimnazjum. Although I
did like to study and find out new things, I would be lying if I said that my only reason
was the thirst for knowledge. Some classmates were going to attend gimnazjum and join the
intelligencia, and I who was equally capable was to become a craftsman. I could not accept
The public high schools were cheaper, but Jewish allowed admittance was
limited. Private schools were significantly more money, and money that the middle class
might have had was taken away for the kehillah taxes. Despite all this, the Jewish middle
class made great sacrifices to ensure their childrens' education. Only in cases of
desperate poverty or the death of a breadwinner were kids removed from school, and as long
as there were meals on the table, the study came first. In '21-'22, 48,849 Jewish teens
went to secondary school, 23.7%, and even in the dark years of '36-'37, 33,212 went, 16.5%
even at the very end. 73% of those students were in private school. In '25-26, 59% of
those were Jewish, while by '36-'37, that had risen to 78%.
Political revolts were storming constantly throughout this period.
There were almost too many Jewish political choices to pick from! The large number of
factions has been seen both as healthy dialogue and as fragmentation which might have
marginalized Jewish power. Of course, for the young, every political group had their own
educational wing. Tarbut schools stressed Zionism, Hebrew language, and Hebrew culture,
while the CYSHO (Central Yiddish School Organization) was both anti-Zionist and clearly
secular, and brought socialism and Yiddish instruction into the picture. The Yavne system
was run by the centrist, Orthodox Mizrahi, which featured general studies in Polish and
Jewish studies in Hebrew, and of course the Agudat Israel Chorev system, which was
somewhat anti-Zionist and taught significantly more Jewish than secular courses.
The Jewish-secular revolution also brought about a healthy
Jewish-Polish press, which grew to three large Jewish dailies, and dozens of periodicals
and other media. The Hebrew and Yiddish presses still dominated the Jewish scene, but the
Polish language made inroads throughout the twenty-year period.
Nationalism caught the Jews fresh from secularization. Zionism in Polan
ennumbered hundreds of thousands of Jews in their late twenties and thirties, with large
amounts of younger people. There were experimental kibbutzim throughout Poland to teach
workable Israeli skills, and the Betar wing of the Revisionist group trained young men
with military skills. Unfortunately, after the White Paper limited Palestinian
immigration, Zionism lost its thrilling appeal as the situation darkened in Poland.
Thousands of Polish Jews did end up emigrating to Israel during this period, however.