Two 50-minute class periods

A World in Transition: Emancipation, Acculturation, and Antisemitism

Learning Objectives

This lesson explores the social, political, and economic pressures that eastern European Jews experienced as they moved away from the shtetls to larger urban centers toward the end of the nineteenth century. Through an examination of the choices these people made, students will learn about the ways in which such choices affected Jewish identity. Additionally, students will be asked to think about their own experiences with pluralism and diversity and to answer the question of how we behave when we are thrust into a world that is unfamiliar and that may not be as safe as our home or community.

Essential Questions

  1. What are some of the ways people react when their traditional way of life is called into question?
  2. What role might the past play in shaping the ways we identify ourselves? What elements of our past might be important to preserve? What elements might be constraining?
  3. How might one retain cultural identity while establishing individual identity?


  • shtetls : (n.) small towns, villages. (Yiddish)


Sholem Aleichem began writing at a time when many Jews were moving from shtetls to larger urban centers and were being exposed to new ideas stemming from the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment. This led many to seek secular educations and to try to fit into Russian culture and society. However, Jews of this time period also faced increasingly violent antisemitism, which contributed to the decision of many to leave the Russian Empire or to embrace ideologies such as socialism, which declared that all are equal, regardless of wealth, race, ethnicity, or beliefs. Laughing in the Darkness examines these varying responses and argues that Sholem Aleichem used Yiddish, the everyday language of eastern European Jews, to reach a diverse and increasingly fragmented population. Our glossary of terms might be helpful in this lesson.


  • Haskalah : (n.) Hebrew for "education" or "enlightenment" (also, "ne'orut"); the "Jewish Enlightenment," which promoted Enlightenment values such as secular education and integration into European society.(Hebrew)


The cultural, political, and economic shifts that were occurring in the world around Sholem Aleichem’s famous character Tevye the Milkman were real changes taking place during Aleichem’s own lifetime. Both he and his characters lived through one of the most dramatic transitions in human history. Recently invented modes of communication and transportation redrew old boundaries and broke down old barriers. New urban areas sprang up around emerging industrial centers, and many hundreds of thousands of people moved to cities. An older way of life, centered around farming, petty trades, small workshops, and the confines of country towns and villages, began to crumble. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the shtetls that many of Sholem Aleichem’s stories depict began to lose the central place they had long held in the lives of eastern European Jews. The effects of industrialization on the shop owners, artisans, and small business owners in these places were profound, and many Jews, much like everyone else, were forced to seek work in the factories that were growing in size and number as the century wore on. As these people began to make their homes in new urban centers, they entered a diverse cosmopolitan society. Many stopped dressing in traditional garb in order to resemble the rest of the population. Such changes in lifestyle or habit were not minor; they represented major shifts in how these individuals chose to construct and express their identities. The former shtetl Jews were confronted with new opportunities as well as new challenges. In the cities, they were exposed to the influence of scientific thinking, liberal and socialist ideologies, and secularism, forces that drove them further from the old life. They also encountered the influence of nationalism and increased antisemitism.

Modern times presented Jews with new questions: What was the best way to ensure the emancipation of Jews, individually or collectively, as the restrictions of religious intolerance were gradually lifted? Was there a way to remain Jewish and still prosper in a new, more cosmopolitan environment? Was it time for the Jews to follow the political current of the time and establish their own state? The Jewish response to the latter question ranged from acculturation and emigration to self-emancipation and Zionism, and even occasional conversion to Christianity. Indeed, by the beginning of the twentieth century, Jewish intellectual and social life was a bustling marketplace of ideologies and political views.

Violence against the Jews on a large scale was rare before the 1880s.  Although it did occur and was often incited by political interests, the situation changed for the worse in 1881 when, following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by a Russian revolutionary group, some anti-Jewish newspapers, religious propagandists, and government officials blamed the Jews for the assassination. These groups created a hostile atmosphere which was taken advantage of by local antisemites to start acts of anti-Jewish violence (pogroms) in various towns. Outbursts of Christian mob violence lasted for 3 years with little or no government intervention. The pogroms sent shock waves across the Russian-controlled Jewish communities in the Pale of Settlement that included a large-scale migration to Western Europe, the US and other countries.


Members of the B’Ni Tsiyon (Sons of Zion) with visiting writer Sholem Aleichem, 1900. This group was part of Chibat Zion (or Chovevi Zion), an apolitical Zionist organization with a strong presence in Odessa, where Sholem Aleichem lived after 1890.

A second wave of anti-Jewish riots, starting in Kishinev in 1903 and ending only in 1906, added to the growing sense of fear and insecurity among the millions of Jews living in the Russian Empire. Thus, modernity in this region of Europe brought not only greater freedoms, but also religious, nationalist, and antisemitic movements which forced many Jews to make difficult decisions. Roughly two million Jews had left central and eastern Europe between the 1880s and the 1920s. Others felt that they had to abandon their Jewish heritage altogether and assimilate. Still others looked for new ways to merge the traditions of their past with the new reality of unrelenting change they faced. A smaller number of Zionists believed that the Jews had to leave Europe and build a modern nation for Jews in Palestine. This challenge of reconciling one’s traditional identity with the forces of a modernizing world is one that features prominently in Sholem Aleichem’s work.

This lesson will introduce students to the different ways in which the Jewish community began to branch out as the traditional shtetl life became less economically and socially viable under the pressures of industrialization and urbanization. It will also provide students with a historical example with which to examine how communities redefine and reshape themselves as they become more diverse. Additionally, students will be asked to think about the challenges of integration.


  • acculturation : (n.) cultural modification of an individual, group or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture; also: a merging of cultures as a result of prolonged contact. The term often implies the superiority of the culture to which a person acculturates. Contemporary scholars of Jewish history prefer the term "acculturation" to "assimilation".
  • antisemitism : (n.) hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.
  • emancipation : (n.) the act or process of freeing from the restraint, control, or power of another, especially: to free from bondage. In the late nineteenth century, the term "auto-emancipation" was used by many Zionists who believed that Jews had to separate from their current society and liberate themselves by themselves. The term is often used in the context of Jewish history in Europe as a shorthand for the granting of political and social freedom to Jews as a result of processes of modernity.
  • pogroms : (n.) violent riots, usually with the specific aim of massacring or persecuting Jews (Yiddish).
  • integration : (n.) the process of incorporating an individual or group into a society, country, etc. (usually implies that the individual or group being integrated maintains at least some of the original sense of identity or culture).


  • 2 film clips from "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness": A World in Transition: Emancipation Acculturation, and Antisemitism Part 1 and Part 2, 11:06–17:26; 39:00–40:10
  • Reading: “Two Anti-Semites,” by Sholem Aleichem
  • Reading: “The Lure of the Modern World,” as it appears in The Jews of Poland, chapter 2, reading 5
  • Reading: “Choices in a Modern World,” as it appears in The Jews of Poland, chapter 2, reading 6
  • Reading: “Jewish Pride,” as it appears in The Jews of Poland, chapter 2, reading 8


  1. Watch 2 film clips "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness" A World in Transition: Emancipation Acculturation, and Antisemitism Part 1 and Part 2

    In order to get students thinking about some of the challenges and choices Jews were facing during the period under consideration, begin by showing the film from Laughing in the Darkness (11:06–17:26 and 39:00–40:10). The move on to define and discuss the following terms: antisemitism, emancipation, assimilation, acculturation, integration, and emigration. Click here for a glossary of terms used in this guide.

    Sholem Aleichem: A World in Transition: Emancipation, Acculturation, and Antisemitism - part 1

    This excerpt from "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness" depicts the various ways Jewish communities responded to economic and social changes.

    Sholem Aleichem: A World in Transition: Emancipation, Acculturation, and Antisemitism - part 2

    This excerpt from "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness" depicts the various ways Jewish communities responded to economic and social changes.

  2. Word Wall Activity

    These terms represent different ways that Jews responded as they began to leave the shtetl and move to more cosmopolitan urban centers. What are the differences between assimilation, acculturation, and integration? Do any of these have distinct advantages? You may choose to do the Word Wall activity to help familiarize students with these terms. The glossary definitions can be used for reference.

  3. Read "Three Parables of Integration" by Jonathan Sacks

    Another way to help students think about the differences between assimilation, integration, and acculturation is by reading “Three Parables of Integration,” by the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks.

    Ask: Which of the above terms would you use to describe each of the different examples that Sacks gives? You might then conduct the following activities.

  4. Suggested Activity: Readings from Chapter 2 of The Jews of Poland: "The Lure of Modern World",  “Choices in a Modern World,” or  “Jewish Pride.”

    To give students some concrete examples of the ways in which Jews responded to the increasing diversity of their world (and, on occasion, to discrimination), you may choose to use the readings from The Jews of Poland listed at the beginning of the lesson. In groups, students should read one of the three texts from chapter 2 of this book (“The Lure of Modern World,” which focuses on the Jewish Enlightenment; “Choices in a Modern World,” which focuses on an individual family’s struggle to adapt to a more secular world; or “Jewish Pride,” which focuses on Zionism). Multiple groups may deal with the same text if the class is large. After students have read and discussed the text with their groups, you may have the class recombine into different groups so that there is one student who read each text in each group.

    Students can then participate in a Café Conversation with their new groups, in which each student represents a person featured in the text he or she read. Encourage each group to discuss some of the following questions:

    • Which of the terms/ideologies that you defined at the beginning of class is at work in this text?
    • What major change or changes in thought does this text depict?
    • How are the people in your text responding to outside pressure? Do their responses change over time?
    • In what ways are the people in these texts redefining their identities in response to the world around them?
    • Why do you think the people in these texts respond in the ways that they do?
  5. Discussion Debrief

    After students have presented or read the texts, you may want to give them time to discuss what the variety of responses featured in these documents can tell us about the ways that communities and individuals react when they feel threatened or when their beliefs are challenged. Ask: Are there any common themes in this diversity of reactions? Were there any responses that struck you as the most reasonable or that particularly resonated with you? Why?

  6. Read Sholem Aleichem’s story “Two Anti-Semites

    Sholem Aleichem’s story “Two Anti-Semites” offers a way for students to further explore responses to modernity and antisemitism. While reading this story, students can also prepare answers to several of the questions below. Before assigning the reading, be sure that students are familiar with the pogrom that occurred on April 6, 1903 (Easter Day), in Kishinev, Russia, as it is referenced in the story (the Kishinev pogrom is discussed in the “Jewish Pride” reading, if students need further background).

    NOTE: One of the central dramatic tensions in this story centers around the main character’s large nose, a physical trait often stereotypically associated with Jews that became a key trope in modern antisemitic propaganda. Sholem Aleichem does not shy away from this stereotype; instead, he engages with it and turns it on its head in “Two Anti-Semites.”

    The following are comprehension questions for this story that you may wish to use to help students grasp key issues in the text.

    • Based on the first three paragraphs, how does Max feel about being Jewish? Why do you think he feels that way? Use evidence from the text to support your answer.
    • What elements or clues in the story date it to the time when it was written? Could this story have been set in the shtetl before the onset of industrialization and modernization? Why?
    • The narrator says, “To harbor deep in your heart a great sorrow, and what’s worse to be ashamed of it, is a special kind of hell.” What does the author mean by this? Rephrase this idea in your own words.
    • In his dream, what happens when Max tries to touch his nose? What might be the symbolic meaning of this action? What does it suggest about identity?
    • In the last few paragraphs, the narrator starts referring to Patti and Max only as “the anti-Semites.” Why do think he does this?
    • What sort of imagery and emotion does the Yiddish folk song evoke?
    • What are your thoughts about the ending? Do you think this interaction will change the way Max sees himself?
  7. Return to the film clips

    As students watch, have them pay particular attention to the ways in which Jews responded to changes in their communities and in the surrounding world. How did Sholem Aleichem, in turn, respond to these reactions? How is that response similar to the responses discussed in the Jews of Poland readings? You might deepen students’ thinking by conducting the following activities.

    • Direct a discussion about the relationship between the film and the story “Two Anti-Semites.” Ask students: How does your understanding of the story change after thinking about antisemitism in Russia during this period and the ways that Jews responded to it? You might use the Think-Pair-Share strategy to help students think about this question, the questions they considered while they read the story and afterward, and any other relevant questions that have arisen.
    • You might now give students some time to think quietly and privately about fundamental elements of their own appearance, lifestyle, habits, or identity (it may be helpful to have students make a private list of these characteristics). Then ask them to think about where people’s various characteristics come from. Do these traits develop over time? Are these things that have been passed down from relatives or that reflect the culture and traditions of one’s ancestors? How might people display characteristics that they like or try to hide characteristics that they don’t like? Remind students that they do not have to share their own experiences. They may instead focus on how the activity made them feel and discuss the question of whether and how traditions or customs are passed down from one generation to another in their society. For help creating a contract to foster a reflective classroom atmosphere, see the contracting guide on the Facing History website.
    • Bring the class back together and ask a few students to share what they talked about with their partners during the Think-Pair-Share activity. Then have them repeat the activity (either with their partners or in small groups), this time making lists of characteristics that describe Max and Patti in the story, based on examples from the text. After 10–15 minutes, bring the class back together. Make a class list using examples that students identified with their partners. What elements of Max and Patti’s identities are ones that these characters themselves have chosen? Which are things that they may have been born with or born into? How do both characters feel about their identities?
  8. Discussion Debrief

    To sum up, have students consider the following questions: What pressures (either internal conflicts or the effects of standards and opinions held by others) cause Max to act as he does in this story? How does the story speak to the opportunities and limits of integration? What insights from the film clips might help you make sense of these particular pressures and challenges? How do the conditions under which we live impact our identities? How might such conditions impact the way we present ourselves to outsiders, or even to members of our own group or community? How might such factors impact the way we think about ourselves? Why—and in what ways—might we try to exhibit or hide our cultural identities? Have students respond to these questions in a class discussion, as writing prompts, or in their journals.


  • rabbi : a person trained in Jewish law and ritual and who is ordained for leadership in a Jewish community (Hebrew).


Read the poem “Dedication,” by Gustavo Pérez Firmat and respond to the questions

This extension gives students the opportunity to explore the feeling of being “stuck in the middle” between one generation and the next, or between multiple traditions and identities. The film suggests that Sholem Aleichem’s response to the “fragmenting Jewish community” was to reach out to them by writing in Yiddish. Aleichem’s characters Max and Patti are able to come together at the end of “Two Anti-Semites” by singing a Yiddish folk song. While Yiddish had historically been a source of unity among eastern European Jews, its use became increasingly less common as Jews moved to larger metropolitan areas, where it was more practical to speak national languages on an everyday basis (many of these Jews even elected not to teach their children Yiddish in the hope that they would then have better chances of assimilation). Show students the second clip selected for this lesson from Laughing in the Darkness (film clip 4, 39:00–40:05), which tells how Sholem Aleichem’s own children couldn’t read their father’s stories in the original form because they were never taught Yiddish. After watching the clip, have students read the following poem entitled “Dedication,” by Gustavo Pérez Firmat and respond to the questions below. Gustavo Pérez Firmat is a writer and poet from Cuba. He has written both critical and creative works that deal with the notion of bilingualism and Cuban American identity.

The fact that I
am writing to you
in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
My subject:
how to explain to you
that I
don't belong to English
though I belong nowhere else,
if not here
in English.

Gustavo Pérez Firmat

As Sholem Aleichem saw the language of his childhood becoming less and less relevant in the world around him, particularly as younger generations turned away from Yiddish in favor of languages tied to national identity, he became one of the first writers to bring Yiddish into the literary realm. The language became more endangered after a great many Yiddish-speaking Jews perished in the Holocaust, and with this loss went some of the ideas, thoughts, and meanings Yiddish helped to communicate and preserve. You might use the following questions to help students reflect on the connections between language and identity.

  • Describe how Gustavo Pérez Firmat, whose native language is Spanish, feels about the languages he speaks, based on his poem.
  • What is the relationship between language and identity?
  • How can language bring people together? How can it create a barrier between people—particularly between people of different generations?
  • Firmat ends the poem by saying, “that I don’t belong to English / though I belong nowhere else, / if not here / in English.” What kind of relationship does the poet construct between himself and his language, or between his identity and the languages he speaks? What might he mean when he says “I belong nowhere else”?

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