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Shaul Stampfer

The First Generations of Ashkenazic Polish Jews

This presentation will primarily focus on the first generations of Ashkenazic Polish Jews, but will also address the generations of historiographical writing about these Jews. Most of the Polish Jewish population can be traced back to Jewish communities living in what is now Bohemia/Moravia/Austria. The migrants to Poland came in small numbers over the course of the 14th and 15th centuries and began to settle along the major trade routes. Their descendants spread in the Polish and Ukrainian lands. The migrants who came before 1500 were generally not affluent nor were they exceptionally learned. They formed communities that quickly developed a Polish identity. After 1500, migrants continued to arrive and tended to identify as Bohemian. Over time, they too adopted a Polish Jewish identity. The transition was a generational process. As economic conditions changed and as Polish grain exports declined, many Jews shifted from trade into managing taverns as well as moving into the nobility. They increasingly settled in small communities instead of in large urban concentrations. This change to a generation of population expansion had many implications. It led to new social patterns and to linguistic conservatism (East European Yiddish dialects were consolidated), alongside a growing identification with the Polish environment and new organizational structures.

Shaul Stampfer is professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has written on the history of Jewish family structure, demography and migration of East European Jewry, the story of the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism, and more recently on the history and meaning of falafel and bagels as Jewish foods. He is currently working on the settlement of Jews in 16th-century Poland as well as on the genetics of East European Jewry.