Occupations of Jews in the Pale of Settlement

Posted on September 30, 2012

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What were the occupations and trades the Jews were holding in the old country?

The 1897 census of the Russian Empire tells us a lot about that, and in great detail. The summary data have been studied in the past, and the major facts are well known by historians. Based on my work on this census I present here the basics, for those who are less familiar with the case, and I also add a few of the interesting insights that come out of studying the more detailed data that I have recently coded from the census. The purpose is to expose the data and some of the patterns that it shows, and thus the discussion is more descriptive rather than interpretative.

Occupations and Ethnicities in the 1897 Census

Some 5 million Jews resided in the Pale of Settlement in 1897, an area comprising of the western provinces of the Russian Empire, including Congress Poland, in which Jewish residence was generally permitted. This was the largest Jewish concentration at that time and most Ashkenazy Jews today will find their ancestors enumerated in this census. The Pale of Settlement had 25 provinces, Guberniia in Russian (see my map). Each province had between 4 to 15 districts within it, known as uezd. Overall, there were 236 districts in the Pale. An average district had about 190,000 inhabitants, among them some 21,000 Jews.

Each district had at least one official or administrative town, a gorod, which was typically, although not necessarily, the main town in the district. Some districts had two or three gorods and in rare cases even more than that. Altogether there were 333 administrative towns in the 236 districts. An average administrative town had 23,386 inhabitants, among which more than 8,738 were Jews. But most of them were smaller; the median administrative town had 8,737 inhabitants and 3,464 Jews. Note that the proportion of Jews in towns was much higher than their share in the population. This is a well known fact, and I plan to elaborate on that on another post.

For each district and for each administrative town, the data I coded reports the precise number of workers in each of 65 different occupations, for Jews and non-Jews, males and females. It tells, for example, how many Jewish females were working in clothing manufacturing in the small Lithuanian town of Shadov (seen in the image on top, pop. 4,474; 2,512 Jews), in Shiauliai district of the province of Kovno (there were 37 of them), or how many Jewish males have earned their living in trading alcoholic beverages in the district of Slonim, in Grodno province, and lived outside the main district town (there were 122, out of 5,137 male Jewish workers in that district excluding the main town).

It is not individual-level data, but it captures the entire Pale, in fact the data also captures similarly the remainder of the 60 provinces of European Russia and Congress Poland. It is very detailed. The analysis below is based on these data.

Different, Differently

If you are not familiar, even stereotypically, with the image of the lives of the Jews in the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the 20th century, then the first important thing to know is that what Jews used to do more than a century ago in eastern Europe is often very different from what are considered to be typically Jewish professions in the United States, in Israel, or wherever they may live today. For example, it was hard to find among them Hollywood producers and Silicon-Valley entrepreneurs back in those days. There were lawyers, my great-grandfather for one, and doctors, but there weren’t many of them, not even relative to the non-Jewish population. In fact, occupations that required a higher academic education were beyond reach for most of the Jews. So far for contemporary stereotypical Jewish occupations.

What Jews did in 1897 was often quite different also from what they used to do in previous centuries. Money-lending was an important activity, as many Jews were traders and every trade involves some sort of credit, but it wasn’t the medieval Merchant-of-Venice style of wealthy creditors and moneylenders one may have in mind. Neither was it modern banking, so important for the development of the Russian economy at that time, nor corporate business (on which I plan to show some data in future). There were notable Jewish magnates, bankers, and wealthy financiers, but that wasn’t the main playing field. Influential as they were, their number was negligible compared to the great masses of Jewish workers. Even if Jews were over-represented in these sectors they did not dominate them in the same way that they had dominated other sectors in the Pale’s economy.

If one was to go back to the middle of the eighteenth century and ask an average Polish peasant what is it that Jews did, the first answer would have probably been either leasers or tavern keepers. Production and distribution of alcohol was by far the most typical Jewish economic activity in rural pre-partition Poland, along with other sorts of occupations that depended on the leasing of manorial privileges, such as milling or estate management. Alcohol-related occupations still show up in the data that is presented here, but their relative importance had declined by the end of the 19th century, with the demise of the Early-Modern manorial economy, and a directed official crackdown on the involvement of Jews in this industry

In short, the Late Imperial Russian data which is discussed here relates to a particular period and and a particular location on which we know a lot. But the composition of Jewish occupations had varied across centuries and countries, on some respects quite radically. Probably the only fixed feature that has been true everywhere and ever since the end of the first millennium is that Jews generally did not farm. In any pre-Industrial society, where a majority of the workforce is living off the land, that was already sufficient to make the Jewish occupational distribution visibly and dramatically different from the non-Jewish one. But it is often overlooked that the particular ways in which it differed in various contexts were subject to significant variability.

Jewish Occupations in the Pale - By Frequency

Specific Occupations by Frequency

The following list reports the distribution of the Jewish working force in the Pale of Settlement over a group of 65 occupations. The titles of the occupations are the translations from Russian given in one of the first publications that dealt with these data, a study by Isaac M. Rubinow (1907, pp. 498-499).

Summing over all of the Jewish labor force in the Pale of Settlement, we find that the single most common Jewish occupation was manufacture of clothing, at no o fewer than 16.5 percent of the workers. Adding to that a few other occupations in textiles, such as workers of the textile industry, the trade in textile and clothing, and trading in furs and leathers, almost one in four Jewish workers, 23 percent, was working with shmates. But if this sounds astonishing, it is actually less so compared to what came to be in New-York at the height of the Jewish migration. Clothing was the biggest thing, but in America it was even bigger. Interestingly, employment in clothing manufacturing was almost equally common for both genders, occupying 17 percent of male workers and 15 percent of female workers.

Second on the list is the category of “Personal and Domestic Service”, to which almost 12 percent of the Jewish workers belonged. It is a constant feature of almost any census or survey at that period, and to a large extent also today, that this is the primary category for female workers. Jews made no exception in that. Indeed, this figure for the total population hides a very uneven distribution across genders: 36 percent of all Jewish female workers as opposed to only 5.3 percent of all Jewish male workers.

A more general feature of the list is that many of the more frequent occupations appearing in it are types of trade and commercial activities. In fact, the way the list is broken down to many specific categories somewhat obscures their prominence. This will be shown more clearly below, where the occupations are grouped to major sectors. Another major group is made of various sorts of employments in manufacturing. We will see below that manufacturing was as important as trade and commerce, but that the former did not stand out so much in comparison to non-Jews as the latter.

There were quite a few Jewish farmers, more than 2 percent of the working force, reported under “agriculture” (as opposed to “production of foods, animals and vegetable”). But this figure is considerably low for a developing economy, and it is only within a comparison to non-Jews, discussed below, that one can grasp the extent to which Jews were under-represented in this profession.

Possibly beating a few shallow stereotypes, Jews had presence in a few categories with which they are not normally associated: One in every 41 Jews in the pale was in the military, ranked as the 13th most frequent profession. One in every 431 Jews was a prisoner or a convict (ranked 42), but that is definitely shorter than the true involvement of Jews in criminal activities – mind it that to be included in this category, it wasn’t enough just to be a criminal, one also had to have been a sufficiently unlucky criminal to have been caught and imprisoned. And finally, one in 1157 Jewish workers was recorded under the oldest profession of all (ranked 55), among them mostly female workers, but also quite a few men in “managerial” positions.

Occupation Groups by Frequency

The next table groups the 65 occupations into 7 main groups: Agriculture, commerce, professional services, personal services, manufacturing, transport, and other. This grouping follows again the study by Rubinow (1907), and in fact it is a rearrangement of the tables reported there (see pp. 500-502), with a few extensions: the information on the non-Jewish population is reported next to each figure on the Jewish population. It also shows the share of labor force participation (number of workers divided by total population), and the ratio of employment in commerce to employment in manufacturing.

Five regions are separately reported: (a) The 10 provinces of Congress Poland; (b) Lithuania, also known as the North-West, 6 provinces; (c) South-West, including the five provinces of Kiev, Podolia, Volhinia, Poltava, and Chernigov; (d) New-Russia, comprised of the four southern provinces bordering with the Black Sea – Bessarabia, Kherson, Ekaterinoslav, and Taurida; and (e) Inner-Russia, which for lack of better term I used to denote the remaining 35 provinces of European Russia which stood beyond the Pale of Settlement, where some Jews were able to reside as a very small minority.

First, with the exception of Poland, the share of labor force participation was somewhat greater for Jews than for non-Jews; on average, 30 percent. But more importantly, there were two stark differences between Jews and others. First, in all regions more than half of the non-Jewish workers were employed in agriculture, as opposed to less than 3 percent of the Jews. And second, the reverse was true for commerce: just over 2 percent of non-Jews as opposed to almost 30 percent of Jews. This ethnically based segregation of the labor market is probably the key feature of the economics of the Jews in Eastern Europe. Jews took up an occupational niche and specialized in it. Although the Jews made up a minority of some 11 percent of the Pale’s population, they have dominated commerce in absolute numbers.

This segregation can not be explained simply by the fact that non-Jews were more likely to live in rural localities. As it happened, Jews that lived outside the administrative towns of the districts were even more likely to be employed in commerce than Jews that lived inside the administrative towns – 33 percent versus 27 percent respectively. And their share in agriculture was still pretty meager, less than 5 percent outside the administrative towns, as opposed to 72 percent for non-Jews (see these tables for the occupational distribution in administrative towns and for the rest of the districts outside the administrative towns separately).

Manufacturing occupations were the category in which the greatest number of Jews were employed, almost 36 percent. As I showed above, probably most of those workers were specifically involved in clothing and textiles. But the specialization in this sector compared to non-Jews (15 percent) was not as striking. Moreover, as opposed to commerce, this greater tendency of Jews to be employed in manufacturing could partly be explained by the fact that Jews were more likely to reside in towns than in villages, and that townsmen were in general more likely to be employed in manufacturing. Looking only at the administrative towns, we find that in those urban localities the share of Jews and non-Jews in manufacturing was 37 percent and 28.5 percent, respectively.

In itself, the ratio of Jewish employment in manufacturing to Jewish employment in commerce, shown in the last column, is an interesting variable. One can think of commerce and other small entrepreneurial activities as the natural occupational habitat of east-European Jews, a sector which they fully dominated and was normally their first best choice. Manufacturing was a second best, an arena in which they had lesser comparative advantage and that had to be shared with non-Jews. There may be a sense in which Jews were “squeezed out” of commerce and spilled over to manufacturing when commerce had become too crowded. Some evidence from the 1897 census could support such a hypothesis, and I plan to present this case in another post.

The important thing to take in this regard from the last column of this table, is that there appeared to be a clear difference between northern and southern provinces within the Pale. Lithuania, where the standards of living were probably the lowest, also showed the lowest share of occupation in commercial activities: 59 workers in commerce for every 100 workers in manufacturing. In the south-west, where real wages were somewhat higher, and also in New-Russia, where they were much higher, these ratios stood on 107 and 102 respectively. It was the highest in the countryside of New-Russia, 140.

A fact that I find somewhat puzzling is that the ratio of commerce to manufacturing beyond the Pale of Settlement was not as high as in New-Russia and the south-west, despite the fact that Jews were far from being crowded there. Furthermore, the regulations defining the restrictions on Jewish settlement in Russia beyond the Pale had special provisions for the very wealthy merchants who belonged to the first guild. Besides, merchants should be expected, by the nature of their of their profession, to be the first in daring out and exploring opportunities in restricted areas, legally, semi-legally, or illegally. More so in the case of Russia’s Jewish merchants, that even as they were banned from permanent residence beyond the Pale, they could have often obtained temporary permissions that allowed them to travel east, form connections there, and potentially overstay their welcome.

Typically and non-Typically Jewish Occupations: Odds Ratio

The tables above show which occupations were more or less frequent among Jews and non-Jews. But these figures do not always reveal the entire picture if we want to understand the ways in which Jews were particular. An alternative way to examine the occupational composition is by seeing which occupations were relatively more likely to held by Jews, that the chance of a Jewish worker to be employed in them is greater than that of a non-Jew. To do that I use a simple statistic, odds-ratio, which reports for each occupation the ratio between the proportion of Jews who are employed in it and the share of non-Jews employed in it. For example, if 2 percent of the Jews and 1 percent of the non-Jews are employed in a certain occupation, then the odds-ratio is 2, and it means that a Jew was twice more likely to be employed in it than a non-Jew. The advantage of using this measure is that it controls for the scale; for example, if there were very few workers employed in a certain occupation, but almost all of them were Jews, the odds-ratio will inform that this was a “Jewish” occupation.

Top Jewish Occupations

The first table shows the 10 most typically Jewish occupations, in the sense that Jews were more likely to be employed in them compared to non-Jews. At the top of the list there is trading in grain, the most typically Jewish occupation of all. A Jew was 64 times more likely to be employed in it than a non-Jew. In spite of the Jewish population being in minority, this trade was completely dominated by Jews.

The second was occupation as a non-Christian clergyman. Considering the fact that Jews were the main non-Christian minority in the Pale, the only surprise is that this occupation didn’t top the list; in a sense, being a grain trader was more typically Jewish than being a rabbi…

The remaining 8 top Jewish occupations went all under trade and commerce. This is as strong an evidence as one can wish to get to the fact that the employment of Jews in this sector went way beyond ordinary occupational specialization. The labor market was completely segregated in this sector and Jews have fully dominated it.

Least Common Jewish Occupations

The next table shows the bottom of that list, or the 10 most non-Jewish occupations. The figures complete what we saw above. Second from the bottom was farming; the probability of a Jew to be a farmer was 33 times smaller than that of a non-Jew. There was only one occupation that was even more typically non-Jewish than farming: Christian Orthodox clergyman… That there was anyone at all who was written as both a Jew and a Christian Orthodox clergyman is probably due to either Jewish converts who became clergymen and still reported their mother-tongue as Yiddish, or they were simply rabbis who were written by mistake as Christian clergymen instead of non-Christian clergymen.

Cattle raising was sixth from the bottom. Note that the top of the list corresponds to its bottom: Farming at the top was complemented by grain trading at the bottom; and cattle trading (ranked 10 at the top) was matched by cattle raising. This complementarity highlights the case that Jews were not removed from the countryside: on the contrary, their typical occupations were directly related to it, complementing countryside agricultural activity by their rural trade services.

Other occupations near the bottom of the list were related to the state service and bureaucracy: Administration, justice, police, railways, and postal services. These were areas of public employment into which Jews were restricted from entering. They were also removed from the heavy industries of metal smelting and mining.

Other Occupations of Interest

The last table shows other occupations of interest from the middle of the list. Manufacturing of clothing, the most frequent Jewish occupation, was 8 times more likely to be held by Jews than by non-Jews, but nevertheless it was far from being as typically Jewish as employment in trade. It may come as a surprise, considering the Jewish literary tradition, that educational occupations were not at the top of the list. A Jew was “only” 4.7 times more likely to be a teacher or an educator. But it must be remembered that Jews were only serving themselves in education, they did not educate non-Jews. As traders, they were serving the entire population, so there were 9 times more potential customers. It is therefore improbable to expect education to have been as typically Jewish an occupation as trade.

Interestingly, a few occupations that would have topped the list if the census would have been conducted in the middle of the eighteenth century also appear to be less Jewish than one might expect: production and sale of alcohol (odds ratio of 1.89 and 4.06), and inn-keeping (3.36). Their relatively low share reflects the transition from the eighteenth century manorial economy, where the rights to be employed in these occupations were franchised by landlords to Jewish leasers, into the industrializing economy of the late nineteenth century, in which most manorial rights had become a thing of the past and other industries had overshadowed the alcohol businesses. It is probably also a result of the continuous attempts by the Russian bureaucracy throughout the nineteenth century to move the Jews out of the countryside and cluster them in towns and cities, and the particular crackdown on the involvement of Jews in the alcohol businesses.

As for employment in finance, Jews were indeed more likely to be employed in money-lending and insurance, but again, not nearly as much as in trade. The odds-ratio of employment in private law was only 1.4. Jews were 2.83 times more likely to be prostitutes, equally likely to be prisoners and convicts, and 2.4 times less likely to be in the military. The last figure may be partly explained by the fact that the units to which the Jews were drafted did not necessarily serve in the Pale, and that the units that were stationed in the Pale had among them soldiers from provinces beyond the Pale. If we look at the odds ratio of military employment for the entire European Russia and Poland, to account for the geographic mobility of soldiers, the odds ratio becomes 0.93, meaning that overall Jews were more or less equally likely to serve in the military.

Further Reading

Here are a few studies that deal directly with the Jewish occupational distribution in the Pale of Settlement.

A study mentioned by Isaac Rubinow, a leading scholar and promoter of social insurance who was employed at that time as an economist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was among the first non-Russian analyses of the data on Jewish occupations in the 1897 census. A century later it is still an illuminating and often cited study.

Isaac M. Rubinow (1907), Economic Condition of the Jews in Russia, U.S. Bureau of Labor Bulletin, 15.

Arcadius Kahan’s posthumous collection of essays is a knowledgeable and rich source on the topic. The academic gap in the expertise on the economics of the Jews in late Tsarist Russia left after his untimely death a generation ago has yet to be filled. In particular see:

Arcadius Kahan (1986), “The Impact of Industrialization in Tsarist Russia on the Socioeconomic Conditions of the Jewish Population”, in Arcadius Kahan & Roger Weiss (eds.), introduction by Jonathan Frankel, Essays in Jewish Social and Economic History, Chicago, IL & London: University of Chicago Press.

Joel Perlmann from Bard College had written a series of papers that have used data from the 1897 census. The following papers specifically relate to the data on the distribution of occupations, and run a very interesting debate on the question of whether Jewish immigrants to the U.S. were selected based on their occupational background:

Joel Perlmann (1996), “Selective Migration As a Basis for Upward Mobility? The Occupations of the Jewish Immigrants to the United States, ca. 1900“, Levy Economics Institute, Working Paper No. 172.

and

Joel Perlmann (2000), “What the Jews Brought: East European Jewish Immigration to the United States, c. 1900“, in Hans Vermuelen & Joel Perlmann (eds.), Immigrants, Schooling, and Social Mobility: Does Culture Make a Difference?, London & New-York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Short of writing a comprehensive list of books that have dealt with the economic conditions of the Jews using non-economic approach, I will refer the interested reader to Ezra Mendelsohn’s book on the evolution of the Jewish labor movement:

Ezra Mendelsohn (1970), Class Struggle in the Pale: The Formative Years of the Jewish Worker’s Movement in Tsarist Russia, New-York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

And to the more recent study on the economic transformation of the Jews around their migration to the U.S.:

Eli Lederhendler (2009), Jewish Immigrants and American Capitalism, 1880-1920: From Caste to Class, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

On the big question of why Jews choose particular occupations, see the fresh-from-the-press

Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein (2012), The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1942, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Although it doesn’t extend into the Modern Era, their thesis may be still relevant for the period at stake. In short, using an economic model of comparative advantage, they claim that since Jews were obliged to educate their sons and make them literate, over the centuries they opted either for conversion, if the costs of education made this effort unsustainable in the long run, or to employment in occupations that could benefited from literacy.

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