1881 was a pivotal moment in Russian history. That year, Czar Alexander II was assassinated, ending more than a quarter-century of reforms that had raised the hopes of Jews to earn equal rights through citizenship. In the weeks that followed, pogroms broke out in Ukraine, incited by agents of the government, and they continued into the next year, when laws were enacted to reduce the Jewish presence in villages in the Pale of Settlement. “By the 1880s,” according to “World of Our Fathers,” Jews’ high expectations had been “badly shaken, perhaps destroyed.”
It was against this backdrop that the children of Morris and Anne Naginsky entered the world. The oldest, Israel, was born in 1877, followed by Aaron in 1879, Mary in 1885 and Sadie in 1892. (The birth years are close approximations based on public documents, which frequently conflict by a year or two.)
We have no facts about their childhood in Russia other than the town they lived in, Pohar, which had a Jewish population of 1,159 at the turn of the century. But we can make some general assumptions based on the common culture of the shtetl of Eastern Europe, the historical period, and what we know of Israel, Aaron, Mary and Sadie from their family.
It’s likely all the Naginsky children received some type of Jewish education at the “kheyder,” or school. According to “Life Is With People,” boys traditionally studied the Torah — some starting as young as age 3 — from 8 to 6, five days a week, and a half-day on Friday. Meanwhile, girls only were taught how to read and write a little Yiddish and to read some Hebrew by rote. However, they usually went home after two hours to help their mothers with responsibilities around the home.
Traditionally in the shtetl, Jewish boys who were considered to have the aptitude for a life of study were sent on to the yeshiva, a rabbinical academy, after the kheyder. Those who were not would interrupt their education at that stage to pursue a trade or business. That could be one reason why both Naginsky brothers went into trades, Israel as a furmaker/journeyman and Aaron as a butcher.
Another possible explanation is the climate of change that was sweeping across Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. According to “World of Our Fathers,” a combination of forces — exposure to modern thought during the Haskala, or Enlightenment, and the rise of worldwide political movements such as Zionism and socialism — were weakening the role of rabbis in Jewish society and strengthening the idea of secular thought. This trend — along with a sharp growth in poverty — may have made it more socially acceptable for Israel and Aaron, sons of a cantor, to pursue nontraditional roles.
We do have clues that the Naginsky children were touched in some way by these new societal forces. Aaron was interested in politics and loved music, according to our 1977 interview with his daughter, Ada Naginsky Grossberg; the Russian composers were his favorites, recalled Aaron’s granddaughter, Judith Bradfield Tomero. And Aaron’s younger sister Mary apparently was part of the Zionist movement seeking to make Palestine her adopted homeland, but she only got as far as Cyprus before ultimately joining her siblings in America.
The events of the late 19th century shaped the views of many Jews — and likely the Naginsky children — causing them to question their role in the Russian Empire. They began to realize that peace and prosperity were not going to be part of their future in Russia, and the idea of leaving for a better life in America began to take root.
Naginsky cousins: Do you remember hearing anything about the childhood of Aaron or his brother or sisters? Do you have photos of any of the Naginsky siblings as children or photos of Israel or Sadie at any age?