The introduction defines the book's subject by placing the concept of marginality in historiographical context. Marginality can be explained in terms of economic self-sufficiency, isolation, instability, social deviance, and social stigma. In eastern Europe, the outcasts of Jewish society included beggars, physically and mentally disabled people, and poor orphans. Excluded from normative social structures such as livelihood and marriage, they occupied a liminal space in society.
This chapter explains the place of the socially marginal in Jewish society in the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It opens with a discussion of the figure of the beggar in preindustrial Jewish society and traditional Jewish approaches to charity and begging. It then moves on to analyze the complicated socioreligious connotations of physical disability and mental illness, and to some extent orphanhood, in Jewish culture.
Chapter 2 examines the decades immediately following the Partitions of Poland and the incorporation of hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews into the Russian Empire. The Romanov state's intervention in internal Jewish affairs, the beginnings of an extended process of impoverishment among Russian and Polish Jews, and the advent of the Jewish Enlightenment all had important influences on changing attitudes towards marginal Jews. In this period, the hekdesh began its transformation from a hybrid sick house and hostel for vagrants into a neglected poorhouse for the riffraff of Jewish society. And the military draft introduced by Nicholas I witnessed the official Jewish community offering up poor orphans, homeless people, and other undesirables for the dreaded twenty-five-year military service, one of the first cases of the use of marginal people as substitute [kapore], or a kind of scapegoat.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the hekdesh (poorhouse) had become the physical embodiment of contemptuous attitudes towards marginal people. The sources of social history help us to reconstruct an institution that received little official communal support and in some cases was a virtual dumping ground for the outcasts of Jewish society. Literary works provide profound insight into the poorhouse's function in Jewish society: a locus for the grotesque, the uncanny, and the shameful in the Jewish collective unconscious.
One of the most peculiar Jewish folk rituals in eastern Europe was the cholera wedding, a magical ceremony in which marginal people were wedded to each other in the town cemetery in a bid to end a cholera epidemic. This chapter expounds the nature and meaning of the cholera wedding from its emergence during one of the Russian Empire's first cholera pandemics in the 1830s through later resurgences of the ritual in the 1860s, 1890s, and 1910s. The cholera wedding was a corrective ritual intended to normalize marginal folk through marriage and to transfer the epidemic from the mainstream of the Jewish community to the its scapegoat: marginal people.
Chapter 5 examines the progressive Jewish critique of traditional charity—that it encouraged rather than reduced dependency and parasitism—and some of the alternatives proposed as solutions in the late nineteenth century. Modern Jewish philanthropy in the Russian Empire was often motivated by anxiety about the ostensible threat that the figure of the Jewish idler posed to Jewish integration and assimilation.
Chapter 6 examines the plight of mentally ill and cognitively disabled Jews through the lens of the Guttmacher kvitlekh, a collection of 1860s- and 1870s-era petitions from ordinary Jews to a wonderworking rabbi famous throughout eastern Europe for his medical knowledge. Family members struggled to understand the nature of their loved ones' illness, decide how to find treatment for them, and come to terms with the difficult future in store for their loved ones. The chapter also examines the strange phenomenon of the "town fool," the Jewish madman or madwoman found in many Russian and Polish towns. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the apparent centrality of madness in the modern Jewish experience in eastern Europe. Were Jews really more susceptible to mental illness than others?
This chapter covers years just before World War I and the interwar period,
The Epilogue extends the book's primary analytical concerns beyond the core chronological framework and into World War II and the postwar years. During the Holocaust, Nazi propaganda and persecution transformed all Jews into outcasts: literal beggars, madmen, and orphans. In the aftermath of destruction, several literary works—among them Isaac Bashevis Singer's famous story "Gimpel the Fool"—suggest that the marginal figure remains a persistent and compelling cultural representative of the vanished world of East European Jewry.
The conclusion is a meditation on the possibility of using gender studies, queer theory, and disability studies as tools in the study of East European Jewish history.