NATURE OR NURTURE? JEWISH CHILDCARE AND POPULATION GROWTH IN EASTERN AND CENTRAL EUROPE, 1500-1930

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We document that between 1500 and 1930, the Jewish population in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth increased at an annual rate of 1.37 percent, which is strikingly high relative to any population at that time. While in 1500 only 0.13 percent of the Polish-Lithuanian population was Jewish, this figure reached more than 15.4 percent by 1880, with  Polish-Lithuanian Jews amounting to about 61 percent of world. We then investigate what were the sources for this exceptional Jewish population growth in the early modern and modern period. We show that there is evidence that a large proportion of the Jewish population in Poland-Lithuania originated from the Germany-Austria area with significant immigration until the midseventeenth century. Moreover, we document that there is no evidence for the immigration of Khazars or any other Jewish group from the East. We then provide a lot of evidence that while their birth rate was about the same as that of non-Jews, infant and child mortality among Jews was much lower in both Poland-Lithuania and Germany-Austria. This lower infant and child mortality among Jews account for the main difference in Jewish natural population growth (about 70 percent) compared to the total population. Our contribution is in documenting that Jewish childcare, as manifested in the immediate first feed and duration of breastfeeding, wet-nursing at home, remarriage, and family support are known today, based on medical research, as enhancing infants’ and children’s wellbeing more than the childcare practices commonly used among Christians in eastern western Europe in the early modern and modern era until the 20th century. These norms and practices that are routed in Talmudic rules certainly accounted for the much lower infant and child mortality among Jews.

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