Occupational structure of the Jewish population

No figures exist that would allow us to describe the professional structure of the Jewish population in the Middle Ages and modern period. Somewhat more is known about the traditional social hierarchy of Jews at that time, which differed from that of feudal Christian society, where good birth and wealth brought prestige. Jews' greatest authorities were the learned Talmudists. Intellectual professions and those related to religion, such as the rabbi, dayan, sofer, shoychet (shekhita) and yeshiva teacher. Next on the social ladder were the merchants, but individuals who had a religious education and wealth were most esteemed. The Community elders were most often chosen from this group. The physical professions were least valued, which meant that artisans were on the bottom of the social hierarchy. This was even more the case because they often came from the poorest strata of society, which meant they rarely had the opportunity to acquire a thorough religious education.

Attitudes towards physical labor and the crafts began changing only in the early twentieth century, as Jewish lay culture and political movements were developing. The professional structure of the Jewish population in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was typical for a burgher class. Jews rarely worked in agriculture because they were banned from owning land, though this rule was not always strictly enforced. They were usually engaged in trade (along with credit activities and brokerage), trade and inn-keeping. Many Jews were employed as servants in private homes and estates, trade enterprises and factories. Relatively few Jews worked as clerks (employed in government offices and private enterprises), while the proportion of teachers was higher than in the Christian community. Jews had a long tradition of involvement in the medical professions, where they served as physicians, medics and barber-surgeons. In 1794, there were more than a dozen Jewish doctors in Warsaw alone. Rabbis and synagogue caretakers were important, though numerically small, professions, and were present in all Jewish communities. The lowest class in society, comprised of beggars, procurers, pimps, thieves and smugglers, was smaller than in the Christian community.

The partitions of Poland also divided Jewish society. As the result of legal and economic differences in the three partitions, the occupational structure of Jewish society developed somewhat differently in each. In Wielkopolska in 1849, approximately 10% of the Jews were wealthy bankers, merchants, hoteliers, and members of the free professions; 52% were employed in small-scale trade and crafts; 28% were journeymen and servants. In Wielkopolska, as many as 10% of Jews had no specific profession.
In the Russian partition, the proportion of trade in the occupational structure fell at first, as Jews were shut out of rural trade. In the later period, when Jews were driven out of many professions and concentrated in the Pale of Settlement, the number began to grow again. After 1882, most Jews were engaged in small-scale trade (primarily stall-keepers and peddlers) and crafts. Transport and shipping began playing a significant role: Jews operated four-fifths of the transportation, shipping and foreign trade firms. Jewish cabbies and carters (balagula) became an intrinsic element of most railway stations and markets.

Jews also represented a high proportion in the service sector, particularly among those running inexpensive restaurants, beer halls and inns. In the second half of the nineteenth century, increasing numbers of Jews were members of the intelligentsia, which included clerks, employed above all in private offices, teachers, and members of the free professions.

The occupational structure of Galicia's Jews, however, was different. Trade and crafts did not play as large a role as they did in the Russian partition. In 1880, 27.4% of Galician Jews were engaged in trade; in industry and crafts, this figure was 26.2%, and among inn-keepers and publicans the proportion was as high as 21.8%. The percentage of farmers was significantly higher than in the other partitions - 13.4%; as well as those living off the interest of their investments - 10.2%. No figures exist regarding the proportion of Jews in the free professions, or what their proportion was of the lowest classes in Galicia.

During the interwar period, most of the Polish Jews made their livelihood in the production sector. In 1931, the proportion was as high as 42.4%, of which the majority was involved in crafts, based in small production and service enterprises; these were either family-run, or numbered just a few employees. In industry, the highest number of people was engaged in the clothing sector (17%), food (7.1%), metal-working (3.0%), wood-working (3.4%) and textiles (3.0%).

Trade provided a livelihood for 36.6% of the Jewish population (this included insurance and finance). But here, too, most Jews were engaged in old-fashioned and rudimentary forms of trade, either in retail or as peddlers and door-to-door salesmen. The number of Jews involved in insurance, finance, wholesale and cooperative trade was significantly lower.

The third largest Jewish professional group (4.5%) was in transport and communication. In the areas of this sector owned by the federal or local government (post, telephone, telegraph, railways, trams, and city buses), the Jewish presence was only negligible. Jews were employed in private shipping companies and traditional forms of transportation, such as cabbies and drivers of horse-drawn carts, and as porters. Very few drove modern means of transportation, such as taxis or trucks.
The proportion of Jews in agriculture increased to 4.3%, and included vegetable and fruit growers, forestry and fishing. A few Jews even owned farms themselves.
Jews comprised 2.1% of those involved in the medical professions and hygiene. These included doctors, pharmacists, medics, nurses, midwives, barbers and cosmeticians.

The proportion of Jews in the field of education was similar (2.3%), and included teachers at private and public schools, tutors, melamdim (cheder), preschool teachers, employees of academic institutions and instructors at institutions of higher learning.

In the sector "public servants and the free professions" (1.8%) the highest percentage were lawyers and attorneys in private practice, individuals employed in religious organizations and social service institutions, as well as writers, painters, sculptors, and those involved in the theater, for example. State employees represented a much smaller proportion of this category. The most weakly represented were domestic servants (0.7%).

There was a large group of people who were not gainfully employed for various reasons (4.7%). This included people of various social ranks: pensioners, the disabled, disabled veterans and their families, those living off the income from their investments, beggars, those supported by welfare benefits, and individuals in hospitals and prisons.

Most of the professions in which Jews were strongly represented had low income levels. After the Second World War, an attempt was made to construct new occupational patterns for the Jewish population by steering Jews towards different sectors of the economy. In 1947, as many as 32.6% of Jews were employed in heavy industry and in agriculture (ORT), 15% in crafts, both in private workshops and in cooperatives ("Solidarnosc").

Under communism, only a few Jews owned shops, while most who were engaged in trade did so illegally, at markets or door-to-door. Jews began to be employed in the state and local administration (approximately 25% of the total Jewish workforce). In the years 1949-1950, after independent Jewish institutions were liquidated and the administration and offices purged, this number fell. Statistics on Jewish employment patterns were not kept after that time.

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