Haya Bar-Itzhak. Jewish Poland. Legends of origin. Ethnopoetics and Legendary Chronicles. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001. 195 pp.
This book, first published in 1996 in Hebrew, describes Jewish legends relating to the first settlement of Jews in the Polish lands. It is a disappointing treatment of an interesting, all too frequently neglected, topic. To the extent that historians have discussed myths of origin, they have tended to regard them with scepticism. Because legends are invariably a mix of fact and fantasy, it behoves the researcher to try to extract the historical elements that can be of some use in reconstructing the history of the Jews in the Slavic lands, where historical and archaeological evidence from the earliest periods is usually sparse or non-existent.
There are four central problems with Bar-Itzhak's book:
(1) She defines Poland in its pre-WW 11 boundaries, where the eastern third of the country was largely ethnically Ukrainian, Belarusian and Jewish. Jews in Poland and the East Slavic lands differed considerably in language, culture, ethnic makeup and settlement history. Even within the ethnic Polish lands, pre-World War 11 Polish Jews were heterogeneous ethnographically and linguistically. Sensitivity to such well-known facts might have enabled Bar-Itzhak to locate the epicenter of the legends and the paths and chronology of their diffusion. She refers to a number of Ukrainian and Belarusian places by their Polish names, e.g., Brody, garhorod (which she calls by the Anglo-Polish fusion form "Sharygred"), Byxov, Drohyeyn, Kyjiv (here Kiev), Kolomyja, L'viv (here Lwow), Luck, Volodymyr-Volyns'kyj (here Wlodzimierz), Mohyliv (here Mohylew), Nemyriv (here Niemirew), Podilja (here Podolia), Sluck, and Ternopil' (here Tarnopol). Clearly, the book does not deal only with Polish, but with Ukrainian (Kyiv-Polissian) Jewish legends as well. There is no justification for citing Eastern Slavic toponyms in their Polish forms, especially when the corresponding Yiddish names are of East Slavic origin (see Yiddish Ostre < Ukrainian Ostrih vs. Polish Ostrog).
Unfortunately, the author neglects to ask whether the geography of any given legend of origin can be correlated with Yiddish dialect boundaries or West versus East Slavic borders.
(2) There is little attempt to comment on the verisimilitude of the legends or on the secondary literature relating to them. The lack of a critical apparatus is a major defect of the book and reduces Bar-Itzhak's achievement to a mere translation of the legends into English. For example, she mentions an assumption by the eminent nineteenth-century Polish historian Lelewel that the Jews arrived in the ninth century as slave traders, and the negative reaction that this elicited from one commentator (p. 101), but she herself takes no stand. In light of what is now known about the trade in Slavic slaves, who were predominantly Sorbs, Polabians and Czechs, and the participation of the Jews in this trade, there is no reason to keep the contemporary reader in doubt as to the facts. There is no mention of the twelfth-century bronze doors of the Cathedral of Gniezno depicting a Jewish slaver and the efforts of the Czech-born missionary Saint Adalbert/ Wojciech to stop the trade. Why is there no mention of the crucial testimony of the tenth-century Catalan Jewish slaver, Ibrahim ibn Ja`qub, about whom there is an enormous secondary literature? He is immediately relevant, since he actually visited the Polish lands and tried to collect information on the location of Jewish settlements in Slavic areas, including the mixed Germano-- Sorbian and Polabian lands. The discussion of twelfth- and thirteenth-century coins containing Polish sentences written in Hebrew characters should not have gone without comment. Also, she does not address the error made by S. Y. Agnon in 1925 that the coins bear the inscription Moshe krill polski "Moses, King of Poland."
The assessment of legends of origin to some extent needs an accompanying linguistic commentary, but none is attempted in this book. …