Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2002. 399 pp. $65.00 (c); $29.95 (p).
If today conservatives lament the high divorce rate of Americans in 2002, what would they have thought of Jews living in tsarist Russia, who divorced at rates higher than today's American rates? ChaeRan Freeze, assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies at Brandeis University, uncovers these seemingly shocking statistics in her brilliantly researched book, Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia, and shows how Russian Jewish marriage and divorce operated and changed throughout the nineteenth century. Freeze concludes that patterns of Jewish marriage and divorce in Russia counter previous understandings about how marriage, divorce, and the family had changed over time. Most scholars of the family suggest that divorce rates increased during the nineteenth century as modernization, mobility, education, and new expectations about conjugal life changed each partner's, but especially women's, expectations about what to expect from marriage. In theory, people came together for love rather than to please the parents, and the economics of the family changed, making divorce a financial possibility for more people. But Freeze argues that "the Jews showed the contrary tendency with modernization: from astronomically high divorce rates in the early nineteenth century, they demonstrated a striking tendency to reduce, not increase, the divorce rate" (p. 146, emphasis in original). In what might be Freeze's most startling statistic, in 1845, the province of Vilna registered more divorces than marriages, the only time Freeze found such a statistic in her research. Freeze allows that her research sample, which was by definition limited to those locales whose documents were preserved, might not be able to be generalized. But she does her best to provide a cross-section of Russian Jewish society by bringing in material from a variety of places such as Vilna, an urban city in the North, and Korostyshev, a small predominantly hasidic shtetl in the Ukranian south. Unlike their Orthodox Christian neighbors and unlike Jews in other parts of Europe, Russian Jews had no hang-ups about dissolving unions.
Much of Freeze's book focuses on the messy details of couples coming together, and more important for Freeze, dissolving their marriages. In the early nineteenth century, Jews married at a young age for a variety of reasons -- procreation in the face of high mortality rates, avoiding the tsarist draft, and the maintenance of parental control over their children. In 1851, the mean age of marriage was 19.5 for women and 23.4 for men, although average marrying age varied depending on geography, class, and degree of urbanization. Freeze also describes what were called "panic marriages," when families married their children off at a very young age to create stability in times of crisis. She shows that those involved in the marriage business often fanned fears of instability to increase the rate of panic marriages and boost business
But the age of Jewish marriage increased through the second half of the century so that by 1900, the Jewish age of marriage in Vilna was 23.2 for women, 26.3 for men, the highest marrying age of any religious group in the Russian Empire. In her examination of the reasons for the age increase, Freeze brings social, cultural, and political history together. She shows that Jews married at an older age not just because women had a larger voice in negotiating families; not just because the Russian state was taking a greater interest in families; and not just because child mortality rates were dropping, but because of all of these factors. And the complexities of marriage fore-shadowed the even more complicated cultural phenomenon of Jewish divorce, which is central to Freeze's story.
For Russia's Jews divorce was a legal, more than a spiritual, issue. The rituals surrounding divorce were as technical and legalistic as the rituals for marriage. …