What’s in a phrase? The familiar “beyond the pale” has an interesting history that may surprise many Jews whose families came from Eastern Europe. While today it means “outside agreed-upon standards of decency,” in the past it meant, literally, to be outside the area accepted as “home” or “civilization.” A pale was a stake or pointed piece of wood that was often used to build a fence. Inside the fence was the safety of one’s known world. Beyond the palings was the great unknown.
An early political use of the word was the Pale in Ireland, also known as the English Pale. Within the boundaries of this medieval Pale located in eastern Ireland, English law was the rule. But perhaps the most famous Pale was the one founded by the Russian ruler Catherine the Great in 1791 to deal with her “Jewish problem.” After this Pale was established, the vast majority of the Russian Empire’s Jews were forced to live within its boundaries, and at its peak the Pale was home to about five million Jews, about 40 percent of world Jewry at the time.
Among those who suddenly found themselves confined within the Pale were Ukraine’s Jews. But this end-of-the-century edict was just the last blow in what had been a tumultuous century, an era that began with edicts of expulsion, including one signed by an earlier empress who was also named Catherine.
Beyond the Mists of Time
Although Jews came to some parts of Russian lands during the period of the Babylonian Exile, they were relative latecomers to Ukraine. It’s thought that they first arrived during the eighth century, when some settled in the Khazar Kingdom, which controlled lucrative trade routes. In addition to being known for their wealth, the Khazar royal family and many members of the kingdom’s elite made history when they converted to Judaism towards the end of that century. But by the tenth century this unusual Jewish kingdom was on the wan and Kievan Rus was on the rise.
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