Within the Pale of Pleasure

Polish Jews and the Pursuit of Happiness (1918-1939)

Emma Zohar

A group of teachers from Vilnius (Vilna) whose language of instruction was Hebrew, boating on Lake Narocz, 1934. Photographer Faber Shlomo

Polish Jewry is commonly imagined as the epitome of Jewish suffering. This image is manifested in the historiography as well as in the Israeli and the Jewish-American public discourse — and for good reasons indeed. A substantial proportion of the Jewish population in interwar Poland did suffer from poverty, antisemitism and persecution. But like other people, Jews too were in a constant quest for better life. Polish Jews sought diverse ways to achieve self-fulfillment and joy at home and in the public sphere. This relentless pursuit of happiness included consumption and leisure culture, body image, sexual relationships and love. In my research I aim to explore this so-called pale of pleasures of Polish Jews. This examination will help us gain new insights on social, cultural, political and economic issues regarding the everyday life of the Jewish communities of the Second Polish Republic. I will explore to what extent part of this culture of pleasures was uniquely Jewish, and in this way will shed new light on the question of the place of the Jewish minority within the new Polish state.

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