After he freed the serfs, Alexander II was virtually deified by one leading Jewish newspaper
As far as 19th century Russian autocrats went, Czar Alexander II did some decent things for the Jews. He abolished the cruel “Cantonist school” system, which ripped Jewish children away from their families and into decades of forced military service. He allowed some Jews to attend high school and even university. While the ultimate goal was certainly Russification, Alexander generally promoted a gentler form of it than others.
In 1861, the day before Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president of the United States, a no less significant event took place across the world. On March 3 of that year, Czar Alexander II signed the Emancipation Manifesto, which, along with accompanying legislation, freed some 23 million serfs across the Russian Empire.
Liberty was not immediate even for those officially freed by the proclamation, and for the 2.5 million disenfranchised Jews living in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, the Manifesto held little to no meaning.
Nonetheless, the editors of HaMelitz, a leading Jewish weekly published in Odessa, celebrated the Emancipation Manifesto and its signer as if it were the High Holidays and Alexander was the Almighty Himself.
HaMelitz generally championed values of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), and played a critical role in the modern rebirth of the Hebrew language during the second half of the 19th century. It thus only seems natural that a modern take on traditional Jewish liturgy praising the Czar of Russia instead of the God of Abraham graced the publication’s cover shortly after the Emancipation Manifesto.
And it wasn’t subtle.
Following the blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashana, worshippers traditionally say “Today, the world came into being, today [He] will stand in judgment…”, as they plead for God’s compassion and favor.
The difficult-to-translate Hebrew words “Hayom harat” begin this prayer, and they, along with other identical terms, open the ‘liturgy’ published by HaMelitz, as well: “Today the success of our Land came into being, today a KING [large font in the original] of justice and righteousness will stand…”
Perhaps the most well-known High Holiday refrain “Avinu Malkeinu” (“Our Father, Our King”) also makes an appearance, as Alexander is referred to as “Avinu Malkeinu HaRachaman“, “Our Merciful Father and King”.
While other Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur tropes continue throughout, additional Jewish holidays make appearances as well.
The Hebrew term for “light and happiness”, which famously appears in the Book of Esther after the Jews are saved from the hands of the evil Haman, is here employed to refer to the day the beneficent Russian monarch freed 23 million serfs, with the latter referenced in a manner clearly reminiscent of the wording used to recount the myriads of Jewish slaves miraculously redeemed from Egyptian servitude.
The “prayer” concludes with a call for all who “loyally love the land of our birth” to “Bless the one who has granted us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this day” – the exact text of the well-known “Shehecheyanu” prayer, seemingly directed towards the King of Russia, as opposed to the King of the Universe.
Similar works were written in honor of Alexander II across the Empire. In fact, over the course of his reign, Hebrew texts were composed to mark other events as well, including his anniversary and his survival of an assassination attempt (at least one of them). Some of these texts were even intended to be read in synagogue. This phenomenon is not specific to the czar, however. Over the centuries, countless Hebrew prayers, songs and poems have been composed to fete leaders around the globe – sometimes written from a place of authentic appreciation and gratitude, while other times more out of fear or attempted groveling.
While Biblical phrases and wording generally reserved for God may have sometimes been utilized by anti-religious authors in order to denigrate tradition and sanctify secularism and modernity, that was certainly not always the intention, as prior to the broader development of modern Hebrew, the language’s lexicon and contexts were overwhelmingly religious in nature. Hamelitz specifically served as a major force driving the modernization and secularization of Hebrew, helping enable it to be used more widely.
On March 13, 1881, an assassin’s bomb tore Alexander II’s body apart. He bled to death in the same room in which he had signed the Emancipation Manifesto almost exactly two decades earlier.
Alexander’s son would immediately go on to rule with an iron fist and usher in an era of state-supported anti-Semitism. His grandson, present in the Winter Palace for the assassination’s aftermath, would be the last Czar of Russia.
This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.