Sunday, January 27, 2019

Divorces in the Shtetl - Frequency

Recently, I've been involved in several conversations about the divorce rate in America's Jewish community.  Many people say that there was essentially no such thing as divorce in Eastern Europe and that this is purely a function of American society; they imagine shtetl life to have been some sort of utopia.

Before you read further, guess what percentage of marriages in Europe ended in divorce.  And see how close your guess is to reality.

Because the vital records for Nezhin's Jewish community are largely intact from the late 1850s through the Russian Revolution, I decided to look at the ratio of divorces to marriages each year in that town.  (You can browse through these record books online yourself; information on what is available with links can be found here.)

What I learned about that is below; I also took note of the reasons for the various divorces, which are interesting enough to merit their own future post (so stay tuned).
Nezhin Divorce:  Because he was blind



Was divorce really as infrequent in Eastern European Jewish communities as people say?  Looking at the records shows otherwise.  Here's what the data says:

YEARNumber of Divorces 
(that year)
Number of Marriages
(that year)
Ratio of Divorces Compared to Marriages
(that year)
185995217.31
186073917.95
1861126917.39
1862136520
1863135225
18645598.47
18656 (may be missing end of year)599.83% or more
1866missing69unknown
1867missing72unknown
1868missing70unknown
1869106814.71
1870115420.37
1871106914.49
1872107014.29
1873145127.45
1874145326.42
1875125123.53
187695815.52
1877175928.81
1878177821.79
18791655 (through November)About 26.67
18808 (through August)69About 17.39
1881196927.54
1882186826.47
1883168319.28
1884165529.09
1885177223.61
1886118213.41
1887156921.74
1888128214.63
188975911.86
189010 (through October)missingunknown
18911469 through AugustAbout 13.53
1892671 through OctoberAbout 7.04
18937 (through October)missingunknown
18941456 through SeptemberAbout 20.83
189597312.33
1896missingmissing-
1897missingmissing-
189887410.81
1899116716.42
19002 (through February)57About 21.05
19018849.52
1902missing87unknown
1903139114.29
190476410.94
19053 (through April)58About 15.52
1906missing69unknown
19074537.55
19084675.97
19094636.35
191064912.24
191174714.89
19125637.94
191365111.76
19143387.89
191521513.33
19161175.88
1917missing23unknown
19183773.9

In the above table, there were some data sets which were not complete.  So long as there was some data, I assumed that divorces/marriages (whichever was missing data) would have kept up at the same monthly rate for the rest of the year, for the part of the year from which missing records start.  Where a year's marriage or divorce records are missing entirely, I did not do a calculation for that year.

Since I'm a geek (in case you couldn't tell from this entire post), here's what the divorce/marriage ratio was like for Nezhin's Jewish community from 1859-1917:
Yearly Marriage/Divorce Ratio for Nezhin's Jewish Commnity, 1859-1917

Year RangeAverage divorce/marriage ratio
(per year in year range)
1859-186916.33
1870-187921.93
1880-188920.5
1890-189914.57
1900-190911.4
1910-19179.73

Drops in the marriage/divorce ratio seem to correlate to war or other unrest.  There is a drastic dip in 1864 & 1865--right when the Crimean War was causing mass military drafts (and ensuing deaths) of Jewish males.  The numbers dropped again starting in 1906, just after the first of several large pogroms in Nezhin (in October 1905).  There was significant unrest through the end of the data, as pogroms led into WWI which led into the Russian Revolution.

There were decades when over 1/5 of the marriages ended in divorce.  There were specific years  (particularly in the 1870s and 1880s) when close to 1/3 of marriages ended in divorce.  Divorce wasn't rare at all!
Nezhin Divorce:  He'd gone to America and proxy-divorced his wife via her father

So while this isn't a comment on the pros or cons of divorce, it's a message to American Jews--things weren't always better in Eastern Europe.  The Jews of the Russian Empire were human.  Divorce happened.

What do you think?  Is this what you would have expected?

Edited to add: Andrew Millard did additional analysis with this data. He says: I replotted the data with 95% confidence intervals on the ratio of divorces to marriages. Allowing for the confidence interval there's not much variation visible at annual resolution but 5-year averages do show a drop and a rise in the early 20th century. His plots:




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16 comments:

  1. Maybe not geek enough :) I couldn't resist checking significance of the trends by Fisher exact test.
    The difference between the rates of 1859-1863 vs. the low-points of 1864 and 1865 is formally barely significant (p=0.04) but we ought to require a tighter p-value because we cherrypicked the intervals. Anyway Crimean war was over 8 years before the dip (and post-war draft was at all-time law, with many years of skipped recruiting as the military drew down from the outsize draft of the 1853-1856).
    In contrast, the difference between 1870s vs. 1890s-1900s is stark (p-value less than 0.00001). I believe that it reflects the economic crisis of the shtetle caused by the 1883 reforms, especially by the mass eviction of country Jews in the years which followed, and ban on new village settlement. Forced re-urbanization purposefully destroyed the shtetle economy, and dditional economic and educational bans made the things even worse. It was the government's plan all along to reduce Jewish population by starving the shtetle until its residents run abroad. And typically, economic crises take 3 to 5 years to seep into the public conscience.

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  2. Incredible job!
    Interesting to compare the numbers with any town from different area...
    What the main reason of divorce? Chillness?

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    1. I'll be posting about divorce reasons probably next week. So stay tuned.

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    2. Interesting: An uncle of mine was born in Belarus around 1880. His parents divorced right after his birth and she returned to her Shtetl where she immediately married a first cousin. Both I and one of his daughters (my first cousin) agreed that it was probably a shotgun marriage.

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  3. It's uncommon to have such a complete data set for Jewish marriages and divorces in the Russian Empire, and this analysis yields fascinating insights into a rarely examined aspect of shtetl life.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! That's why Nezhin was such a good case study. (And I'm fortunate enough to have had a branch of my family from this town, so there's good documentation for them!)

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  4. What is the current divorce rate in subsets of the Jewish community? Possible to collect data?

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    Replies
    1. I deal with dead people. Talk to a sociologist. :)

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  5. I can just imagine a rabbi sitting there in late 1870s-early 1880s, shaking his head: "These youngsters! Nothing is sacred to them anymore! So many divorces... what is the world coming to? In my time.."

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  6. How interesting! I can't wait to find out their reasons

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  7. see:
    https://www.upne.com/1584651474.html
    Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia
    ChaeRan Y. Freeze

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  8. Actually kind of "yes". Initially I was shocked at the divorces I found in my family, since I had always heard that people just did not get divorced "back then". I was the one who informed my 75 year old mother that her aunt had been divorced back in 1938. (She was shocked and then snickered a little). I had a great great grandmother/grandfather pair who divorced in 1904 and both ended up remarrying. I was not expecting that in the beginning of my research, but now, it does not cause a second look. It happened. It was normal. But it was not part of the family story to pass on. That is a shame.

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  9. If you figure in desertion, the marital unhappiness rate is even higher.

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