Jews in Latvia until 1918

The exposition begins with a section dedicated to the early period of Jewish history in Latvia, from the settlement in 16th century to 19th century. The first Jewish communities were established in Piltene, Aizpute, Riga and elsewhere. Jews actively took part in economic activity, serving as middlemen between peasants and townsmen when trading various goods. In the 19th century, most towns in Kurzeme and Latgale had significant Jewish communities, some towns even had a Jewish majority. They were employed not only in trade, but also craftsmanship and in free professions.

At the end of the 18th century and first part of the 19th century the Latvian Jewish community was greatly affected by the Jewish Enlightenment or Haskalah, as the cities in Kurzeme and Riga became major centers of  Jewish modernization. It was also stimulated by growing numbers of new types of Jewish schools where secular subjects were taught alongside the religious ones.

At the end of the 19th century two new ideological trends appeared within the Jewish society: socialism and Zionism (the movement for Jewish settlement in Palestine and the creation of the Jewish State). The rivalry between these two trends defined  Jewish intellectual life right until the middle of the 20th century. Riga and Daugavpils were major centers of these two movements.

The religious life of the Jews in Latvia was affected by religious ideas coming from Germany, Lithuania and Belarus. In 19th century Latvian Jewish religious life experienced an upswing and many important religious authorities worked in Latvia. While being well integrated in the local society, Jews in Latvia strictly observed the Jewish traditions and lived fulfilled everyday religious life.

Jews had major representation in all sectors of the economy. During the 19th century the Jewish society experienced swift social division, establishing the wealthy merchant and industrialist class, as well as large numbers of poor citizens, who profited from small shops, door to door selling and odd jobs.

The modernization of the Jewish society at the end of the 19th century signified the appearance of the new Jewish intellectual elite. It was formed from people who had gained education in universities in Europe and Russia, and actively worked for improving  Jewish political, social and cultural life. The Riga Polytechnic with its liberal and tolerant environment attracted Jewish youth from all the Russian Empire. Active connections were also established between the new Latvian and Jewish generations of intellectuals.

Overall these connections set the close cooperation between Jewish and Latvian socialists and liberals during the events of 1905 revolution, when joint organizations were established. These connections were not disrupted after the failure of the revolution.

The First World War brought much pain and misery to the Jews in Latvia. Thousands and tens of thousands became refugees or were sent to the army. The Russian military command ordered the expulsion of the Jews of Kurzeme and Zemgale to Russia. The work of the Jewish cultural societies was limited by the state authorities. Overall these events determined the Jewish political stance in Latvia during the events that followed.