We find Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe as early as the 10th century. Real immigration doesn't begin until the 15th century, due to pogroms in Western Europe from the Black Death and then in the 16th century from the Reformation. Initially, the Jews are invited to settle in Greater Poland.
The largest class of people in Eastern Europe are serfs. Serfdom is a bottomless pit of debt and the exploiting nobility find that they can trust the Jews to collect the rents and manage their properties. The Jews are also trusted to run the local taverns where the serfs spend their last kopek to drown out the woes.
As such, while the Jews are tolerated by the nobility, they are hated by the downtrodden serfs. The clergy and artisans also hold the Jews in contempt for professional reasons.
The Jew and the neighboring Polish peasant live in different worlds. The peasant is illiterate, uncivil, violent, and hateful. While they both share in the plight of poverty, they hardly understand or communicate with each other. The Jew speaks Yiddish and knows only enough Polish to sell a cow to his neighbor. The Jew has no reason or basis to imitate to his neighbor's culture. Assimilation is out of the question.
Religion is cherished by most of Eastern Europe, Jew and non-Jew alike. They are hardly affected by the storms of the Reformation. The Jewish community focuses its concern on the plight of their brethren in Western Europe. It is also concerned with an innovative publication by a Rabbi Yosef Caro of Safed. Rabbi Caro authors a great synopsis of the Oral Torah, organizing it into four sections. It consists of only those topics that are applicable to the time. He calls it the Shulchan Aruch. Some scholars are concerned that this digest will distract from the study of the Talmud. History proves otherwise, for the Shulchan Aruch reveals many understandings and spawns intensive research and study.
Jewish life is primarily found in small towns, sometimes clustering with a handful of families who focus themselves around all-important Torah study, ritual practice and mutual assistance. Central Jewish communal authority was recognized by the government and the controlling Va'ad Arba Aratzos was run by Torah scholars.
Eastern Europe once hosted the greater part of world Jewry. Events of recent history have decimated this region. For all we know, within a hundred years the archeologists will not find a trace of Jewry in most of this area. Already most of the Jewish cemeteries have been destroyed.
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