In Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story "Guests on a Winter Night", there's one part where he describes the folks inside a coffee shop as "emancipated":

It was even more interesting to look into Chaim's coffee shop. Many couples sat there, all of them emancipated, not Hasidic. The place was frequented by thieves and 'strikers' - the young men and girls who only a few years before were throwing bombs and demanding a constitution from the tsar.
(translated by the author and Dorothea Straus)

I'm not quite sure what "emancipated" is supposed to mean here. From the sentence it's in, I'd be inclined to think it meant non-religious, but then from the further context it looks like they're some sort of revolutionaries. I'm also for some reason unable to find the original Yiddish text.

What does "emancipated" mean in this context?

  • As it is followed by "not Hasidic", Hasidism is an ultra-orthodox sect of Judaism, and you say the original text is in Yiddish I take the meaning of "emancipated" to be Jewish but not Hasidic (especially formerly Hasidic Jews), with reason for use of the term emancipated to be the way the narrator feels about Hasidism-(I don't know the context but he may be a conflicted Hasid, a former Hasid, etc). But this is just a guess.
    – layabout
    Commented Feb 4, 2022 at 0:32
  • Is this relevant: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_emancipation
    – Stuart F
    Commented Feb 8, 2022 at 18:19

1 Answer 1


While I do not have the Yiddish text, I strongly suspect that "emancipated" is being used to translate the Yiddish frei or "free". This term can still be heard among observant Jews today to refer to other Jews who do not strictly follow all the commandments of Orthodox Judaism. They are "free" in the sense of not feeling themselves obligated to follow Jewish law, or as it is sometimes phrased, they have "cast off the yoke of the commandments".

This has relatively little to do with being free in a political sense. It has more to do with emancipating themselves from the expectations of their families and their native culture. While it was not uncommon for frei young people to get involved with revolutionary movements in the late 19th and early 20th century, it is not necessarily implied just by the word frei. One could just as easily describe a secular bourgeois person as frei as you could a socialist or a communist.

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