Culture and Demographics: What We Can Learn from Jewish History
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Culture and Demographics: What We Can Learn from Jewish History

A STUDY BY MARISTELLA BOTTICINI AND COLLEAGUES ANALYZES THE DEMOGRAPHIC TREND OF THE JEWISH POPULATION IN EUROPE FROM THE 1500S TO THE 30S OF THE LAST CENTURY

History can help us to assess the impact of cultural and religious norms on demographic and economic patterns. In Child Care and Human Development: Insights from Jewish History in Central and Eastern Europe, 1500–1930, Maristella Botticini (Department of Economics of Bocconi University, Innocenzo Gasparini Institute for Economic Research), Zvi Eckstein (Interdisciplinary Center IDC, Israele) and Anat Vaturi (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) study the case of the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe in pre-modern and modern times.

The total population in the area grew at the annual rate of 0.43 percent from 1500 to 1930. The Jewish population growth rate was almost 1.4. In 1500, Jews were only 0.13 of the total population in the vast geographical area of Poland and Lithuania. By 1880, just before the immigration waves within Europe and to the US, they were over 15 percent. The authors surveyed primary and secondary sources and documented that child care practices rooted in Biblical and Talmudic rulings account for the lower infant and child mortality among Jews. This, in turn, explains about 70 percent of the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish population growth.

Some of these rulings emphasized the importance of breastfeeding the newborn child immediately after birth, they recommended longer breastfeeding duration and the use of one source of breast milk. The use of mechanical contraception was permitted during lactation to preserve the mother’s ability to nurse. Other rulings concerned diet, personal hygiene of mother and newborn, support from the wife’s family.

“Many centuries later, the recent medical research has shown that these rulings and practices actually improve the health and survival of infants and children. They enhance cognitive and non-cognitive skills and account for the lower infant and child mortality among Jews”, Maristella Botticini says. “Two thousand years ago, Judaism enforced education in a world of almost universal illiteracy. It also caused lower infant and child mortality rates, contributing to Jewish economic prosperity and intellectual achievements in Eastern and Central Europe in the early modern and modern times”.

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by Claudio Todesco

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