The Study of Man: The “Old Country” Way of Life
Apparently, nothing less than its recent bloody extinction could bring the existence of the shtetl—“the Jewish little town of Eastern Europe”—to the attention of American social scientists. At that, the first full-length study of this peculiar social organism had to come into being in a rather roundabout way.
As Margaret Mead tells the story in her foreword to Life Is With People, by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, it all started when a group of anthropologists—including Miss Mead and the late Ruth Benedict—were prevented by the war from studying at first hand the Micronesians, Melanesians, Polynesians, and other “primitive” folk who had, for so long, been their stock in trade. Seeking fresh outlets for their talents and energy, they undertook to use their scientific training for the benefit of the war effort. Ruth Benedict, in particular, began studying European cultures at second hand with a view to providing guidance for those government officials who were concerned with stimulating the resistance movements there. It did not take long for Miss Benedict to suspect that the Jews who lived in the East European countries were a significantly unique cultural group. After the war, through Columbia University’s Institute for Research in Contemporary Cultures, Miss Mead and Miss Benedict, together with their associates, began under more relaxed conditions to experiment with the wartime methods they had developed for studying cultures “at a distance,” i.e., without benefit of the usual field work. With the help of a grant from the Scientific Research Department of the American Jewish Committee (of whose staff Mark Zborowski is a member), they initiated a special project to determine whether there was something to Miss Benedict’s original guess about East Europe’s Jews.
About the Author