Commentary Magazine

It Takes a Village

The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe
By Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern
Princeton University Press, 415 page

Shtetl: A Vernacular Intellectual History
By Jeffrey Shandler
Rutgers University Press, 178 pages

Here, in no particular order, are some of the sources of American impressions of the shtetl, the Eastern European Jewish town of pre-Holocaust provenance, from the past 20 years. The opening minutes of the 2009 film A Serious Man by the Coen brothers. Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2001 novel Everything Is Illuminated. The massive “Tower of Faces” display at the United States Holocaust Museum. James Sturm’s graphic novel Market Day. One of the numberless regional or Broadway revivals of Fiddler on the Roof.

Just a few selections, but enough—and enough variety—to suggest the ubiquity and potency of their common portrait of the Ashkenazic Jewish past: the thatched houses, the dirt roads, the peddlers’ carts, the burgeoning families, the poverty. While the power of this portrait is undeniable, its historical accuracy is something else again. As decades of scholarship on the shtetl have shown, almost all literary, artistic, essayistic, ethnographic, and memoiristic treatments of the subject, in one way or another, have been deeply unrepresentative of the historical record.

Should we chastise these works for being historically false? Or does the story they tell carry its own important truth? Two remarkable new books—both exceedingly well-written and eminently suitable for general audiences despite their academic provenance—offer different and complementary answers.

In Shtetl, Jeffrey Shandler, of Rutgers University, has taken on the task of peeling away the obfuscations, mystifications, and transmogrifications—undertaken with the best and the worst of designs, either by ideological design or well-meaning ignorance—that have encrusted themselves over the shtetl’s actual history across centuries and continents.

For Shandler, the story of how the shtetl came to be portrayed in this way is the story of the shtetl. Indeed, he explains lucidly that the very word shtetl was a linguistic black hole from its earliest origins: Authors of various stripes have used it to describe a dizzying variety of locales of differing sizes and identities.

But that’s not to say the term didn’t mean anything, or that we can’t get at the historical kernel of shtetldom. That is exactly what Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, a historian at Northwestern University, does in his book The Golden Age Shtetl. Using a wide variety of archival sources, Petrovsky-Shtern not only stakes his claim to what the shtetl is (at least during the historical period he calls the “golden age of the shtetl,” roughly the first half of the 19th century), but he also brings it to glorious, colorful life.

In the 18th century, Petrovsky-Shtern tells us, most Jewish economic activity was located in what we’d now call Poland. Jews had been invited to settle there, beginning in the 16th century, under the protection of local magnates to help manage the output and trade generated by their massive estates. These estates featured what were, in essence, private towns owned by the merchants. Jews received licenses to conduct commercial activity—including, particularly, though by no means solely, tavern-owning and liquor production. These towns became the center of those economic activities, often highlited at the market fairs that took place either in the cities or nearby. When Russia took over the area of Poland in which these million or so Jews lived (between 1772 and 1795), it attempted to maintain the working Polish economic and commercial systems while subjecting them to Russian bureaucratic control.

As long as this fruitful triple tension between Poles, Jews, and Russians lasted, the towns with Jewish commerce flourished. These were the shtetls of Petrovsky-Shtern’s “golden age.” When the Russians disrupted this delicate balance through heavy-handed legislative activity in the service of a particularly nationalist and chauvinist ideology—alongside some less purposeful historical trends, like the disruption of regional economies that followed in the wake of industrialization—the golden age came to an end.

Petrovsky-Shtern echoes recent scholarly trends by being quite clear about how certain Tsarist behaviors viewed as pure anti-Semitism by contemporaries (and their descendants) are best understood as part of other, broader agendas—efforts to check Polish rebelliousness first among them. In fact, the Jews thrived under the early days of Russian control, since the Russians trusted them far more than their Polish neighbors. The Russians even allowed Jews to take over the provinces’ postal service. Jews returned the favor; they avidly took Russia’s side against Napoleon, for example.

But Petrovsky-Shtern is equally forthright in stating how the Russian nationalist turn in the second half of the 19th century led explicitly to the embrace of anti-Semitic attitudes—invoking racial theories to blame the Jews as a class for criminality, or for enticing the peasantry into drunkenness in their taverns, which would contribute to far darker trends in Russian-Jewish history.

But at its peak, the shtetl had all the vibrancy and spectacle of the American West in its heyday (only a few decades distant from this counterpart, as the 1980 Gene Wilder frontier-rabbi movie The Frisco Kid delightfully if fictionally reminds us). Petrovsky-Shtern offers vivid descriptions of the shtetl-dwellers and their occasionally reckless and violent language and behavior. In one remarkable case, shtetl Jews dressed up a peasant as Jesus, put on a mock crucifixion, and mocked the horrified Christians who looked in, without suffering serious consequences. He evokes their colorful clothing and the dazzling variety of goods and materials sold at bustling market fairs as well as the entrepreneurial spirit that the milieu produced within, and without, the boundaries of the law (counterfeiting rings and smuggling gangs, in which Jews, Poles, and Russians worked together to outwit government officials). Digging through police reports and the accounts of government clerks, Petrovsky-Shtern produces a series of indelible portraits that give a feel for the historical shtetl better than any other work I’ve encountered.

The story that has all too often served as a proxy for all of Eastern European Jewish history—the rise of rabbinical culture and learning and the creation of what we now think of as the traditional Ashkenazic intellectual and religious culture—doesn’t take center stage here. The Jews discussed in The Golden Age Shtetl were not, primarily, people of the book. They were the people of the fair, of the goat, of the family, of the body, whose circumstances and interests led to a diversity of choices just as in any and every other culture. As Petrovsky-Shtern shows in a strong but somewhat tangential chapter, books were very expensive and print runs were small. A book cost about the price of a goat and five books would get you a cow; it was quite reasonable, of the two, to choose the goat. Indeed, it was perhaps unreasonable, given the exigencies of making a living, for most people to choose anything else.

Petrovsky-Shtern’s notion (or his editor’s) to have his book’s subtitle subsume the history of Eastern European Jewry into the story of the shtetl—it’s “A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe”—precisely reflects the process Shandler writes about so marvelously in his book. The overwhelming majority of works about the shtetl—even, and perhaps especially, those produced in what we might think of as the “authentic” atmosphere of Eastern Europe, in the shtetl’s native language of Yiddish—were created only in the period of the shtetl’s economic decline (or, in other languages, after its destruction).

In a dazzlingly comprehensive overview of those works, in which he goes as wide as Petrovsky-Shtern goes deep, Shandler distinguishes between the shtetl as “phenomenon” and as “concept.” He briefly recounts the historical tale Petrovsky-Shtern illuminates, and certainly speaks to its importance, but that is not his primary interest: for him, it’s the concept, the imagined shtetl in all of its peregrinations, that grips him.

This “construct of the shtetl as a significantly Jewish, culturally autonomous, small-scale, communitarian social module”—a construct which, as Petrovsky-Shtern has shown us, is inapt in almost every detail—was used in different ways. For the proponents of the Jewish enlightenment, that cultural flowering in the 19th century, the shtetl was condemned as the home of benighted and backwards superstition, foolishness, and poverty. It was viewed in layered ways by elegiac memoirists who had embraced modernity but viewed with discomfort the withering of the traditional values the shtetl represented. It was embraced by folklorists and ethnographers as an unspoiled repository of authentic Jewish culture. It was wept over by nostalgic emigrants who romanticized their memories of the homes of their youth. And, as Europe neared what looked to be another Great War, realists portrayed the remaining shtetls under increasing duress and in danger of disappearing completely.

No one could have imagined how right they would be. The complete extirpation of the shtetl in the Nazi genocide allowed the word to acquire “greater significance as a metonym for a bygone way of life and for values—intimacy, communality, piety, provinciality, insularity, rootedness—variously associated with it.” The Shoah helped create the image of the shtetl as the vanished European Jewish world entire. This image took the cities out of the picture; it’s fair to say most people’s image of Poland on the eve of the Holocaust isn’t of a Jew taking the streetcar in Warsaw to the local movie palace, even though over a third of prewar Polish Jewry lived in Poland’s three largest cities.

Works such as Mark Zborowski’s massively influential 1952 Life Is With People, or Fiddler on the Roof in 1963 (whose lyricist would blurb Life Is With People’s paperback version), and the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer helped create an “established literary construct”—a fixed image of the past that hardened very quickly into the comforting and tragic meme that has been used so frequently over the subsequent decades. Shandler discusses these works, and many others (including all the ones name-checked in this review’s first paragraph) with insight and critical verve, taking us to the present moment and illustrating the shtetl’s continued presence in the Jewish cultural imagination.

Petrovsky-Shtern suggests the entrepreneurial culture that developed in the shtetl’s golden age became a hallmark of Jewish business energy and ambition in the centuries to come throughout the diaspora. Shandler might see that as just another example of the sociological uses to which the idea of the shtetl has been put. Both would agree, though, in some deep sense, that in understanding the shtetl, we European Jews understand ourselves—which is a big accomplishment for a little town.

About the Author

Jeremy Dauber is Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Columbia University. He reviewed Hanukkah in America in our March issue.

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