Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man: The “Old Country” Way of Life

Turning away momentarily from its Melanesians and its Polynesians and its Micronesians, modern anthropology has discovered, not without a healthy sense of wonder, that there used to exist in Eastern Europe a Jewish culture; an account of this discovery has been written down in a new book of extraordinary interest: Life Is With People, by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog (International Universities Press, 430 PP., $500), which tries to describe for us the basic culture of a typical small Eastern European Jewish community. As Moshe Decter here points out, the phenomena of Jewish life put a certain strain on established categories of thought—with provocative results.



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.

Sure enough, to the evident surprise of practically everyone—excepting Mr. Zborowski, who is an excellent Jewish scholar—it began to look as if Miss Benedict had hit upon something. To quote Margaret Mead: “As the seminar studying Jews began to work,1 it became clearer and clearer. . . that we were not merely dealing with differences among Poles or among Ukrainians which could be referred to a difference in religious faith, in occupational opportunity, or traditional social position in the society, but with a living whole, that the East European Jews had in fact a living culture, which was essentially all of a piece whether they paid their taxes and marketed in Polish or Ukrainian or Hungarian, or were ruled by Czar or Emperor. We realized this with growing excitement for while all anthropologists have the experience of working out the essential form of the cultures which they study, we seldom have the experience of discovering the existence of a whole at which we had not guessed.”

Having concluded that a culture existed, the seminar attempted to draw a portrait of the shtetl’s way of life, to establish “the main regularities” of its existence. The Mead-Benedict school of anthropological thought eschews the establishment of statistical frequencies, the presentation of anthropological minutiae, a narrow concentration on local or temporal variations. It is interested rather in the central attributes of a culture: its language, its religion, its set of values, the specific constellation of social mechanisms and institutions, and the feeling of its members that they belong to one group. As Franz Boas once put it, a study of this type “requires a deep penetration into the genius of the culture, a knowledge of the attitudes controlling individual and group behavior.” In other words, this treatment is distinct from the so—called functional approach to social phenomena in so far as it is concerned rather with the discovery of fundamental attitudes than with the functional relations of every cultural item. And it is also not historical, but attempts to handle the material as if it had been caught in a still camera’s view. The goal of such a study is to construct, in the large, an “ideal type” of the culture. It is not Belz, or Shnipishok, or Tolne whose way of life is here described. It is none of these and all of these. It is The Shtetl.



There is inevitably something amusing about this enterprise—its naivety, its original ignorance, its bookish enthusiasm. One can only surmise with what mixed feelings Sholem Aleichem’s great character, Menachem Mendel, would have greeted the discovery that he was not, after all, a Russian citizen of Jewish persuasion! There are hundreds of thousands of people now alive who knew for a fact, and at first hand, what Ruth Benedict so excitedly guessed at. There are also at least a couple of million others who knew from Yiddish literature that the Jews of Eastern Europe constituted a special community of their own, quite distinct from, say, that of the Ukrainian peasant or the Polish landlord. As a matter of fact, so widespread and common was this conviction, that only the denying of it could have caused a commotion anywhere outside of Columbia University.

It is pleasant to be able to say, then, that despite such inauspicious origins, Life Is With People is a good book. The authors and their associates have indeed provided an informative and well-rounded study, the best of its kind in English. Previous studies have dealt exclusively either with one particular community, one locality, or one aspect of shtetl life. Life Is With People, on the other hand, offers a detailed description of the totality of shtetl life, literally from the cradle to the grave. The network of customs, habits, superstitions, old wives&39; tales, and prescriptions that governed the care of an infant; the significant differentiation between the sanctity of the Sabbath and the profane life of the rest of the week; the habits, prejudices, and regimen of eating; marriage; burial; holidays; the market; the “chase after koved” (prestige) and the “chase after parnos-seh” (livelihood)—each of these and practically every other relevant side of shtetl life is dealt with carefully and accurately.

Over and above this, the book explores the intricate social pattern developed by the shtetl in accordance with its traditional concept of the unity of God, Torah, and Israel—we might express it as the unity of values, customs, and institutions. The shtetl felt that its primary—perhaps only—significance inhered in its existence as a segment of a people chosen by God to live by the Law of God. Necessarily, the basic injunction of the Law was that the Law should be learned; and, as a result, learning became the most important criterion of prestige and social status in the shtetl. The Yiddish language provides a whole typology of status in the rich vocabulary describing the degrees and kinds of learned men. Zborowski and Herzog list the following, and there are many more: lerner, studious one; hen Toyreh, son of the Law; haal Toyreh, master, of the Law; lamd&39;n, erudite one; talmid chochem, wise scholar; mas-mid, one who always bends over his books; charif, the acute; iluy, young genius; oker horim, “uprooter of mountains,” i.e., one who excels in competitive scholarly pyrotechnics; goon, genius.

The two other criteria of prestige were wealth and yichus—“family background with respect to learning and wealth.” Zborowski and Her-zog rather apologetically record that “economic pressures and outside influences had made of wealth a constant contender for first place in the value hierarchy,” despite the fact that learning was historically, traditionally,, and ideally the primary, and wealth the subsidiary, value. But the history of all civilized peoples, including the people of Israel from the days of their earliest settlement in Palestine, would suggest that, not “outside influences,” but irrepressible economic and social forces make for a high social valuation of wealth. Nevertheless, in the shtetl a learned man automatically belonged to the aristocracy; while a wealthy, but ignorant, man belonged only if he used his money in accordance with the Law. This meant that the shtetl society was a mobile one—because anyone who learned, or who showed he had the capacity to absorb large quantities of the unlimited substance of learning, could move to the top. And since the shtetl developed an intricate system of education in the Law to prepare as many as could qualify for a full life of scholarship, this mobility was more than formal.



All this is very well set forth in Life Is With. People. The book, however, is not uniformly successful. In its concern with the balance, reciprocity, and harmony of shtetl life, much of the less harmonious reality is ignored. True, there is ample discussion of the life and way of the prosteh—the common folk—as well as of the sheyneh—the “beautiful,” or the upper class-and even of class stereotypes and antagonisms. And it is also true, as Zborowski and Herzog point out, that social antagonisms were in the end curbed by the fact that everyone accepted the same traditional pattern and lived by the same code. Yet what is not conveyed by the book, is the intense quality of the antagonisms and tensions that clearly did exist: the arrogance and dictatorial tendencies of the wealthy over against the grumbling envy and grinding misery of the poor; the insufferable aloofness and high-caste “untouchability” of the learned as against the depressed status of the ignorant; the hauteur of the ruling sheyneh and the deep resentments of the prosteh. These are largely subsumed in the epilogue under a hypothesis deliberately, but quite arbitrarily, borrowed from physics: the concept of a field of forces, in which all factors that make for tension and antagonism cancel each other out, and thus form a set of reciprocal pluses and minuses. It is all too easy to construct this kind of simile, but it can mislead the uninstructed into the illusion that the shtetl was a relatively placid and stable Utopia. The illusion will be reinforced by the failure of the authors to convey the unbelievable poverty of the shtetl. The reader is given no more than a hint of the painful physical drabness of what the book refers to as the “outward shell” of life—the pathetic shabbiness of the clothing, the mudholes and the bogs, and the garbage and filth for which they were depositories.

The previous work of Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead would lead us to expect Life Is With People to be especially suggestive in the area of social psychology, and some intriguing insights are proposed. Yet one is left with the feeling that these insights are not pressed as deeply as they might have been.

For instance, there was the shred’s passionate concern for the preservation of good health, which is detailed in this book. Zborowski and Herzog also indicate the central role of food in the shtetl: ample and well-prepared food was the symbol and expression of mother-love, the criterion of the woman’s success as housekeeper and hostess. But no complementary attempt is made to link these two phenomena with that fabulous and specifically East European Jewish anxiety and hypochondria which, even today, finds expression among American Jews in overfeeding and over-dressing, in over-protection and over-prevention of every sort.

Similarly, Zborowski and Herzog have a full and interesting discussion of the excessive verbalization that characterized so much of shtetl life. Virtually every aspect of one’s life was subjected to critical examination and evaluation by one’s fellows, resulting in, among other things, an almost total lack of privacy. Speeches at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, hysterical outbursts at funerals and during the initial week of mourning, the violence of arguments and bargaining, all added to the uproar. The authors propose an explanation: the signal importance of the word in a community whose existence was predicated on the study and interpretation of an oral tradition, the Law—a community whose most vital activity was studying aloud, and whose second most vital activity was praying aloud. Yet as a matter of fact, the men, who are most under the influence of the Law, are ideally silent—it is the women who are the talkers, screamers, wailers. Concern with the Law would seem to lead rather to the careful weighing than to the free expense of words.

A possible key to this pattern of over-feeding, over-protection, and over-loquaciousness is to be found in the interesting suggestion—unfortunately, never amplified—of Zborowski and Herzog that the Jews of the shtetl had an overpowering fear of death, despite the assurances of their tradition that real life begins only after death. When we consider that the funeral and the initial period of mourning were the occasions of outbursts of the most wildly hysterical wailing and speech; that to the minds of both primitives and children, speech and life, death and silence, are often taken one for the other; and further that the fear of death would go far toward explaining the passionate concern with health, and the prevailing hypochondria—then we seem to be on the verge of a social psychological complex that is of great interest and importance, and that can be described as follows:

The shtetl woman plays a far more crucial social, psychological, and spiritual role than either its inhabitants believed or Zborowski and Herzog recognize—perhaps both took too seriously the legal position of women, which was inferior. The woman, as we have said, was the great talker; by the shtetl’s standards, the woman was allowed, even expected, to be more expressive than the man in speech, in laughter, in tears. The wailing at funerals and during mourning was the work of women, not men. The woman, considered inferior in every way, did not need to conform to the shtetl’s notions of what was proper behavior for senior adults. The women, indeed, had a penchant for the charms and superstitions of the surrounding peasantry, denounced as sheer idolatry by the soberer menfolk. At the same time, the woman played a most significant role in the life of the shtetl, overtly through her economic activity, and more subtly, through the medium of food, as the giver of love; she was also, through the same medium, the giver of life and of health. May it not be inferred that the obvious, masculine principle of the Law did not encompass all of shtetl reality? That a fundamental undercurrent of life persisted around the symbol of woman, who was the center of a complex which found no expression in Talmudic disputation and rabbinic responsa, but which did emerge in the attitudes toward food and physical well-being and illness, toward speech, and toward death?



In Other words: the portrait of shtetl life in Life Is With People is too often content with surface appearances. Depths are pointed to, but rarely explored. There is, for example, the depth of history, the two or three thousand years that lay behind the multiplicity of sociological data. It may well be that history is not essential to the understanding of a “primitive” group of people. But history is indispensable for the study of any people that is no longer “pre-logical” and that lives within civilization; it is especially necessary for the study of any major segment of the Jewish people, whose whole pattern of life, thought, and religion is predicated on, and made meaningful by, a profound sense of history.

There is a brief passage from the Mishnah that has been the subject of study and interpretation by Jews for two thousand years. The passage appears in the introductory section of the daily morning prayers which pious Jews have been reciting for only a few centuries less than that:

“These are the things for which the Torah has fixed no limit: leaving grain at the corners of the field for the poor; first fruits; offerings brought to the Temple on the Three Festivals; the practice of charity; and the study of the Law.

“These are the things the interest on which a man enjoys in this world, but whose principal remains for him in the World To Come: honoring one’s father and mother; the practice of charity; timely attendance at the synagogue morning and evening; hospitality to wayfarers; visits to the sick; the provision of dowries for needy brides; attending the dead to the grave; devotion in prayer; making peace between man and his fellow. But the study of the Torah is equal to all of them together” (Mishnah Peah, Chap. I).

So historical a people are the Jews, that these few sentences, apparently so remote in time and space from the East European village, tell us as much about the everyday life of the shtetl Jew as a library of monographs. We can draw a line from these sentences to the vast variety of institutions the tiny shtetl found it necessary to maintain: gemilus chesed (communal loan association), hachnossas kaloh (communal organization to provide poor brides with dowries), hekdesh (city hospice for paupers), malbish arumim (communal association providing clothing to poor people), hachnossas orchbn (communal organization which took care of transients; also individual hospitality to strangers), bikkur cholim (communal organization to assist sick paupers; also individual visits to the sick), bes yesomim (orphanage and organization in charge of the orphanage), chevrah kadisha (burial society), cheder (elementary religious school), Talmud Torah (educational institution for orphans and poor children), Yeshiva (institution of basic study of Talmud), chevrah Mishnayos, chevrah Shas, chevrah Tehillhn (communal groups organized to study, respectively, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Psalms).

This passage suggests to us the things for which men were honored: first for the study of the Law, then for performing ritual obligations and giving charity. But since only the wealthy could fully indulge in the giving of charity “without limit,” we might expect that, in reality, right after the study of the Law would come wealth. If we realize further that this passage was still being recited daily in the 19th-century village, with its injunctions about the corners of the field (when there were no fields), the first fruits (when Jews harvested no fruits), and the offerings to the temple (when the temple had not existed for two millennia), we are told something about the shtetl’s identification with the past, and we can appreciate how it could feel as close to the Talmudic sages and Maimonides as to Elijah of Vilna (18th century), and how the ancient academies of Yavneh, Pumbeditha, and Kairouwan could be conceived of as local Yeshivas with different names. All this indicates a sense of cultural and religious continuity and national commitment, and helps explain the familiarity with which the shtetl Jews discussed not only the sages of the Talmud and the characteristics of “the world to come,” but also the number of times a day Rothschild in Paris changed his shirt.



The paradox was that the shtetl, more miserable than this book shows it, also was part of a chain more magnificent than it imagines. The anthropologist’s single snapshot, slightly retouched and beautified, prevents us from grasping the second reality as well as the first.

With all due respect to Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and the authors of Life Is With People, it can be safely asserted that the greatest “anthropologist” of the shtetl was the Yiddish novelist and writer Mendele Mocher Seforim. Neither the misery nor the glory escaped him. He was fortunate in being closer to the shtetl than the authors of the book, and in simultaneously having acquired, from the Jewish Enlightenment, the distance and the Western categories which made it possible for him to conceive of himself as the historian of the “Convocation of Jewry,” the “Knesses Isroel.“ He too concerned himself with a cultural portrait of the shtetl’s way of life, or, as he put it more precisely, its lehens-shtayger: life-rhythm—and to this end he created in his books a gallery of historical-sociological types and constructs that rivals Balzac’s Comidie Humaine—and with the same conscious purpose of recording an epoch.

Perhaps such an achievement—paralleled in some measure by the work of two other great Yiddish writers, Sholom Aleichem and Peretz—requires so special a combination of circumstances, talent, and genius that it is possible only once. In any case, Mendele’s writings are for the most part untranslated—one suspects they are even untranslatable. For those who do not know Yiddish, and who wish to know something of the world whose language it was, Life Is With People makes an excellent introduction. Its defects are those of omission. And what it has to offer is rich, authentic, and, one hopes, of considerably more than passing interest.




1 Its methods include “interviewing Eastern European Jews, observing life in Eastern European Jewish households [in America], and analyzing history and literature, drama and pictorial records, analysis of films.”

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