Jewish life in Eastern Europe wasn’t all fiddlers and rooftops, yeshiva boys and sturdy women in bucolic countryside shtetls. As we learn from Shaul Stampfer’s accessible and lively book, life for Jews was often characterized by insecurity about personal safety and economic welfare. In chapters about early marriage and family life, we learn that boys and girls often were arranged to be married and living together by the time they reached their early teens, and we learn about why men and women may have been significantly less demonstrative in their love for one another than they may have been toward their children. The divorce rate in 19th century Eastern Europe was higher than we might imagine, probably because Jewish women had more power than we might have thought: ideal Jewish women were physically robust, skilled in shop-keeping math, and adept at supervising children and household affairs in full accordance with Jewish law. Jewish men often were inessential to a household because they lived a more scholarly life, set apart from worldly affairs.
In the book’s chapters on education, Stampfer traces the development of the heder, that unique institution of Jewish learning in which young people studied with insufficiently trained and insufficiently engaging teachers, and where “reading” meant pronouncing words without necessarily understanding what they meant. In other chapters in the book on literacy, questioning, the pushke (charity box) and the rabbinate, we can see the extent to which Jewish learning never stopped for young people; much of that culture has not yet dissipated, though we are several generations away from the Eastern European context. This book is a good read not only for scholars, but also for general readers interested in seeing just how far we have come from that vanished world.