Stepchil­dren of the Shtetl: The Des­ti­tute, Dis­abled, and Mad of Jew­ish East­ern Europe, 1800 – 1939

Natan M. Meir

  • From the Publisher
January 13, 2020

Mem­oirs of Jew­ish life in the east Euro­pean shtetl often recall the hekdesh (town poor­house) and its res­i­dents: beg­gars, mad­men and mad­women, dis­abled peo­ple, and poor orphans. Stepchil­dren of the Shtetl tells the sto­ry of these mar­gin­al­ized fig­ures from the dawn of moder­ni­ty to the eve of the Holocaust.

Com­bin­ing archival research with analy­sis of lit­er­ary, cul­tur­al, and reli­gious texts, Natan M. Meir recov­ers the lived expe­ri­ence of Jew­ish soci­ety’s out­casts and reveals the cen­tral role that they came to play in the dra­ma of mod­ern­iza­tion. Those on the mar­gins were often made to bear the bur­den of the nation as a whole, whether as scape­goats in moments of cri­sis or as sym­bols of degen­er­a­tion, ripe for trans­for­ma­tion by reform­ers, phil­an­thropists, and nation­al­ists. Shin­ing a light into the dark­est cor­ners of Jew­ish soci­ety in east­ern Europe―from the often squalid poor­house of the shtetl to the slums and insane asy­lums of War­saw and Odessa, from the con­scrip­tion of poor orphans dur­ing the reign of Nicholas I to the cholera wed­ding, a mag­i­cal rit­u­al in which an epi­dem­ic was halt­ed by mar­ry­ing out­casts to each oth­er in the town ceme­tery―Stepchil­dren of the Shtetl recon­sid­ers the place of the lowli­est mem­bers of an already stig­ma­tized minority.

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