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

Natan M. Meir

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.

Discussion Questions

Natan Meir’s Stepchil­dren of the Shtetl: The Des­ti­tute, Dis­abled, and Mad of Jew­ish East­ern Europe, 1800 – 1939, is a rich­ly tex­tured and well-writ­ten depic­tion of peo­ple often mar­gin­al­ized by both their com­mu­ni­ties and by his­to­ry. The book draws on con­tem­po­rary accounts, folk­lorists, leaflets, lit­er­a­ture, reli­gious texts, and arrest­ing archival pho­tos to pro­vide a vivid por­tray­al of beg­gars, orphans, and the men­tal­ly ill. Meir’s close read­ings of lit­er­ary texts by writ­ers rang­ing from R. Nach­man of Brat­slav to S. Y. Agnon are par­tic­u­lar­ly insightful.

Meir mas­ter­ful­ly flesh­es out sto­ries and episodes that were hereto­fore like­ly in read­ers’ periph­er­al vision, includ­ing the role of the hekdesh (the local poor­house) and the cholera wed­ding,” a folk rit­u­al where­by mar­gin­al peo­ple were wed­ded to each oth­er in the town ceme­tery in a bid to end a cholera epi­dem­ic.” Meir’s accounts of the lives of and cus­toms sur­round­ing stepchil­dren” are fas­ci­nat­ing in them­selves. The book’s tri­umph is in its analy­sis of how the mar­gin­al­ized were viewed with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties of the time, and how they fig­ured in the broad­er Jew­ish community’s view of itself and in non-Jews’ per­cep­tions of the Jew­ish community.