The Gold­en Age Shtetl: A New His­to­ry of Jew­ish Life in East Europe

Yohanan Petro­vsky-Shtern

  • Review
By – July 17, 2014

Three recent books attempt to demythol­o­gize the nos­tal­gia associ­ated with the shtetl. From Sholem Ale­ichem to Marc Cha­gall to the Broad­way musi­cal Fid­dler on the Roof (though Tevye did not live in a shtetl, he lived in a vil­lage), writ­ers and artists have depict­ed the shtetl as idyl­lic and false­ly ide­al­ized pre-Holo­caust world of East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ry. The real­i­ty of shtetl life, by con­trast, includ­ed grind­ing pover­ty— but also the oppor­tu­ni­ty for Jews to par­tic­i­pate in trade and com­merce, to prac­tice their Judaism, and, despite anti-Semi­tism, often to engage with their Chris­t­ian neighbors.

Veidlinger’s In the Shad­ow of the Shtetl argues that the his­toric shtetl has been sup­plant­ed by an imag­ined space, a nos­tal­gia that has replaced the essence of authen­tic shtetl Jew­ish life. He blames this on ear­ly schol­ar­ship that char­ac­ter­ized the shtetl as one big hap­py extend­ed fam­i­ly. Most schol­ars, Vei­dlinger notes, now rec­og­nize that the shtetl has entered pub­lic con­scious­ness not as an his­tor­i­cal or soci­o­log­i­cal enti­ty, but rather as an imag­ined con­struct based on lit­er­ary descriptions.

Jef­frey Shandler’s Shtetl: A Ver­nac­u­lar Intel­lec­tu­al His­to­ry traces how the tra­jectory of the Yid­dish word for town’ emerged as the key word in Jew­ish cul­tur­al stud­ies. Shan­dler, a pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Stud­ies at Rut­gers Uni­ver­si­ty, and the author of a num­ber of books on con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish cul­ture, describes how Jew­ish life in provin­cial towns in East­ern Europe became the sub­ject of exten­sive cre­ativ­i­ty, mem­o­ry, and schol­ar­ship, from the ear­ly mod­ern era in Euro­pean his­to­ry to the present. He con­tends that in the after­math of the Holo­caust, intel­lec­tu­al engage­ment with the shtetl emerged not only in schol­ar­ship and non­fic­tion writ­ing but also in an array of oth­er cul­tur­al forms: fic­tion, poet­ry, films, musi­cals, and visu­al art. But Shan­dler notes that there is no con­sen­sus, schol­ar­ly or oth­er­wise, on a def­i­n­i­tion of what con­sti­tut­ed a shtetl in terms of its size, loca­tion, or prox­im­i­ty to urban centers.

Shan­dler states that shtetl Jews were social­ly sit­u­at­ed between the nobil­i­ty and the peas­antry before World War I, exist­ing some­where between sub­jec­tion and auton­o­my, and he argues that the shtetl’s con­tin­gent inter­me­di­ary sta­tus should be seen as its core fea­ture and the key to under­stand­ing the shtetls ongo­ing val­ue as the cen­ter of Yid­dish ver­nac­u­lar­i­ty. Shan­dler con­cludes that the mean­ing of the term shtetl ref­er­ences not just any town but a pre­war East Euro­pean Com­mu­ni­ty. The shtetl has acquired, he states, a greater sig­nif­i­cance in our time as a sub­sti­tute for a bygone way of life and for val­ues such as com­mu­nal­i­ty, piety, rooted­ness, and authen­tic” Yid­dishkeyt.

Yohanan Petro­vsky-Shtern, the Crown Fam­i­ly Pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Stud­ies at North­western Uni­ver­si­ty, argues in The Gold­en Age Shtetl that from the 1790s, when Poland was divid­ed among the Aus­tri­an Empire, Prus­sia, and Czarist Rus­sia, to the 1840s, the shtetl was a thriv­ing com­mu­ni­ty as vibrant as any in Europe. In describ­ing this gold­en age of shtetl his­to­ry, the author draws on new­ly dis­cov­ered archival mate­r­i­al to bring to life dozens of shtetls in East­ern Europe. Con­tem­po­rary schol­ar­ship read­i­ly calls any local­i­ty in East­ern Europe where Jews resided a shtetl, but Jews some two hun­dred years ago lived in towns, vil­lages, and cities. Petro­vsky-Shtern asserts that the shtetl there­fore absorbed var­i­ous mean­ings and the ten­sions between them: the Pol­ish legal and eco­nom­ic pri­vate town, the Russ­ian adminis­trative mestechko, and the reli­gious Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. A com­bi­na­tion of Czarist polit­i­cal oppres­sion and Russia’s turn to indus­tri­al­iza­tion after 1840 lent a severe blow to the shtetl econ­o­my, turn­ing it into a clum­sy town sur­round­ed by beau­ti­ful land­scapes… with which Jews had lit­tle in com­mon.” Petro­vsky-Shtern notes that the shtetls decline into pover­ty took almost anoth­er fifty years, by which time the Russ­ian regime man­aged to cre­ate robust economies that sup­pressed the shtetl mar­ket­place.

Although Petrovsky-Shtern’s book devotes chap­ters to describ­ing life in the shtetl dur­ing its gold­en age,’ he nev­er­the­less con­cludes that after all, shtetl’ as a word is noth­ing but a cul­tur­al arti­fact, a caprice of col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. It sig­ni­fies a van­ished Jew­ish Atlantis, a yearn­ing for a dis­tant and utopi­an nation­al cul­ture and for the redeem­ing val­ues of East Euro­pean Jeru­salem… which we tend to strip of its corporeal­ity and then sug­ar­coat its imag­i­nary residue.”

In the Shad­ow of the Shtetl, Jef­frey Veidlinger’s indis­pens­able oral his­to­ry of the shtetls in the Ukraine under Sovi­et rule and the destruc­tive after­math dur­ing the Nazi inva­sion of Rus­sia in June 1941, reveals how Jews main­tained their reli­gion and tra­di­tions under Com­mu­nism and lat­er coped with the mur­der­ous Ein­sazt­grup­pen. In telling this sto­ry, Vei­dlinger relies on the rec­ol­lec­tions of some 400 Ukrain­ian Jew­ish returnees on the his­to­ry of Jew­ish life in the pre­war shtetl, their sur­vival dur­ing the Holo­caust, and their expe­ri­ences fol­low­ing the war. The sur­vivors inter­viewed did not view their wartime expe­ri­ences with­in the con­text of the Holo­caust as it is writ­ten about in the West: these sur­vivors did not expe­ri­ence depor­tations in sealed rail­way cars, death camps, or mur­der by gassing, and express no dis­tinc­tion between what his­to­ri­ans now call the Holo­caust by bul­lets” and ear­li­er pogroms.

Vei­dlinger com­pares the man­ner in which shtetl nos­tal­gia is pre­sented in the West with the real­i­ty of shtetl life in Ukraine where, despite anti-Semi­tism, Jews con­stant­ly inter­act­ed with the non-Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, from Chris­t­ian peas­ants to gen­tile offi­cials. Shtetl, The Gold­en Age Shtetl, and In the Shad­ow of the Shtetl con­sti­tute a neces­sary cor­rec­tive to the pic­ture of every­day shtetl life as pre­sent­ed in our lit­er­ary culture.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

Discussion Questions