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Jewish Journal

Turning the Shtetl’s image upside down

by Jonathan Kirsch

June 20, 2014 | 2:16 pm

The biggest challenge that Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern faces in “The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe” (Princeton University Press) is that he is working against more than a century of sentiment and nostalgia, a kind of collective fantasy that reached its highest expression in Anatevka, the celebrated shtetl where Tevye the Dairyman lived.  Not until historians “dragged the fiddler off the roof,” he jokes, did we begin to understand that the shtetl of folk tradition existed only in the imagination.

The place that he describes in his brilliant new book is not a quaint backwater but, in fact, a thriving market town that “turns upside down the received wisdom about the shtetl.”  For a half century or so between the 1790s and the 1850s, he writes, “the shtetl was very different from what we usually imagine it to have been…a proud place with a fascinating social tapestry.” Indeed, it was the very success of the shtetl during its golden age that aroused the envy and fear of Russian authorities, who set out to destroy the prosperity and vitality of the Jewish market towns and, ultimately, the shtetls themselves.  They did not disappear entirely until the Second World War, but the shtetl was moribund by the time Hitler and Stalin arrived.

“The story of the golden age shtetl is a story of unfulfilled promise and myopic geopolitics,” the author writes. “Russian broke its back, destroyed its uniqueness, and triggered its transformation into Anatevka.”

Petrovsky-Shtern, the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies at Northwestern University, has produced a scholarly monograph that is also highly readable and rich with observed detail.   He focuses on the shtetl as it existed in three provinces of Ukraine, and he pauses to point out some of the cultural markers of Ukrainian Jewry: “They almost never sweetened their gefilte (stuffed) fish, unlike the Polish and Lithuanian Jews.” He patiently walks us through the tectonic shifts in Eastern European history that took place beneath the feet of the shtetl-dwellers, including the moment when Russia acquired a chunk of Polish territory and one million Jews along with it. And he explains how he managed to inspect the long-sealed Russian archives in which he found his illuminating documentary evidence.

“To gain access to these documents,” he explains, “I sometimes disguised myself as a Ukrainian clerk, a Soviet speleologist, and Polar explorer,” he explains. “This unorthodox approach yielded several thousand archival sources in seven languages, from six countries and dozens of depositories, that reveal the shtetl in its years of glory.”

The single most surprising fact that Petrovsky-Shtern reveals is that the distinguishing characteristic of the shtetl was that it was a privately-owned market town.  Its prosperity was based on what he calls a “triangle of power” - the land was owned by a Polish magnate; the liquor trade, as well as mills, craftshops, and trading stalls in the marketplace, were operated by Jews, and the whole place was protected by Russian authorities so long as the treasury received its taxes and the local police their bribes. And he carefully explains how powersharing by Jews, Poles and Russians was crucial to its golden age. “Once one of these constituencies was removed,” he writes, “the shtetl turned into a bent, impoverished, and stuttering East European beggar.”

Significantly, the shtetls were located in the borderland between Great Russia and Central Europe, which meant that one important business opportunity was smuggling. Catherine the Great forbade the importation of French luxury goods in order to boycott revolutionary France, but Jews played a prominent role in bringing these items across the border in defiance of the law. “Why was it so important?” the author asks. “Because everybody, Jews in particular, wanted to add fresh blood to the main artery of the shtetl: its marketplace.”

Life in the shtetl was much livelier than we suspect of a place that was supposedly dominated by the local rebbe and his pious followers. “The tavern was as important for ordinary Jews as the synagogue,” the author explains. It offered a venue not only for drinking but also for klezmer music, card-playing and unguarded conversation offered “relief for the repressed libido of the shtetl.” Then, too, the shtetl Jews were quite different in demeanor and appearance than the meek souls who populate works of fiction.  “Shtetl business made its dwellers physically fit,” the author writes, pointing out that lifting barrels and millstones, slaughtering cattle, handling a team of horses and humping a loaded wagon over a muddy patch of road all contributed to their brawn and boldness. “They did not hesitate to use their physical strength to defend their independence, or professional dignity or defy those in power.”

The golden age that Petrovsky-Shtern describes was already in decline by the middle of the 19th century as the Russian authorities sought to displace its Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish denizens of the shtetl.  Jews were forced to leave hundreds of shtetls by official decree, and others left because the shtetl no longer afforded a livelihood to Jewish artisans and traders.  But it is also true that freshening winds out of Western Europe and America reached the shtetl, and the best and brightest of the shtetl-dwellers moved to bigger towns and cities across Europe and as far away as America.

Perhaps the greatest appeal of “The Golden Age Shtetl” is for those of us who are descended from men and women, our grandparents and great-grandparents, for whom the shtetl was already an item of nostalgia when they left Russia and Eastern Europe.  If they shared their memories with us at all, they described a place that resembles Anatevka.  But Petrovsky-Shtern gives us something even more precious – a glimpse of the shtetl at its moment of greatest glory.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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