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Everything You Think You Know About the Shtetl is Wrong

August 21, 2014

The shtetls were not farming villages; they were merchant towns. Nor were the shtetls Jewish ghettos. Rather, Jews made up half the population. The popular image derived in large part from “Fiddler on the Roof” is romanticized and wrong. Fortunately, a recent book, The Golden Age Shtetl by Yonahan Petrovsky-Shtern, puts these myths to rest by painting a vivid picture of the shtetl in its heyday. But the book is not without its problems. Andrew N. Koss reviews in Mosaic:

Amid his stream of anecdotes, Petrovsky-Shtern also advances two distinct arguments. The first is aimed at the myth of the shtetl (traced by him to late-19th- and early-20th-century literary figures and polemicists) as worn down, impoverished, remote, locked in a struggle between rabbinic obscurantism and revolutionary ideologies, and filled with unmanly men too timid to stand up to persecution. The misunderstanding, he suggests, stems from concentrating on the shtetl during its long period of decline; his own focus on its “golden age” is meant to rectify that mistake.
The second argument, seemingly aimed at specialists, is less explicit. The first decades of Russian rule, Petrovsky-Shtern writes, brought about a marked improvement over the prior decades of Polish rule, and helped usher in a brief era of “Judeo-Slavic brotherhood”—the “golden age” of his title. He builds his case by trying to show the specifically Russian influence on Jewish life, including the economic benefits it introduced.
In propping up his argument that Russian annexation ushered in a new efflorescence, Petrovsky-Shtern also exaggerates the benefits of Russian rule. Yes, Russia had some enlightened officials and policies, and anti-Semitism, as he rightly claims, was by no means the norm for Russian bureaucrats at the time. But even in these supposedly golden years, the results of Russian rule were decidedly mixed, and besides, much of what he ascribes to the relative benignity of the Russians held true in shtetls that had fallen into Austrian hands as well.

Read the whole thing.

More about: Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism  

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