Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

The heyday of the shtetl

When most people think of the shtetl, images reminiscent of “Fiddler in the Roof” pop into their heads: small villages filled with poor Jews, struggling to make a living in an almost exclusively Jewish world. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth in the heyday of the shtetl. At one point, these thriving areas – whose size ranged from 2,000 to 20,000 people – were not only populated by Jews, but by a variety of ethnicities and religions. In “The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe” (Princeton University Press), Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern discusses this golden age, which occurred between the 1790s and the 1840s. During this 50-year period – which began with the Russian partition of Poland and ended with the Russian imperial iron age – the shtetl held an important economic place in Jewish life.

Petrovsky-Shtern notes that it is incorrect to use the word shtetl to describe these towns or villages. The correct term is mestechko, defined as an area privately owned by a Polish landlord who benefitted from any economic activity that took place on his land. Jews were allowed to live in mestechki for specific economic reasons: they were required to either engage in trade or work in the liquor industry, particularly the ownership of taverns. The leases on the liquor trade –which were monopolies – boosted the local economy and provided an income to the landlord. The same was true of the many trading fairs that occurred each year, fairs that Jews helped run, in addition to providing merchandise brought from Germany and France. These mestechki were not exclusively Jewish: Eastern Orthodox, Catholics and Lutherans lived within their borders.

The new Russian rulers sought to destroy not only Polish revolutionary impulses – many Poles were unhappy with the Russian annexation of their territory – but to break the Polish landlords and gentry’s economic power. Although the Jewish population was generally pro-Russian, this didn’t prove to be in their benefit in the long run. Ruining the Polish gentry meant ruining the economy of the mestechki, which was one of the causes of the decline in the quality of Jewish life during the second half of the 19th century.

Petrovsky-Shtern’s focus, however, is less on communal institutions – Russian, Jewish or Polish – than on the facets of everyday life. He’s looking to tell the “story of the shtetl’s Jewish tavernkeepers, international smugglers, members of Slavic gangs, traders in colonial commodities, disloyal husbands and avid readers of books on ethics and Jewish mysticism – ordinary Jews in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances.” The author was able to uncover a large amount of demographic information from Russian documents, including ethnographic studies, in addition to court and other legal documents. This allows him to discuss different aspects of Jewish life in great detail. Of particular interest are the parts of the Jewish life with which many people are unfamiliar, including:

The importance of the liquor trade to shtetl life. Petrovsky-Shtern notes that “the liquor business shaped the shtetl industry, trade and finance. Vodka became the shtetl’s source of energy. Its steady flow was responsible for most of the town’s economic well-being. Whoever controlled the liquor trade controlled the shtetl.” Jews were given permission by Polish landowners to open taverns and usually had a monopoly on liquor sales in the areas. The taxes raised from these sales formed a major part of the landowners’ income. The tavern also served as a center of village life – for Jews and non-Jews. According to Petrovsky-Shtern, “The tavern was as important to ordinary Jews as the synagogue. What Jews could not discuss freely in the synagogue they could easily chat about in the tavern.” Business deals and matchmaking are only two of the activities that took place in this environment.

That Jews of the period were as violent as their neighbors. Petrovsky-Shtern gives examples of how Jews fought when they thought someone was taking advantage of them or attempting to attack them: “During the cataclysmic violence of the 1880s – the pogroms – Jews organized patrols and had groups of up to 300 people armed with clubs... ready to defend themselves against the assaulting mobs.” Most of these Jews were physically fit due to the hard labor required by their employment. It was only after the economic decline of the shtetl that the government stepped in to prevent the Jews from defending themselves.

The Jews willingly used Russian courts to gain justice. Petrovsky-Shtern believes that “the Jews’ new trust in Russian jurisprudence paralleled the growing skepticism of the rabbinic courts, which were unable to implement their own decisions.” Court documents show that the Jews were not at any particular disadvantage in lawsuits against Christians. The author also notes that some Jews were career criminals and gives examples of their crimes and punishments.

Other chapters focus on the overwhelming importance of family, the architecture of shtetl homes (including the number of rooms and their uses) and the books found on their shelves. In fact, the amount of detail Petrovsky-Shtern uncovered is amazing. In the initial chapters, the material did feel dry and almost overwhelming, but as the author began to discuss the people and their lives – rather than the census of the different towns and villages – I found the depth of detail fascinating. The book’s combination of history and anthropology worked extremely well. I was tempted not to review “The Golden Age Shtetl” because I’ve read other works about the shtetl in recent years. However, Petrovsky-Shtern has produced something new and original. Anyone interested in the history of Eastern European Jews would do well to pick up a copy.


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