Afraid of nothing

A look back at the shtetl in its golden age tells a very different tale from the one we have become accustomed to.

A PAINTING of the killing pit outside the town of Wielopole Skrzynskie, 1942 (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
A PAINTING of the killing pit outside the town of Wielopole Skrzynskie, 1942
(photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
In the late 18th century, soon after Russia took control of 400,000 square miles of Poland, Catherine the Great announced that the new rulers would win the hearts of the people “by a kind, righteous, merciful, modest and humane management.” The 900,000-1.2 million Jews in the villages and towns now attached to the Russian Empire, the czarina declared, would maintain “the freedoms they now legally enjoy,” because “Her Majesty’s love of humanism makes it impossible to exclude them from the universal future commonwealth under Her blessed rule, while the Jews in turn as loyal subjects will dwell with appropriate humility and engage in trade and industry according to their skills.”
Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, a professor of Jewish Studies at Northwestern University, claims Jewish residents in the western provinces of Russia did just that from the 1790s to the 1840s. In The Golden Age Shtetl, Petrovsky-Shtern draws on thousands of previously classified archival sources from six countries, in seven languages (which he obtained by posing as a Ukrainian clerk, a Soviet speleologist and a polar explorer), to provide a vivid account of life in the villages and towns that came to be called shtetls.
The “unique habitat” of about 80 percent of Eastern European Jews (constituting two-thirds of world Jewry), shtetls were economically prosperous, socially stable and culturally vibrant, he maintains.
The “golden age” ended, he asserts, when Russia, in an attempt to “modernize,” banished incoming Jews from rural areas, chose protectionism over economic growth, tried to “make the shtetl one of its own, broke its back, destroyed its uniqueness, and triggered its transformation into Anatevka” (the mythical home of backward, impoverished and oppressed Jews in the musical Fiddler on the Roof and the book on which it is based, Tevye and His Daughters). Because the authorities believed that Jews were much more loyal to Russia than Poles, Petrovsky-Shtern writes, they tended to leave them “to their own devices.”
Catherine II allowed Jews to establish trading stalls, home-based stores and Sunday bazaars, making it possible for Jewish merchants to increase twenty-fold in 50 years. With a confidence born of their central role in the local and regional economy, Jews, according to Petrovsky-Shtern, rejoiced in their Judaism, “publicly, with pomp, sometimes challenging their neighbors with outright mockery of Christianity.” At its height, he insists, the shtetl “was afraid of nothing.”
Jews engaged in so much smuggling that Russian authorities referred to contraband as “the Jewish evil.” And belying the subsequent perception that they were meek, Jews, in fact, were “adamant about defending their own cultural space, independence, and dignity,” even it meant assaulting Russian merchants, clerks and soldiers; they made violence “one of the indispensable languages of the shtetl, an environment in which outbursts of brutality were as normal as Sunday bazaars.”
The author makes a compelling case that between 1790 and 1840, the shtetl was a far different place from its late-19th-century successor, which is now universally associated with poverty and pogroms. Nonetheless, the term “golden age” seems inappropriate. Did Jews, one wonders, really expect that in Russian courts “their voices would be heard and their interests protected”? Were they really “afraid of nothing”? Petrovsky-Shtern insists that there was no racial or ethnic profiling during “the golden age,” but then acknowledges that some Polish landlords “victimized entire Jewish communities.” Others forced Jewish leaseholders to perform humiliating dances and ingratiating songs. A commission investigating organized crime penalized all the Jews in the town of Derzhnia.
The author mentions in passing that Jews were not allowed to own land and that the Russian regime radically limited the activities of the kahal (the Jewish communal organization) in 1797, curtailed it in 1844, and outlawed communal charity boxes.
As industrialization in Russia intensified in the 1880s, the author reminds us, Jewish artisans left for big cities; railroads and commercial centers, including Odessa, Kiev and Kharkov, attracted trade, and the shtetl marketplace declined. As the Russian regime incited xenophobia and scapegoated Jews as revolutionaries and exploiters of the peasants, pogroms became more frequent – and more violent. No longer “masters of the situation,” the Jews sought to escape.
To ease their way into the societies and cultures of Western Europe and the United States, many of them, Petrovsky-Shtern suggests, pressed for acculturation, loaded the shtetl with “pejorative and condescending meanings” and mocked “its backward Jews.” And a few radicals depicted shabby shtetls and derided bourgeois Jews “to justify their passionate drive toward a new socialist world.”
Now dressed in attractive European clothes and showing little or no interest in “kosher food, Talmudic debates, or a pious way of life,” these men and women, he writes – with a mixture of hyperbole, nostalgia and fact – forgot, or did not know about, the days in which shtetl Jews were proud of themselves and their home towns.
■ The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.