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  • Traditions

  • Busting the Shtetl Myth

    What you think you know about Jewish life in Eastern Europe is wrong, argues a fascinating (but problematic) new book.


    By Andrew N. Koss in Mosaic Magazine


    Shtetl Myth“Deconstructing Fiddler on the Roof” is a favorite gambit of professors introducing students to the history of East European Jewry: begin with what they think they know about life in the shtetl, and then start busting the myths. Were matchmakers women? (No.) Did Russian police instigate pogroms? (Rarely, if ever.) Is there a single documented case of shtetl residents singing “Sunrise, Sunset” at a wedding? (Come on.)

    Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, a historian at Northwestern University, has given us a vigorous, well-documented, and entertaining new version of this trick in his recent The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe. In fact, he uses Fiddler on the Roof as a foil, beginning and ending with references to the musical while devoting the bulk of the book to everyday shtetl life in the half-century from 1790 to 1840.

    The word shtetl refers to the small market towns where, for several centuries, a large portion of East European Jews lived. (The shtetl was a “Jewish town” only in the sense that Jews usually made up about half the population; it was not in any sense a ghetto.) The story of the shtetl begins in the second half of the 17th century, when Jews in Poland-Lithuania began to forsake the countryside for population centers that were assuming growing importance as hubs of commerce and manufacture, linking agricultural villages to major trade routes. Encouraged by the Polish nobility, Jews played a crucial role in these activities throughout the 18th century. When, between 1772 and 1795, Russia, Prussia, and Austria systematically dismembered their hapless neighbor, Poland-Lithuania, the majority of shtetls came under Russian rule. It is these that form the focus of Petrovsky-Shtern’s book.

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