View of the marketplace, Rezhishtshev (Rzhyshchiv, Ukr.), ca. 1900. The arrow points to the birthplace of Yiddish writer Lamed Shapiro. (YIVO)

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The Yiddish term for town, shtetl commonly refers to small market towns in pre–World War II Eastern Europe with a large Yiddish-speaking Jewish population. While there were in fact great variations among these towns, a shtetl connoted a type of Jewish settlement marked by a compact Jewish population distinguished from their mostly gentile peasant neighbors by religion, occupation, language, and culture. The shtetl was defined by interlocking networks of economic and social relationships: the interaction of Jews and peasants in the market, the coming together of Jews for essential communal and religious functions, and, in more recent times, the increasingly vital relationship between the shtetl and its emigrants abroad (organized in landsmanshaftn).

No shtetl stood alone. Each was part of a local and regional economic system that embraced other shtetls (Yid., shtetlekh) and provincial towns. Although the shtetl grew out of the private market towns of the Polish nobility in the old commonwealth, over time a shtetl became a common term for any town in Eastern Europe with a large Jewish population: towns not owned by noblemen in Poland, as well as towns in Ukraine, Hungary, Bessarabia, Bucovina, and the Subcarpathian region that attracted large-scale Jewish immigration during the course of the nineteenth century.

Row of stores owned by Jews near the Great Synagogue (back, center), Luboml, Poland (now Lyubomil, Ukr.), 1925. Photograph by H. Poddębski. (Collection of Photographs and Measurement Drawings, neg. 23441. Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw. All rights reserved. Image courtesy the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress)

For all their diversity, these shtetls in Eastern Europe were indeed markedly different from previous kinds of Jewish Diaspora settlement in Babylonia, France, Spain, or Italy. In those other countries, Jews had lived scattered among the general population or, conversely, inhabited a specific section of town or a Jewish street. Rarely did they form a majority. This was not true of the shtetl, where Jews sometimes comprised 80 percent or more of the population. In many shtetls, Jews occupied most of the town, especially the streets grouped around the central marketplace. Poorer Jews would live further from the center and the frequently agrarian gentiles would often be concentrated on the peripheral streets, in order to be closer to the land that they cultivated.

This Jewish life in compact settlements had an enormous psychological impact on the development of East European Jewry—as did the language of the shtetl, Yiddish. Despite the incorporation of numerous Slavic words, the Yiddish speech of the shtetl was markedly different from the languages used by Jews’ mostly Slavic neighbors. While it would be a great mistake to see the shtetl as an entirely Jewish world, without gentiles, it is nonetheless true that Yiddish reinforced a profound sense of psychological and religious difference from non-Jews. Suffused with allusions to Jewish tradition and to religious texts, Yiddish developed a rich reservoir of idioms and sayings that reflected a vibrant folk culture inseparable from the Jewish religion.

The shtetl was also marked by occupational diversity. While elsewhere in the Diaspora Jews often were found in a small number of occupations, frequently determined by political restrictions, in the shtetl Jewish occupations ran the gamut from wealthy contractors and entrepreneurs, to shopkeepers, carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, teamsters, and water carriers. In some regions, Jewish farmers and villagers would be nearby. This striking occupational diversity contributed to the vitality of shtetl society and to its cultural development. It also led to class conflict and to often painful social divisions.

The experience of being a majority culture on the local level, sheer numbers, language, and occupational diversity all underscored the particular place of the shtetl as a form of Jewish Diaspora settlement.

Origins of the Shtetl

Shtetls developed in the territories of the old Polish Commonwealth, where the nobility encouraged Jews to move onto estates in order to stimulate economic development. The eastward expansion of the commonwealth after the Union of Lublin in 1569 coincided with a growing market in Western and Central Europe for timber, grain, livestock and hides, amber, furs, and honey. Eager to develop their estates, the nobles needed competent managers and entrepreneurs—as well as regular markets and fairs. Jews were suitable instruments, especially because they could never become potential political rivals. thus developed the arenda (leasing) system, in which landlords leased key economic functions to a Jewish arendar (agent). Arenda usually included extensive subleasing, which further encouraged Jewish immigration to the landed estates. The manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages—largely in Jewish hands—was particularly important as it gave landlords an important hedge against falling grain prices in export markets.

Der Krieg im Osten—Russische Typen in der Königsberger Strasse in Wirballen (The Battle in the East—Russian Types on Koenigsberger Street in Wirballen). Postcard printed by German occupiers during World War I, Virbalis, Russia (now in Lithuania). A native of the town has identified some of those pictured, in Yiddish on the back of the postcard: “Fifth from right, Shmerl the loader; seventh, Mike the Lame; second from left, a man know as Matvey the peddler.” (YIVO)

Noble magnates established private market towns and sought to attract Jews to reside in them. Economic competition from Christians in older cities in western and central Poland, as well as Jew-hatred fanned by the church and by guilds, also stimulated Jewish migration to the shtetls in the less-developed eastern regions of the commonwealth (today’s eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania). These new towns—all centered on a market square—reflected an emerging symbiosis of nobles, Jews, and the surrounding peasantry. One side of the market would often feature a Catholic church, built by the local landlord as a symbol of primacy and ownership, with a synagogue on the other side. The weekly market days brought together Jews and peasants and created a web of relationships that were both economic and personal. Usually the landlords granted charters that precluded market days and fairs on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays. The shtetls—with their synagogues, schools, ritual baths, cemeteries, and inns—also served as a base for the numerous dorfsgeyer, that is, Jews who would fan out to the villages as carpenters, shoemakers, and agents. Many Jews who lived lonely lives in the countryside as taverners, innkeepers, or leaseholders could come to the shtetl for major holidays and important family occasions.

While some shtetls date from the sixteenth century, the peak of shtetl development occurred after the 1650s, following the ravages of gzeyres takh vetat (the Khmel’nyts’kyi uprising) and the Swedish invasion. The nobility made a concerted effort to recoup their economic standing by establishing new market towns. The development of these shtetls coincided with an enormous demographic increase of Polish Jewry. While the Polish–Lithuanian Jewish population stood at perhaps 30,000 in 1500, by 1765 it had expanded to about 750,000. A striking feature of this Jewish settlement was its marked dispersion. By the 1770s, more than half of Polish Jews lived in hundreds of private towns owned by the nobility: about one-third lived in villages. In many Polish cities, Christian guilds and the Catholic Church fought to curtail Jewish residence rights.

Jewish street in the shadow of a church, Luts’k, ca. 1926. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (Forward Association/YIVO)

With the collapse of the Polish Commonwealth in the late eighteenth century, the world’s largest Jewish community passed under Russian, Prussian, and Austrian rule. The anti-Russian Polish revolts of 1830–1831 and 1863 severely weakened the Polish nobility, and thus their Jewish partners. Nobles also suffered from the abolition of serfdom. The building of railroads and the rise of major urban centers helped create new regional and national markets that undercut the economic base of many shtetls. New peasant movements questioned the Jewish role in the rural economy and started cooperatives that undercut the shtetl. Moreover, progressive urbanization of peasants and the movement of Jews to the great cities that commenced in the second half of the nineteenth century meant that Jews became a minority in many towns where they had formerly predominated. In Galicia, shtetls suffered from economic pressures, but on the whole, Jews—especially after 1848 and 1867—benefited from a more liberal political regime. This was not the case in the Pale of Jewish Settlement in the Russian Empire.

Russia’s rulers, who had acquired a Jewish population after the Polish partitions, had little experience with either Jews or shtetls. In Russia proper, smaller towns had been primarily administrative centers rather than market towns, which many Russian officials regarded as sinister bridgeheads of Jewish corruption of the countryside. Russian Jewish policy often veered between a desire to change the Jews—through assimilation—and a determination to curb their contacts with the native Russian population. In 1791, Catherine II established the Pale of Jewish Settlement (formalized in an 1835 decree), limiting Russia’s Jewish population largely to the former Polish provinces. Congress Poland had a separate legal status. While certain categories of Jews would eventually receive permission to leave the Pale, whose borders expanded somewhat in Ukraine, these residence restrictions remained legally in force until 1917. On the eve of World War I, about 94 percent of Russian Jewry (some 5 million individuals) was still living in the Pale.

During the nineteenth century, the center of gravity of Jewish life began to shift to the cities, but legal barriers to free movement in Russia, along with the rapid demographic expansion of East European Jewry, meant that the shtetl population continued to grow in absolute terms during the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, despite massive migration to new urban centers (Odessa, Warsaw, Łódź, Vienna) and emigration to the United States and other countries. Many shtetls adapted to changing circumstances by becoming centers of specialized manufacture. The shtetl suffered terribly during World War I and during the waves of pogroms that swept Ukraine in 1905 and in 1918–1921. Nevertheless, it was the Holocaust alone that finally destroyed it.

Defining the Shtetl

The poor children of the Talmud Torah (community-run traditional Jewish elementary school) and their teachers, Orla, Poland, ca. 1930s. Photograph by D. Duksin. (YIVO)

Legally and politically, there was no such thing as a shtetl. Since Jews were an extraterritorial people with little political power, they did not make the laws that defined and established the status of various kinds of settlements. The term shtetl meant nothing to the non-Jewish inhabitants or rulers. What Jews called a shtetl might be a city, a town, a settlement, or a village in Polish, Russian, or Austrian law. In 1875, the Russian senate established the legal category of mestechko (small town), which, unlike a village, had a legal organization of “town dwellers,” known as meshchanskoe obshchestvo. Such legal definitions became extremely important in the Pale of Settlement after the Russian government passed the May Laws of 1882, forbidding Jews to live in “villages.” The Jews’ right to stay in the shtetls where they had lived for generations depended on whether their locale was classified as a town or a village. Handsome bribes often influenced the outcome, and lawsuits that contested these legal classifications flooded the Russian senate. According to the 1897 Russian census, 33.5 percent of the Jewish population lived in these “small towns,” but the shtetl population was probably much higher than this, since many legal cities were actually shtetls.

How did Jews themselves define a shtetl? Yiddish distinguished between a shtetl (a town), a shtetele (a small town), a shtot (a city), a dorf (village), and a yishev (a tiny rural settlement). In defining a shtetl, the following clumsy rule held true: a shtetl was big enough to support the basic network of institutions essential to Jewish communal life—at least one synagogue, a ritual bathhouse, a cemetery, schools, and a framework of voluntary associations that performed basic religious and communal functions. This was a key difference between the shtetl and a village, and shtetl Jews made many jokes at the expense of their country cousins. The difference between a shtetl and a provincial city was that the former was a face-to-face community, while the latter was somewhat more anonymous. In Yisroel Aksenfeld’s cutting satire of shtetl life, Dos shterntikhl (The Headband), a city was distinguished from a shtetl by the fact that “everyone boasts that he greeted someone from the next street because he mistook him for an out-of-towner.” Of course, a new railroad could quickly turn a sleepy shtetl into a bustling provincial city, while a major city like Berdichev could become “an overgrown shtetl” (as Mendele called it), largely because the rail network bypassed it.

The shtetl was small enough for almost everyone to be known by name and nickname. Nicknames could be brutal and perpetuated a system that one observer called the “power of the shtetl” to assign everyone a role and a place in the communal universe. As one woman recalled of her shtetl in the 1930s:

Many in our town had nicknames that were derived either from their occupation, physical appearance or deformities such as Chaim the Redhead, Moishe the Icon, Faivel Parch (Favus), Eli Puz (big belly), Avrum the Hernia, Meishl Pick (the stutterer), Berl the Copperbeard, Henoch the Tin Collar (his garment shone like metal, for it had not been cleaned since he put it on twenty years earlier). There was Libitchke the Maiden. Although she had been married and had children, the townfolks could not forget that Libitchke had married late in life. We had in our shtetl Crutch the Tailor who lost a leg and walked with one crutch; Yankl the Hunchback, Yosl the Latrine, because he had a disagreeable body odor and so on and on. (∼cpsa/pruzany/luba_bat.htm)

Yiddish map of Jedwabne. From Sefer Yedvabneh, edited by Julius L. Baker and Jacob L. Baker (Jerusalem; New York: Yedwabner Societies in Israel and the United States, 1980). (YIVO)

While shtetls in isolated parts of the Vilna region or Polesie usually conformed to the classic model of a market town, shtetls such as Mińsk Mazowiecki or Kałuszyn, linked to the Warsaw metropolis by rail, found themselves far less dependent on the marketplace and more oriented towards light industry and specialized handicrafts. In the Soviet Union, the new economic system effectively eliminated the shtetl as a market town by the late 1920s, but many shtetls adjusted to the new economy by becoming centers of consumer-oriented artisan production.

Rarely did Jewish numbers in the shtetl translate into local political power. In the commonwealth, Jews never controlled local government, although there were many ways that they could bargain for their interests. In the Russian Empire, legislation also effectively barred Jews from a deciding role in local councils. In post-1867 Habsburg Galicia, Jews had greater opportunities to serve on local councils and even became mayors—especially if they won the approval of the Polish nobility. In interwar Poland, it was often the case that even where Jews formed a majority of the voting population, local authorities found ways to guarantee—by annexing surrounding areas or by subtle pressure—a Jewish minority in local town councils.

Whatever the legal status of the kehilot (autonomous Jewish communal institutions) under Russian and Habsburg rule happened to be (and this is a complicated question), some type of formal or informal internal Jewish communal government remained—even after the formal abolition of the kahal in Russia in 1844—and these bodies continued to perform important communal functions. In interwar Poland, a 1928 law established popularly elected kehilot in both small towns and larger cities. These elections, however, often led to bitter disagreements over secularization or because of ideological differences among Jews and outside interference by the Polish authorities.

The World of the Shtetl

Group portrait of a volunteer fire brigade on its eighteenth anniversary, Zdzięcioł, Poland (now Dyatlovo, Bel.), 1920. The Russian labels read: “Celebration, 1902–1920” and “Fire Brigade of Zdzięcioł.” One man holds an American flag for reasons unknown. (YIVO)

The common stereotype of the shtetl as a harmonious community is misleading. Those with little education and little money were constantly reminded of their lack of status; in this regard, women from poor families were especially disadvantaged. Sanitary and living conditions were often squalid. Spring and fall turned unpaved streets into a sea of mud, while summertime aggravated a terrible stench from raw sewage, outhouses, and hundreds of horses visiting for the market day. Quite often the presence of gentile farms on the outskirts of the shtetl limited available space for expansion and resulted in dense overcrowding. Building codes were nonexistent. Shtetl buildings were usually wooden, although the local gvir (rich man) might occupy a moyer (brick building) on the market square. Fires were common and were a major theme of shtetl folklore and Yiddish literature on the shtetl. Educational facilities, especially for poorer children, could be shockingly bad. Nonetheless, it would also be wrong to accept uncritically the charges of a wide array of critics—maskilim,Zionists, Soviet Jewish scholars—that the shtetl was a dying community riven by hypocrisy, stultifying tradition, and bitter class conflict. The reality is much more complex and has to consider both historical context and regional variations.

Until the twentieth century, the ḥevrot (Yid., khevres; associations) were the basis of communal social life. These included not only the burial society, which was the most prestigious, but others devoted, for example, to providing dowries for poor brides, visiting the sick, or distributing funds for the observance of the Sabbath or Passover. There were associations devoted to study, for instance of the Mishnah, and still others that functioned as guilds. Traditional Jewish society frowned on social activities, parties, or banquets that were not connected to an ostensible religious purpose. So each ḥevrah would commonly have a traditional banquet that was linked to the week when a particular portion of the Bible was read. In one Jewish town, the water carriers would meet on Saturday afternoons to study Talmudic legends (‘En Ya‘akov). Their yearly banquet took place during the week when the Bible portion of Emor (Lv. 21:1–24:23) was read. This was because Emor resembled emer, the Yiddish word for water pail. This pun might seem forced, but it reflected the determination to anchor life in religious tradition.

Young Jewish women posing for the cameraman and applying make-up, Kolbuszowa (Kolbishev), a town in southeastern Poland, 1930. (Film commissioned by the town's landsmanshaft organizations in America: The Kolbuszower Relief Association and the Kolbuszower Young Men's Benevolent Society) (YIVO)

Gender roles in the shtetl were, at first sight, fairly straightforward. Men held the positions of power. They controlled the kehilah and, of course, the synagogue, where women sat separately. Girls from poor families indeed faced bleak prospects, especially if they could not find a husband. Behind the scenes, women—especially from well-off families—often played key roles in the communal and economic life of the shtetl. Women clearly had some opportunities to learn how to read and write. Religious and secular literature in Yiddish for them (and for poorer, less educated men) included such mainstays as the Tsene-rene (figurative translations of and legends based on the Pentateuch), private individual prayers called tkhines, and romances. A bestselling Jewish writer in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe was the maskil Ayzik Meyer Dik, who wrote didactic Yiddish novels that were largely read by women.

The presence of a market was a defining characteristic of the shtetl, and on market day, peasants would start streaming into the shtetl early in the morning. Hundreds of wagons would arrive and Jews would surround them to buy products that the peasants had to sell. With money in their pockets, the peasants then went into the Jewish shops and taverns. Market day was a noisy cacophony of shouting, bargaining, and hustling. Often after the sale of a horse or a cow, peasants and Jews would shake hands and share a drink. Sometimes fights would break out, and everyone would run for cover. Especially on a hot summer day, the presence of hundreds of horses standing around would lend the shtetl an unforgettable odor. But market day was the lifeblood of the shtetl.

Market day in Kolbuszowa (Kolbishev), a town in southeastern Poland, 1930. Jews and peasants buying and selling produce, foodstuffs, textiles, and other products. (Film commissioned by the town's landsmanshaft organizations in America: The Kolbuszower Relief Association and the Kolbuszower Young Men's Benevolent Society) (YIVO)

Market day further underscored the complex nature of relations between Jews and gentiles. In the hundreds of small Jewish communities surrounded by a Slavic rural hinterland, many customs—cooking, clothing, proverbs, and Eastern Yiddish itself—reflected the impact of the non-Jewish world. While Jews and gentiles belonged to different religious and cultural universes, they were also drawn together by personal bonds that were often lacking in the big cities. While each side held many negative stereotypes about the other, these stereotypes were tempered by the reality of concrete neighborly ties. It was not very unusual for gentiles to speak some Yiddish and even less unusual for Jews to speak the vernacular.

If market day was noise and bustle, the Sabbath was the only real leisure time that the shtetl Jew had. In the interwar years in Poland, the shtetl Sabbath began to reflect the major changes coming in from the outside world, and synagogue attendance began slipping. A visiting Yiddish writer from a big city might lecture to a large audience at the fireman’s hall. Young people from Zionist or Bundist youth movements would go on hikes or perform amateur theater—much to the dismay of their religious parents, who saw this as a desecration of the holy day. Yet these secular Sabbaths continued the concept of a special day as a break in time and as a period dedicated to the spirit.

The social differences that divided shtetl Jews were felt everywhere, from the synagogue to the market place. At the top of the social scale were the sheyne yidn, the well-off elite who ran the shtetl’s institutions and controlled its politics. In the synagogue they usually sat along the eastern wall. Just below the sheyne yidn were the balebatim, the “middle class” whose stores and businesses did not make them rich but afforded them a certain measure of respect from the community. Further down the social scale came the skilled artisans, such as watchmakers and exceptionally skilled tailors. Near the bottom were ordinary tailors and shoemakers, followed by water carriers and teamsters. Lower still were the beggars and the marginal types that every shtetl seemed to have.

The Transformation of the Shtetl: Poland and the Soviet Union

The breakup of the Austrian and Russian Empires after World War I divided the bulk of the Jewish shtetl population between the new Soviet Union and several successor states, the largest being the reborn Polish Republic.

Young women on a porch, posing for a film being made by a visitor from America, Kolbuszowa, Poland, 1929. The film was commissioned by the Kolbuszowa landsmanshaft in America, who used it to raise funds to support the town’s Jewish community. (YIVO)

Interwar Polish Jewry saw a continuation and an acceleration of many trends that had begun before World War I. Thanks to rapid urbanization, by 1939, 25 percent of Poland’s 3.5 million Jews lived in one of the five largest cities. While the cities—especially Warsaw—became centers of political and cultural life, the shtetls did not disappear. In 1939 about two-fifths of all Polish Jews were still living in these small towns whose Jewish communities were also undergoing far-reaching changes.

Ideological competition was intense. The pace of secularization accelerated, and new forms of cultural expression—the daily press, theater, literature, film—continued to develop. By 1939, a majority of Jewish children were attending state schools in the Polish language, and the Jewish press in Polish had become increasingly influential.

As road and railroad transport improved, many shtetls were on their way to becoming suburbs of larger cities. During the course of the nineteenth century, several factors had linked the shtetl to the wider world: yeshivas, Hasidism, the press, and emigration. These contacts now intensified. Dances, sporting events, movies, and even beauty contests all became common features of shtetl life. Nevertheless, despite secularization, the interwar shtetl was a place where even nonreligious Jews were more likely to go to synagogue on Sabbath and holidays—if only to “keep up appearances.” In the shtetl, Jews were far more likely to speak Yiddish than in the big cities, where linguistic assimilation was proceeding rapidly.

A major feature of the period was the intensive development of new organizations that embraced a growing proportion of the Jewish community. New youth movements—Zionist and Bundist—helped create the beginnings of a counterculture that challenged traditional religious norms and that reversed long entrenched prejudices against physical labor. Hikes, amateur theater performances, libraries, and debates all gave young people new outlets and, in many cases, affected their relationships with their parents. Another sign of the “democratization” of communal life was the rise of new handverker fareynen (artisans unions)—in a certain way, descended from Jewish guilds of earlier times—which promoted the pride and self-assertion of social groups in the shtetl that had long been denigrated. Many Jews who had formerly been proud balebatim, pillars of the shtetl middle class, now lost their former status, the result of profound dislocations caused by several years of war, pogroms, and economic chaos. Elections to the kehilot provided a new focus for political life and were hotly contested. Intramural conflicts continued to rage over the election of rabbis or about communal taxation. The interwar shtetl gave more opportunities to Jewish women to participate in communal life. Women joined new froyen fareynen (women’s unions). Many shtetls established new kinds of modern Jewish schools—religious, Zionist, Yiddishist—that broke with traditional educational models.

The public school and school children on a snowy day, Sędziszów, Poland, 1935. (Film commissioned by the town's landsmanshaft organization in America, produced by member Sidney Herbst during a visit to his hometown.) (YIVO)

Shtetl Jews found themselves exposed to new pressures that severely undercut their economic position. Government policies hit Jewish merchants and artisans especially hard. In the 1930s, a wave of pogroms swept through many Polish shtetls. While the government neither organized the pogroms nor approved of them, it did sanction a nonviolent boycott of Jewish businesses. Jews from Przytyk who defended themselves against pogromists in 1936 were arrested by authorities. Pickets appeared in front of Jewish shops, and on market days, conflicts were common. The 1930s saw a sharp deterioration in Polish–Jewish relations that affected shtetls and cities alike. Nonetheless, in some ways, mutual relations were better in the shtetls. Relationships that went back for decades were not easily sundered and many peasants ignored the boycott and continued to patronize their familiar Jewish merchants.

The shtetl also fought back against economic antisemitism. New gmiles khesed kases (free loan societies), aided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), provided an important lifeline and reminded shtetl Jews that they were not alone. Under pressure from the JDC, shtetl Jews put their political differences aside and worked to make the kases a success. Another vital lifeline was the critical support that the shtetls received from landsmanshaftn, the emigrants’ organizations in the United States, South Africa, and elsewhere. By the 1930s, foreign help often provided the crucial margin necessary to keep the shtetl afloat.

Voices from many parts of the political spectrum continued to proclaim the terminal decline of the shtetl. The Bund, which had gained great strength by the late 1930s, emphasized that the future of Polish Jewry lay in the big cities. Other observers, however, warned against writing the shtetl off: it occupied too large a place in Polish Jewish life. New organizations, including the Society for Landkentenish (engaged tourism; literally, knowing the land), as well as YIVO, urged serious study of the shtetl and encouraged shtetl Jews to write their own history, collect folklore and documents, and study local cemeteries and synagogues. Until the very end, the shtetls of Poland continued to be the home of diverse, fractious, and resilient Jewish communities. 

Jews and non-Jews, stores, homes, and other buildings, Bolechów, Poland (now Bolechiv, Ukraine), 1930s. The woman with the cigarette and small dark hat is an American Jewish tourist. (YIVO)

The shtetl in the interwar Soviet Union underwent a very different experience from its Polish counterpart. In the early years of Soviet power, the Communist Party’s policy toward Jews and toward the Jewish shtetl was a work in progress. Since most Communists had inherited a hostile view of the shtetl, the new Soviet state explored various options to provide alternatives and to amend the Jewish situation. But while emigration to the big cities, agricultural colonies, and a Jewish autonomous region in Birobidzhan all provided new alternatives, a large proportion of Soviet Jewry still remained in the shtetls, and the regime could not ignore this fact.

While hundreds of shtetls in Poland had suffered severe war damage, those in Ukraine had to endure savage pogroms that ravaged the region during the civil war between 1919 and 1921. At least 60,000 Jews were killed. The Russian civil war and the introduction of communism dealt a major blow to the traditional role of the shtetl as a market town. While some recovery occurred between 1921 and 1928, heavy taxation and political discrimination weighed heavily on the shtetl. A large percentage of shtetl Jews suffered under Soviet legislation that deprived former members of the “bourgeoisie,” petty shopkeepers, and religious functionaries of many legal rights; these people became known as lishentsy. The advent of collectivization in 1928–1929 ended what was left of the traditional market relationship between the shtetl and the surrounding countryside.

The Soviet state gave its Jews very little liberty and the Soviet shtetl knew none of the rich political and associational life that developed in interwar Poland or the Baltic states. The regime severely restricted religious instruction, closed down synagogues, and banned all political activity not sanctioned by the Communist Party. The Jewish sections of the Communist Party, the Evsektsiia, were often more intolerant than non-Jewish Communists and spearheaded a crusade against religion, Zionism, and Hebrew culture. Still, Zionist groups and religious schools continued to survive illegally into the 1930s. Many Jews managed to attend religious services, circumcise their newborn sons, eat matzo on Passover, and buy kosher meat.

Despite persecution, many shtetls still preserved a large measure of their Jewish character. In Ukraine and Belarus, local Communist authorities supported the Evsektsiia’s policy of promoting Yiddish schools for Jewish children, and until the mid-1930s Jewish children in these small towns were not only speaking Yiddish at home but also receiving their primary education in that language. Whatever the shortcomings of the Communist Yiddish schools, they did provide some reinforcement against assimilation, but parents understood that the path to higher education and advancement favored graduates of Russian schools.

After the start of the Five-Year Plans in 1928, the Soviet regime began offering Jews more social mobility and educational opportunities. New legislation modified many of the restrictions on the lishentsy. Many Jews, especially young people, began leaving the shtetls for work and study in the bigger cities, including Moscow and Leningrad. By the mid 1930s, many former shtetls had begun to adapt to the new socioeconomic reality created by collectivization and the Five-Year Plans. They became centers for local artisan production or served nearby collective farms. Despite the momentous changes that transformed these shtetls, Jews who lived in them were more likely to speak Yiddish and much less likely to intermarry than their contemporaries in the larger cities.

It was the Holocaust that finally destroyed the Soviet shtetl. Unlike Jews in the big cities of the Russian Republic, shtetl Jews in Ukraine and Belarus had a very difficult time escaping the Wehrmacht. Their destruction changed the entire character of Soviet Jewry by eliminating its most nationally conscious and least acculturated elements.

The Imagined Shtetl

Water carrier, Borysław, Poland (now Boryslav, Ukraine), 1936. (YIVO)

From the mid-nineteenth century, the shtetl also became a cultural and a literary construct. This “imagined shtetl,” unlike the “real shtetl,” was often exclusively Jewish, a face-to-face community that lived in Jewish space and time and that preserved traditional Jewish life. In literature and in political and cultural discourse, the “imagined shtetl” evoked many different reactions that ranged from parody and contempt to praise as a supposed bastion of pure yidishkeyt (Jewishness). As a shorthand symbol, attitudes toward the “imagined shtetl” were a revealing litmus test of the Jewish encounter with the dilemmas and traumas of modernity, revolution, and catastrophe. After the annihilation of East European Jewry, the shtetl became a frequent if inaccurate metonymy for the entire lost world of East European Jewry.

As a new Yiddish and Hebrew literature developed in the nineteenth century, the portrayal of the shtetl closely followed the Haskalah and its critique of Jewish traditional society. While writers such as Ayzik Meyer Dik, Yisroel Aksenfeld, and Yitskhok Yoyel Linetski became extremely popular with their parodies and criticisms of shtetl life, it was Sholem Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim) who developed a literary shtetl—especially in Dos vintshfingerl (The Magic Ring; 1865), Fishke der krumer (Fishke the Lame; 1869), Di klyatshe (The Nag; 1872), and Masoes Binyomin hashlishi (The Travels of Benjamin the Third; 1878)—that would have enormous influence on future writers. Abramovitsh had been a maskil and the names he assigned his fictional shtetls and towns—Tuniyadevka-Betalon (Donothingburg), Kaptsansk-Kabtsiel (Beggartown) and Glupsk-Kesalon (Foolsville)—speak for themselves. Yet, mimetic realism was only a part of a complex aesthetic structure that many critics erroneously mistook for an unerringly accurate ethnographic description of the shtetl. In this imagined shtetl, myths of origin, legends, and customs could be parodied and satirized—but nonetheless linked to a collective consciousness shaped by Jewish tradition and messianic hopes. Through the mediation of his character, Mendele the Book Peddler, Abramovitsh transcended Haskalah criticism to examine the artistic and cultural dilemmas posed by the aesthetic imperatives of literary development as well as by the enormous gap that separated the Jewish intelligentsia (including Yiddish writers) from the Jewish masses in the shtetl. Torn between his pungent criticism of Jewish society and his deep attachment to the Jewish masses, quicker to discern problems than to suggest solutions, Abramovitsh let Mendele pass through the shtetl, an outsider and insider at the same time. He could thus skewer the common Jews and the Jewish intelligentsia with equal finesse.

The dilemmas faced by Jewish intellectuals returning to the shtetl were also delineated in Y. L. Peretz’s Bilder fun a provints-rayze (Sketches from a Provincial Tour; 1891). Commissioned to study the economic and social conditions in impoverished shtetls, Peretz conveyed the ambivalent reaction of an “outsider” whose presumed stance of cultural superiority gave way to growing self-doubt in the face of shtetl Jews who—despite their desperate material state—undermined his confidence in his mission and even in himself.

Sholem Aleichem created one of the most important literary shtetls, Kasrilevke, which served as a partial corrective to Mendele’s Foolsvilles and Beggartowns. The kleyne mentshelekh (“Little Jews”) who lived in Kasrilevke met misfortune with dignity, humor, and an inner strength imparted by their folk culture and their language. As the Kasrilevke Jews heard the ominous tidings of an encroaching outside world—of pogroms and antisemitism—they nonetheless stubbornly refused to give up their faith in the eventual triumph of yoysher (Justice). An even more positive treatment of the shtetl appeared in Sholem Asch’s 1904 prose poem, A shtetl. Asch portrayed a shtetl deeply rooted in the age-old Polish landscape. It had its share of squabbles and natural calamities, such as fires. Nonetheless, Asch’s shtetl was an organic community, where natural leaders enjoyed moral authority, and whose economy was based on a natural order undisturbed by railroads and industrialization.

Jewish communal buildings, including "Dovid Shmuel's kloyz [small synagogue]," "Yofe's kloyz," and two Talmud Torahs (community-run Jewish elementary schools), Hotin, Romania (now Khotyn, Ukr.), 1930s. (YIVO)

As revolutions and total war ravaged Jewish Eastern Europe, the treatment of the shtetl in Yiddish literature increasingly diverged from the models of Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, and Asch. Yitskhok (Itshe) Meyer Vaysenberg’s 1906 masterpiece, A shtetl, portrayed a community torn apart by an internal Jewish class conflict. Yet, Vaysenberg asked, what was the ultimate importance of these internecine Jewish struggles in a fragile shtetl, a negligible dot in an enormous gentile world that stretched beyond its muddy streets? In his 1913 classic Nokh alemen (After All Is Said and Done) and in many shorter stories, the writer Dovid Bergelson presented a picture of a shtetl marked by banality and emptiness. Like Vaysenberg, Bergelson denied the shtetl any redemptive meaning. A devastating picture of the wartime shtetl appeared in Oyzer Varshavski’s 1920 novel Shmuglars, in which World War I turns the entire community into a gang of immoral smugglers. Traditional values collapsed as all classes let nothing stand in their way in pursuit of a quick profit. In the 1920s and 1930s, the shtetl was portrayed in Soviet Yiddish literature as a doomed community. The poet Izi Kharik envied his famous Russian counterpart Sergei Esenin, who mourned the Russian village. While the shtetl was to Jews what the village was to Russians—the crucible of their folk culture—Kharik could not mourn its passing. But, he admitted, even while he cursed the shtetl, his curses were intermixed with feelings of lingering tenderness.

In interwar Poland, the late 1930s saw some revision of the predominantly negative treatment of the shtetl. In his 1937 novel Bay di taykhn fun Mazovye (By the Rivers of Mazovia), Mikhl Burshtin portrayed a shtetl beset by rising antisemitism and devastated by a pogrom, but determined to rebuild and endure. One character, a young doctor, leaves Warsaw to return to his native shtetl where, he feels, he can make more of a difference. Like Vaysenberg and Varshavski, Burshtin’s shtetl, with its many gentile characters, was no longer the exclusively Jewish world of a Mendele or a Sholem Aleichem. But once again it was the symbol of a Jewish home. In his poem “Es brent,” written in the late 1930s, the popular songwriter Mordkhe Gebirtig used the shtetl as the symbol of Polish Jewry. The shtetl is “on fire.” It is up to Polish Jewry to put out the flames—and engage in active self-defense.

After the Holocaust

In the State of Israel, the negative image of goles (exile), including the shtetl, changed little from the old, negative Zionist stereotype. Zionism had transcended the shtetl and the only reason to look back was to learn how to avoid the pernicious signs of a “shtetl mentality” that had no place in the new state. By the 1970s, however, there were some signs of a renewed interest in Yiddish culture and in the shtetl, and prominent Israeli scholars published much valuable material. In Israel and elsewhere, survivors joined with older emigrants to publish hundreds of yizker-bikher, or memorial books. These yizker-bikher typically contain hundreds of pages with photographs and personal reminiscences. For understandable reasons, many of these books were largely eulogies and elegies, and the committees that compiled them avoided including unflattering details on the shtetl and its inhabitants. Some, however, were edited by professional historians and conform to scholarly standards.

Street scene, Sędziszów, Poland, 1935. (Film commissioned by the town's landsmanshaft organization in America, produced by member Sidney Herbst during a visit to his hometown.) (YIVO)

For an American Jewry just beginning to come to terms with the Holocaust, the shtetl—reviled and forgotten before the war—came to represent a lost world that was brutally destroyed. It became a symbol of the integral Jewishness and the supportive community that many American Jews, economically secure in their new suburban homes, now began to miss. In 1952, the publication of Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog’s Life Is with People presented American readers with a composite portrait of a Jewish shtetl that was the quintessential “home”: culturally self-sufficient, isolated from gentiles, and timeless. The 1963 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof transformed Sholem Aleichem’s village Jew, Tevye, into a shtetl dweller. Tevye’s genuine conflicts with his wife and daughters—expressions of the growing religious, class, and interethnic tensions of Jewish society—found a resolution on the Broadway stage that harmonized Jewish and American values. The shtetl had become a way station to America.

Vulnerable as it was, the shtetl for many Jews continued to symbolize the distinct Jewish peoplehood in Eastern Europe that had evolved over the course of centuries. It long influenced the contours of Jewish collective memory, and its spaces, streets, and wooden buildings remained etched in the collective imagination. Both the “real shtetl” and the “imagined shtetl” are an integral part of East European Jewish history.

Suggested Reading

Yaffa Eliach, There Once Was a World: A Nine-Hundred-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl Eishyshok (Boston, 1998); Gennady Estraikh and Mikhail Krutikov, eds., The Shtetl: Image and Reality (Oxford, 2000); Eva Hoffman, Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews (Boston, 1997); Gershon D. Hundert, The Jews in a Polish Private Town: The Case of Opatów in the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore, 1992); Samuel Kassow, “Community and Identity in the Interwar Shtetl,” in The Jews of Poland between Two World Wars, ed. Yisrael Gutman, Khone Shmeruk, Ezra Mendelsohn, and Jehuda Reinharz, pp. 198–220 (Hanover, N.H., 1989); Dan Miron, A Traveler Disguised (New York, 1973); Dan Miron, The Image of the Shtetl and Other Studies of Modern Jewish Literary Imagination (Syracuse, N.Y., 2000); Ben-Cion Pinchuk, “The Shtetl: An Ethnic Town in the Russian Empire,” Cahiers du Monde Russe 41.4 (October–December 2000): 495–504; Theo Richmond, Konin: A Quest (New York, 1995); David Roskies, The Jewish Search for a Usable Past (Bloomington, Ind., 1999); Diane K. Roskies and David G. Roskies, comps., The Shtetl Book (New York, 1975); Murray J. Rosman, The Lords’ Jews (Cambridge, Mass., 1990); Adam Teller, “The Shtetl As an Arena for Polish-Jewish Integration in the Eighteenth Century,” Polin 17 (2004): 25–40; Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, Life Is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl (New York, 1995).