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World of Our Great-Grandfathers
World of Our Great-Grandfathers
It is an honor to see Spertus Institute faculty member and longtime friend Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern featured in The New York Times! Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern's new book The Golden Age Shtetl was praised (rightfully so) in the Sunday Book Review.
By Jonathan Rosen for the New York Times
Back in the days when Jews could travel without having to go anywhere — one minute a house was in Poland, the next in Russia — they lived in places called shtetls, defined neither by physical size nor population, possessing mysterious features both urban and rural. Though Christians lived there too, the shtetl tilted spiritually toward Jerusalem, while performing economic services for the Slavic society to which it also belonged, giving it an Eastern European character all its own. Its amorphous nature has made it the subject of easy mythologizing, so that it often pops up in the American imagination as a kind of Jewish Brigadoon where all the villagers are singing, unless they are running from a pogrom.
Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, a professor of Jewish studies at Northwestern University, would like us to view the shtetl as neither the spiritual apotheosis nor the physical nadir of Jewish exile. For this he has to do some digging, because while the giants of Yiddish literature were around to record the shtetl’s gasping decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, its “golden age” — which he puts roughly between the 1790s and the 1840s — is a tale that lives mainly in the archives.
“The Golden Age Shtetl” focuses on three provinces in central Ukraine. It is populated by “Jewish tavernkeepers, international smugglers, members of Slavic gangs, traders in colonial commodities, disloyal husbands and avid readers of books.” Determined to keep these unsung heroes from remaining the pale ink in someone else’s palimpsest, Petrovsky-Shtern is not beyond his own mythologizing impulses. His shtetl-folk possess “the mental qualities of urban dwellers and the corporeal capabilities of peasants.”
He mythologizes himself a little, too, telling us that in order to get his hands on hidden documents, “I sometimes disguised myself as a Ukrainian clerk, a Soviet speleologist and a polar explorer.” One feels the author, who grew up in Ukraine, imagining himself as one of those Jewish smugglers he writes about, men who could “handle a lance to intimidate the mounted border patrol; a sword if they had to engage the guards in a fight and pistols to protect their booty from the Cossack guards.”
Smuggling looms large not only in the economy of Petrovsky-Shtern’s shtetl but for its symbolism, too. The author is interested in the way aspects of one world slide inside another. His golden-age shtetl was born when Russia swallowed a giant slice of Poland at the end of the 18th century and went from having few Jews to overseeing vast numbers of them, many of whom lived in privately owned Polish towns.
These towns are the essential ingredients of the hybrid world Petrovsky-Shtern is celebrating. Polish nobles had permitted Jews to live there on the condition that they ran the outdoor markets, sold liquor and in general acted as engines of trade. When the towns fell under Russian rule, Jews retained many of their economic privileges while expanding their civil rights, especially after they displayed a willingness to inform on their erstwhile Polish overlords.
Shtetl dwellers became adept at playing the declining Polish nobility off against bribable Russian officials. The czar had not yet laid his heavy hand on the trade by which shtetl Jews powered the economic growth of western Russia. Neither had he made nationalism the supreme ideology and Eastern Orthodoxy synonymous with Russian nationalism.
That would come, and as the Russian treasury bought up more and more of the private towns and trade died, Russia repurposed shtetl Jews as scapegoats for a restive peasant population. But before that happened in the second half of the 19th century, a rough collaborative spirit prevailed, which Petrovsky-Shtern finds evidence of in everything from the Yiddish slang used by Slavic gangsters to the story of “an ambitious and dodgy Eastern Orthodox priest” who teamed up with “a greedy and sleazy Jewish informer” to bring down a pious Jewish printer.
The book sets the bar for cross-cultural collaboration a little low in places, as it does for instances of Jewish physical pride — not always distinguishing between self-defense, domestic violence and possible mental illness. But if he sometimes works too hard to push over the old straw shtetl in favor of one that “at its height was afraid of nothing,” Petrovsky-Shtern also succeeds in vividly evoking a Jewish world that survived not merely in spite of its neighbors but in complex collaboration with them.
There is a reason much of this has been forgotten. The golden-age shtetl lies at the heart of what the historian Timothy Snyder calls “the bloodlands,” a region that was a central battleground in the war against the Jews. Which makes “The Golden Age Shtetl” a moving feat of cultural reclamation and even, in its way, an act of quiet heroism.
Jonathan Rosen is the author of “The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Worlds,” among other books.