SHTETL (pl. shtetlakh; Russ. mestechko; Pol. miasteczko; Heb. צֲיָרָה), Yiddish diminutive for shtot meaning "town" or "city," to imply a relatively small community; in Eastern Europe a unique socio-cultural communal pattern. The real criteria for the size of a shtetl were vague and ill-defined, as the actual size could vary from much less than 1,000 inhabitants to 20,000 or more. When the community was very small it would be called a klaynshtetl or even a shtetele; however both terms could also carry the connotation of a parochial lack of sophistication or, at times, a feeling of warmth or nostalgia.
The shtetl pattern first took shape within Poland-Lithuania before the partitions of the kingdom. Jews had been invited to settle in the private towns owned by the Polish nobility that developed from the 16th century, on relatively very favorable conditions. In many of such private towns Jews soon formed the preponderant majority of the population. Their occupation in arenda led many Jews to settle in the villages around these towns, while many who settled in them were also engaged in arenda as well as having other business in the villages. Hence both the economy as well as the style of living in such towns had close links with the villages, in addition to assuming the all-pervading character of a "Jewish town." Originally dependent on the highly structured and powerful communities in the larger cities from which the settlers first came, these small communities increasingly acquired importance, since their development was unhampered by the established rights and inimical anti-Jewish traditions of the Christian towns-people, as the communities in the old "royal towns" had been. Thus the movement of Jews to smaller towns where they were needed, and therefore protected, by the greater and lesser Polish nobility, continued. The community of the private town often constituted the town itself for all intents and purposes, and therefore could strengthen and consolidate a homogeneous pattern of values, attitudes, and mores.
With the partitions of Poland-Lithuania the final crystallization of the socio-cultural pattern of the began amid the process of geopolitical differentiation of the communities on the territories divided between Poland's neighbors. In Russia, the shtetl developed in the Pale of Settlement. In 1815, Congress Poland was incorporated into the Pale, which continued to exist until the October Revolution of 1917. Within Austria-Hungary, the shtetl communities were scattered in Galicia, Bohemia, Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, Bukovina, and Hungary. In the area under Prussia the shtetl pattern did not develop to the same extent. Despite the basic cultural homogeneity which had consolidated in the past few centuries, the communities in the partitioned regions developed specific social traits in each of the states in which they were situated. This was the result on the one hand of the varying cultures of their host societies and on the other hand of the differing social and economic policies and trends which developed in the host society under the Hapsburg emperors or Russian czars.
During the 19th century, the anti-Jewish persecutions, economic restrictions, and outbreaks of violence pressed increasingly on the socioeconomic foundations of the Jews, in czarist Russia in particular, while political and ideological revolutionary trends and movements began to undermine the strength of the life style of the shtetl, which became more and more unsatisfactory to younger generations. Thus weakened in its foundations, the shtetl entered the last phase of its existence. The liberal revolution of 1917 liquidated the Pale of Settlement, while the Communist revolution that followed liquidated the traditional shtetl life. Between the two world wars, independent Poland became the greatest Jewish center in Eastern Europe.
Life in the Shtetl
Yidishkeyt ("Jewishness") and menshlikhkeyt ("humanness") were the two major values of the community around which life centered. Both the sacred and the profane were integrated in this way of life. The traditional ideals of piety, learning and scholarship, communal justice, and charity, were fused in the warm and intimate lifestyle of the shtetl. Thus the Yidishkeyt and the menshlikhkeyt of the shtetl were expressed in innumerable activities, all of which were geared toward the goal of living the life of a "good Jew" and were manifested in the synagogue and at home, in the holiness of Sabbath and the humdrum existence of the market, in the structure of the community and in the organization of the family.
The life of the Jew oscillated between synagogue, home, and market. In the synagogue he served God, studied His Law and participated in social activities created in response to the needs of the community and its individual members. The synagogue, whether a shul, a Ukrainian kloyz, or a Polish shtibl, was the house of prayer, the house of study, and the house of assembly combined. The seating arrangement in the synagogue reflected the social structure of the community: along the eastern wall, where the Ark was located, were ranged the most honored members of the community, the rabbi and the sheyne Yidn (the dignified Jews), the men of learning, of substance, and of status, i.e., men with yihus – symbol of distinction acquired through family position in the community or
individual achievement in learning, business, or community participation. The seats facing the eastern wall were occupied by the balebatim or burghers, and behind them were placed the proste Yidn or common Jews – the humble folk, usually assumed to be ignorant, poor, and uneducated. The value of the seats decreased with their distance from the eastern wall, until at the western wall were found the beggars and needy strangers. These were cared for by various community institutions as well as special associations (see ḥevrah).
The home of the individual was the basic unit in the culture and life style of the shtetl; it was founded on a patriarchal and closely knit structure on traditional lines. His home was the place where the shtetl Jew enjoyed his Yidishkeyt in the serenity and peace of Sabbath, in the rituals of the Passover seder, or in the dignity and holiness of the High Holidays. It was where he derived the nakhes – the proud pleasure – from the achievement of his children, the son, or the son-in-law. There he fed the stranger on Friday, and provided meals to the poor student in the yeshivah. However the home was also part of the community, and hardly any important activity at home was separable from the synagogue or the total community. Birth and death, bar mitzvahs and weddings, illness and recovery, were family events which tied the home to the synagogue, and by extension to the community. No family event was a private event, for life in the shtetl was life with people, and therefore part of the total community life. Family joys, as well as family sorrows, were shared by the community, which had the right and duty to express its approval or disapproval about the conduct and behavior of the family as a whole or of each of its members. Thus community control over the life of its individual members became one of the major regulating forces in the shtetl society, which succeeded in surviving for centuries without a police force to maintain its internal law and order.
The market and marketplace were the source of livelihood and the meeting place with non-Jewish neighbors. The shtetl Jews served as middlemen between the big city and village economy. They brought urban products to the Polish, Ukrainian, or Romanian peasant who visited the market, or as peddlers bought from him the agricultural produce of the villages which they sold in the city. The financial scale of these transactions was limited. Only a few Jews in the shtetl engaged in enterprises on a larger scale involving substantial capital. The majority of the shtetl population lived in poverty, where the major problem was to earn enough during the week in order to be able to buy a chicken or a fish for Sabbath, or to save up enough money for Passover matzot. To make a living the shtetl Jew tried his hand at anything and often at a number of things. Trades and occupations could vary with the season, as well as with a special opportunity encountered at the marketplace. Men and women, old and young, were daily involved in the difficult task of parnose ("livelihood"). Often women and children remained in charge of the stall or the store, while men traveled in the area looking for bargains or peddling city wares.
The market was the area where the shtetl came in direct contact with the goyim, whose life patterns were alien and often hostile to the shtetl mores. The emphasis was considered by Jews to be on intellect, on a sense of moderation, on cultivation of peace, and on goal-directed activities within the framework of a tightly knit family and community. Among the goyim, the shtetl Jew saw the emphasis on the body, excess, blind instinct, sexual life, and physical force. For the Jews human power was in the mind and in the word, while for the goyim it appeared expressed in muscles and violence. The underlying feeling of the shtetl Jew in all transactions with the goyim was the conviction that no matter how friendly and neighborly the interaction might be, he was never sure that it would not end in bloodshed and death. The feeling was amply supported by experiences of riots, pogroms, and massacres, which often began at the marketplace and spread to homes and synagogues.
Dissolution of the Shtetl
The social, political, and economic forces in the 19th and 20th centuries eroded the patterns of life which had evolved in the shtel. Pogroms and persecutions, economic depressions and political revolutions caused mass migrations of Jews to larger cities in Europe and across the ocean to the United States. Eventually Hitler and the "final solution" brought death to millions of Jews in Eastern and Western Europe. The physical existence of the shtetl ended in the gas chambers and concentration camps of the Third Reich. However, despite the violent end of the shtetl community and of its life style, much of its influence has survived in Israel and in the Americas (e.g., U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Argentina). The children of the shtetl parents – immigrants and survivors of ghettos and concentration camps – became carriers of values shaped in the shtetl, to be reflected in behavior patterns and social attitudes as well as in the art and literature of Israel and of American Jews. The shtetl values are reflected in the novels of American Jewish writers such as Bernard Malamud, as much as in the classic portrayals of shtetl life by Shalom Aleichem or the paintings of Marc Chagall.
Lives and Roles of Women
Gender hierarchies in the shtetl ascribed the mundane affairs of the world to women and lofty spiritual and religious pursuits to men. These expectations, perhaps more ideal than real, shaped women's spirituality, family life, economic activities, education, and political choices.
In response to the exclusion of women from arenas of public worship and study, "female variants" of Judaism emerged. Instead of the obligatory Hebrew prayers in the synagogue, women recited Yiddish prayers (
) at home, which addressed everyday concerns. They also observed the three women's commandments: namely,
lighting on the eve of the Sabbath and holidays. At social
gatherings or in private, women read homilies (Tsenerene) or ethical books (Lev Tov, "A Good Heart," and Brantshpigl, "Burning Mirror") and pious tales (Mayse Bukh). Their models of piety were the biblical matriarchs, whom women invoked to intercede on their behalf. They also resorted to female leaders in the community for guidance and assistance; these might include the
(rabbi's wife), zogerke (reader of prayers in their section of the synagogue), gabete (pious woman who oversaw public charity), and klogerns (women hired to wail at burials). Women's spirituality, though different from men's, remained strictly within male-determined religious norms.
The division of roles also reflected the value of the spiritual over the material. An inverted structure of work developed in the shtetl, which allocated the task of breadwinning to women in order to allow their husbands to study. While most couples shared economic responsibility, the cultural ideal dictated that a greater proportion of the burden fell on women. Wives of rabbinic scholars who studied at a distant yeshivah or ḥasidic women whose husbands spent their time in a shtibl or rebbe's home, often assumed the entire load. The primary site of female economic activity was the marketplace, where women ran small shops, peddled food products and household goods, and engaged in petty trade. In addition, women were active in the tobacco and alcohol trades. With the advent of industrialization in Russia in the late 19th century, women joined the workforce in handicrafts and small manufacturing. Notably, women in the general population were also highly active in the shtetl economy; hence, female work was not a unique feature of Jewish life.
Women's dominant role in the household economy extended to family relations. In many households, a matriarchal structure prevailed. The
(Jewish enlightenment) movement in Eastern Europe attacked this gender role reversal (that is, a subservient husband and dominant wife) and blamed the inverse work structure for this phenomenon. Satires like The Brief Travels of Benjamin the Third (1878) by
(Mendele Mokher Seforim) focused on the degrading feminization of men and moral decline of "masculine women." In this particular novel, an emasculated husband runs away from his wife, "who wears the pants in the house," in search of the ten lost tribes. D. Biale suggested that the maskilim's rebellion against matriarchal power may have stemmed from an animosity toward their mothers-in-law, who dominated their adolescent marriages (Eros and the Jews, 1992).
Jewish women also played a defining role in the socialization of their children, particularly daughters who remained in their care until they married. Given the high birthrate in Eastern Europe, Jewish women were pregnant during most of their childbearing years. Prolonged breastfeeding reduced fertility to some extent but birth control was fairly primitive and inaccessible. Births usually took place at home with the assistance of a midwife. Women hung amulets on the wall and recited prayers to protect newborn infants from evil spirits. Images of strong mothers and grandmothers who supported their families and arranged matches for all the children are common in the memoir literature.
Despite their power in the domestic sphere, women were vulnerable and became increasingly powerless in matters of divorce. This was due in part to Jewish law, which empowered men to dissolve marriages unilaterally. In the Czarist empire, where Jewish divorce rates were extraordinarily high, the childless woman, moredet (rebellious wife), and other "undesirable" wives were especially prone to divorce against their will. Moreover, a decline in rabbinic authority meant that women who sought to secure a divorce from a recalcitrant husband for wife beating or other reasons were usually unsuccessful. In desperation, some women turned to state courts to enforce a rabbi's verdict or to overturn an unjust ruling.
A gendered system of education was another product of shtetl life. I. Parush argues that because rabbinic authorities devoted all their energies to male religious learning, they neglected the education of women. During the 19th century, this "benefit of marginality" allowed women to acquire secular culture with greater ease. While some women remained illiterate, a large segment of Jewish women learned to read in Yiddish; this group was the first to read popular literature (often simplistic, sentimental chapbooks) at their own leisure. Upper-class daughters of Orthodox families even studied foreign languages and literature with governesses and private tutors. "Reading women," who experienced greater exposure to modern values, in turn served as agents of acculturation at home. Starting in the 1860s, Jewish girls flocked to the new state and private schools throughout the Russian empire; some even pursued higher education as kursistki (auditors). Similar trends took place in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where secular education had been introduced even earlier.
"Seductive secularization" gradually led to ruptures within traditional society well into the first three decades of the 20th century. The most extreme form of rejection was conversion to Christianity and marriage with Christian partners; not surprisingly, women constituted a disproportionate number of Jewish converts in the late 19th century. Another venue of rebellion was to join a revolutionary movement. Women participated actively in the Bund, various branches of the Zionist movement, as well as general Russian and Polish socialist groups.
On the eve of World War II, women in the shtetl remained the most traditional constituency of European Jewry, despite the onslaught of modernity and change; this was due in part to the migration of more acculturated families to urban centers or abroad, in part to the resilience of old customs and communal values.
[ChaeRan Freeze (2nd ed.)]
M. Zborowski and E. Herzog, Life is with People (1955); Dubnow, Hist Russ; L. Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews: Their History, Culture and Religion, 2 vols. (1949); Central Yiddish Culture Organizations, The Jewish People, Past and Present, 2 vols. (1946–48); A.J. Heschel, The Earth is the Lord's: The Inner World of the Jew in East Europe (1950); I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (1932); I. Levitats, The Jewish Community in Russia, 1772–1844 (1943); M.
Samuel, The World of Sholom Aleichem (1943); U. Weinreich, College Yiddish: An Introduction to the Yiddish Language and to Jewish Life and Culture (1949); M. Zborowski, in: Harvard Educational Review, 19 (1949), 97–109; idem, in: Social Forces, 29 (1951), 351–64; idem and R. Landes, in: Psychiatry, 23 (1950), 447–64; A. Ain, in: YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science, 4 (1949), 86–114; J. Lestschinsky, Oyfn Rand fun Opgrunt (1947). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: C. Freeze, Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia (2002); P.E. Hyman, Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History (1995), 50–92; I. Parush; Reading Jewish Women (2004); S.S. Weinberg, The World of Our Mothers (1988); C. Weissler, Voices of the Matriarchs (1998).
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