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The Golden Age Shtetl

The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe

YOHANAN PETROVSKY-SHTERN
Copyright Date: 2014
https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wpz15
Pages: 448
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wpz15
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  • Book Info
    The Golden Age Shtetl
    Book Description:

    The shtetl was home to two-thirds of East Europe's Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, yet it has long been one of the most neglected and misunderstood chapters of the Jewish experience. This book provides the first grassroots social, economic, and cultural history of the shtetl. Challenging popular misconceptions of the shtetl as an isolated, ramshackle Jewish village stricken by poverty and pogroms, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern argues that, in its heyday from the 1790s to the 1840s, the shtetl was a thriving Jewish community as vibrant as any in Europe.

    Petrovsky-Shtern brings this golden age to life, looking at dozens of shtetls and drawing on a wealth of never-before-used archival material. The shtetl, in essence, was a Polish private town belonging to a Catholic magnate, administratively run by the tsarist empire, yet economically driven by Jews. Petrovsky-Shtern shows how its success hinged on its unique position in this triangle of power--as did its ultimate suppression. He reconstructs the rich social tapestry of these market towns, showing how Russian clerks put the shtetl on the empire's map, and chronicling how shtetl Jews traded widely, importing commodities from France, Austria, Prussia, and even the Ottoman Empire. Petrovsky-Shtern describes family life; dwellings, trading stalls, and taverns; books and religious life; and the bustling marketplace with its Polish gentry, Ukrainian peasants, and Russian policemen.

    Illustrated throughout with rare archival photographs and artwork, this nuanced history casts the shtetl in an altogether new light, revealing how its golden age continues to shape the collective memory of the Jewish people today.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5116-4
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. INTRODUCTION WHAT’S IN A NAME?
    (pp. 1-28)

    Many of us recall Anatevka fromFiddler on the Roofwith warmth, mercy, and grief. Anatevka was a Jewish village in dire straits, with its broken-down Jews, wooden huts, rotting shingles, clumsy wooden fences, cracked church walls, and pitiful marketplace with several crooked wooden stalls. Anything made of stone in this village—the church, a factory, the administration offices—was clearly not Jewish, except, of course, the tombstones. The hand-polished copper candlesticks and samovars of the inhabitants of Anatevka shone like rare treasures in that sepia world of decay.

    The literary invention of the ingenious imagination of Sholem Aleichem, Anatevka...

  2. CHAPTER ONE RUSSIA DISCOVERS ITS SHTETL
    (pp. 29-56)

    In 1823, Andrei Glagolev defended his dissertation in literature and decided to take a trip through Europe, which would result in his famousNotes of a Russian Travelerand would bring him fame as a perspicacious ethnographer and geographer. Glagolev did not expect to see much once he left Kiev, yet his discovery of the shtetls in Ukraine fascinated him.

    He visited Berdichev with its “eternal Jewish marketplace.” He found Korets with its beautiful palace and Christian Orthodox convent to be as nice as the Russian districts’ central towns. He liked the fortress and the valley around Ostrog and observed...

  3. CHAPTER TWO LAWLESS FREEDOM
    (pp. 57-90)

    Catherine the Great spoke fluent French, corresponded with Voltaire, and adored the Enlightenment, but abhorred the French Revolution.¹ Although she introduced free trade in 1792, she also ordered a total ban on importing French goods into Russia. Born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg to the family of a Prussian prince, Catherine had not only political reasons to dislike France. The Russian empress shared the mercantilist conviction that her country should develop its own industries, produce locally, aggressively export, and not kowtow to the European West.² In the case of revolutionary France, however, her economic ambitions and political preferences harmoniously merged....

  4. CHAPTER THREE FAIR TRADE
    (pp. 91-120)

    Governor General Ivan Funduklei was uneasy about the shtetls that belonged to Polish magnates, were situated on the Russian land, and were economically dependent on the Jews. Rumors of suspicious activities of Jews and Poles reached his receptive ears and left him deeply concerned. He had heard that Jews and Poles were stockpiling arms, trading wholesale in horses to help reestablish the Polish cavalry units, and using the annual fairs as a cover for Polish conspiratorial meetings.

    Funduklei wondered whether the government’s outlawing of the wholesale export of horses to prevent the enemy from purchasing this means of warfare had...

  5. CHAPTER FOUR THE RIGHT TO DRINK
    (pp. 121-150)

    Meilakh Goldfeld, while driving his wagon, reveled in his recent deal. He was bringing three barrels of fruit wine and two barrels of absinthe to the inn he ran from the cellar of his house. Avrum Khodorkovsky, one of the top Cherkas tavernkeepers, had sold it to him dirt cheap. The wine was beautifully balanced, with a bittersweet finish. Meilakh would no longer have to sell the sour wine of that blockhead, Kvitnitsky. Meilakh smacked his lips. He was proud of himself, of his negotiating skills, and of his barrels.

    He had no idea that he had become a pawn...

  6. CHAPTER FIVE A VIOLENT DIGNITY
    (pp. 151-180)

    Gershko Kapeliushnik the hatmaker had dealings with Christians, listened to their derogatory remarks about his Judaism, and paid them back in kind. He had about six Christian apprentices in his shop in Ilintsy. In 1828, Kazimierz Zozulinski joined Tomasz and Piotr Kozlowski, all three of them Catholic apprentices, in their complaint against their master. They lamented that although Gershko was a qualified artisan, he criticized Christianity in their presence, fed veal to them on fast days, and made acrimonious remarks that expressed doubt about the truths of Christianity. When they warned Gershko that God would punish them for listening to...

  7. CHAPTER SIX CRIME, PUNISHMENT, AND A PROMISE OF JUSTICE
    (pp. 181-212)

    One summer day in 1824, the parents of twelve-year-old Itsik Leibovich from Belaia Tserkov did not send him toheder. Itsik was hanging out in the street, watching a unit of Russian soldiers march by. Itsik admired their insignia and uniforms, their white straps and gallant moustaches, glittering copper buttons, and their rifles, real rifles. Ah, how Itsik wanted to be a soldier and hold a real gun! Just imagine, Itsik the Warrior!

    Following the unit down the road, Itsik passed by the house of the Tulczanskis. Although the Tulczanskis were formally members of the Polish szlachta, there was nothing...

  8. CHAPTER SEVEN FAMILY MATTERS
    (pp. 213-242)

    Shlioma Shir knew that in order to destroy a competitor in the shtetl, all he had to do was accuse him of a sexual offense. In the late 1820s, Shlioma worked for a certain Lazebnik, quarreled with him, and then quit, but later schemed to entrap him. To this end, Shir chose Marina Kulchitsky, a fourteen-year-old Catholic girl from an impoverished Polish family who had also worked for Lazebnik. Shir envisaged that Marina would accuse Lazebnik of being an adulterer, and Lazebnik would be ruined as a Jew and a businessman. Shir’s target, Lazebnik, was a twenty-seven-year-old Jew, married with...

  9. CHAPTER EIGHT OPEN HOUSE
    (pp. 243-272)

    The golden age shtetl was neither a town nor a village but a unique combination of the two. Urban and rural came together in the shtetl home—a unique locus of East European Jewish civilization, with Tevye the Milkman as the head of the household.

    The imaginary Tevye in Sholem Aleichem’s Anatevka is a unique character, a village philosopher, a man of nature comfortable with the local Slavs, an aficionado of introspections and confessions, a Rashi in the barn and a Rousseau in a yarmulke—and, most important, a Jew with a cow. The documents prove, however, that in the...

  10. CHAPTER NINE IF I FORGET THEE
    (pp. 273-304)

    We last saw Moshko Telezhinetsky in his Shepetovka inn, when the police came to confiscate his herbs, enigmatic Hebrew note, vodka, and strange white powder. During the investigation, after which he was fully exonerated, Moshko explained that he had obtained the herbs from a local witch doctor named Matriona, who had convinced Moshko that herbal inhalations would cure his sick wife. Moshko claimed to have inherited the Hebrew note—a kabbalistic amulet—from his father, although he assured the police, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that he did not really believe in magic powers. Moshko’s vodka, as we already know, was deemed excellent...

  11. CHAPTER TEN THE BOOKS OF THE PEOPLE
    (pp. 305-340)

    On June 3, 1835, Leizer Protagain, the depressive drunkard and abusive husband we briefly met in chapter 5, woke up early in the morning, went to work as a bookbinder for the Slavuta printing press, then left for morning prayers. He returned home, drank a glass of vodka, slept for two hours, and left again to wander about the marketplace. Later that day several Slavuta Jews, including the butcher Kune Reznik, the embroider Meir Shmukler, and warden Arie Tsegener, came for afternoon prayers to the Tailors’ Synagogue, unlocked the door, and found Protagain’s body hanging from a cross-beam.

    The town...

  12. CONCLUSION THE END OF THE GOLDEN AGE
    (pp. 341-356)

    The golden age of the shtetl was over by the second half of the nineteenth century, yet the shtetl did not disappear overnight. Let us make no mistake: Belaia Tserkov, Berdichev, Medzhibozh, Ostrog, Radzivilov, Shargorod, Shepetovka, Skvira, Slavuta, Talnoe, Uman, and Zaslav all remained where they had been before. Two hundred years later they are still there with now emphatically Ukrainian names such as Berdychiv, Bila Tserkva, Medzhybizh, Ostroh, Radyvyliv, Sharhorod, Shepetivka, Skvyra, and Iziaslav. Of course, these localities are very different now from what they were two hundred years ago. Their recognizable yet altered names do not convey the...