A demonstration of how the shtetl of Eastern Europe enjoyed an early period of thriving prosperity and cultural diversity.
Petrovsky-Shtern (Jewish Studies/Northwestern Univ.; Lenin’s Jewish Question, 2010, etc.) turns some of the received knowledge about Jewish history on its head as he delves into rich, formerly classified primary sources delineating the evidence of Jewish economic power during the transition between the partitions of Poland by Russia (1772–1775) and the advent of the Russian military age, beginning in the 1840s, which brought xenophobia and nationalism. During this 50-year period of lax Russian rule, when Russia inherited these formerly Polish territories, the Jews were encouraged in their important roles as traders, tavern keepers and liquor sellers. What was shamefully referred to as a shtetl (small town) by later Yiddish writers like Mendele Moykher Sforim and Sholem Aleichem was proudly called a shtot by its contemporaries. Humming market towns in the provinces of Podolia, Volhynia and the southern part of what was the Pale of Settlement attracted thousands of merchants and enriched the Polish landlords, Russian administrators and Jews alike. Although the areas were spiritual centers and gave rise to Hasidism, for example, the most important aspect was the economic activity of the marketplace. Jews proved they were loyal, industrious and reliable and were entrusted to run the mail service and to make and sell liquor. Their homes, clothing and artifacts revealed a sense of prosperity and dignity, and their language reflected the mingling with their Christian and Slavic neighbors—a half-century before the alienation from and the scapegoating of Jews for “the shortcomings of modernism.” Packed with vigorous case studies, Petrosvky-Shtern’s book is lively and enlightening.
A welcome study that is by turns picturesque and scholarly, startling and accessible.