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Virtually every Jew today has a mental image of the shtetl, the small villages in which Jews lived for centuries in Eastern Europe. These images are informed by the portrayal of shtetl life in a variety of media, from fiction to film. Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman (which most of us know better as Fiddler on the Roof) and artist Marc Chagall’s whimsical depictions of Ukrainian Jewish life (with images of floating fiddlers) contribute to the contemporary vision of the shtetl as a small Jewish town in in Eastern Europe where a population of poor but industrious Jews worked and studied, all the while seemingly accompanied by a klezmer soundtrack.
It doesn’t take a professional historian to realize that such a static representation of the populous and geographically disperse Jewish communities of eastern Europe doesn’t reflect historical reality. The popular “fiddlers” image of shtetl life neglects the great diversity of ideas and experiences that characterized these communities. This article examines the shtetl as a historical phenomenon.
What Exactly Is a Shtetl?
The word “shtetl” is Yiddish, and it means “little town.” Shtetls were small market towns in Russia and Poland that shared a unique socio-cultural community pattern during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Shtetls ranged in size from several hundred to several thousand residents. Forests and fields often surrounded these small towns. Gentiles tended to live outside of the town, while Jews lived in the town proper. The streets were, for the most part, unpaved, the houses constructed of wood. Public spaces included synagogues (often wooden), the beit midrash (study house), shtiblekh (smaller, residential houses of prayer), a Jewish cemetery, Christian churches (Russian Orthodox or Roman Catholic, depending on the location), bathhouses, and, of course, the marketplace.
The Jewish community was typically governed by a community council, a kahal. The kahal oversaw civil and religious affairs, from collecting taxes to dispensing charity. While religion guided daily life, it was not, as is often portrayed, the sole occupation of Jewish males. In reality, the scholarly class was a small, elite segment of society. A majority of shtetl Jews, both men and women, worked to support their families, usually in commercial or artisanal trades, and then, more commonly, as time and industrialization marched on, in factories.
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