The Shtetl Trap
by Jeffrey Shandler
Rutgers University Press, 192 pp., $27.95
by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern
Princeton University Press, 448 pp., $29.95
As its somewhat forbidding title indicates, Jeffrey Shandler’s new book focuses not so much on the Eastern European market town as on the changing ways in which Jews have employed it as “social space to think with,” a ready-made idiom with which to address contemporary concerns. Following a brief section titled “Phenomenon,” on the historical shtetl itself, Shandler traces its evolving image through several centuries and regions. Thus, collapsing time and space, Shandler introduces readers to the 19th-century Hasidim, who adopted the names of their towns (i.e., the Belzer, Chortkover, Gerer, and so forth), thereby imbuing them with sanctity and eventually making them “sites of return journeys for [contemporary] hasidim seeking spiritual enhancement.”
By contrast, he argues, maskilim from Yosef Perl to Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (Mendele Mokher Seforim) transformed the shtetl into a literary abstraction of stultifying provincialism. In their satires, shtetlakh became archetypes with “comical, faux-indigenous names” like Glupsk (in fact, a provincial town, not a shtetl). This is correct as far as it goes, but it fails to note the growing complexity of maskilic attitudes toward the shtetl in the latter part of the 19th century as disillusionment with selective emancipation set in—something one can see, for instance, in the fiction of S.Y. Abramovitsh.