Reviews

The Shtetl Trap


Shtetl: A Vernacular Intellectual History

by Jeffrey Shandler

Rutgers University Press, 192 pp., $27.95

 

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

by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

Princeton University Press, 448 pp., $29.95

Try Out a Bonus Feature from the JRB App!

See a film with Yiddish star Molly Picon.

Download the JRB app to access all bonus features.

Mobile App

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.”

Jewish Wedding

Jewish Wedding by A. Trankowski, ca. 1875–1900. (Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Fritz Schmerl, in memory of Professor Hamilton Wolf, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, University of California, Berkeley, 75.19.)

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.

This article is locked

Subscribe now for immediate and unlimited access to Web + Print + App + Archive
  • Already a subscriber? Log in to continue reading.
  • Not quite ready to subscribe? Register now for your choice of 3 FREE articles per quarter.
  • Already a registered user? Log in here.

About the Author

ChaeRan Y. Freeze is an associate professor of Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis University. Her most recent book, co-written with Jay M. Harris, is Everyday Jewish Life in Imperial Russia: Select Documents, 1772–1914.

Comments

hurwitzedith on June 20, 2014 at 11:20 am
aT bOOKLYN cOLLEGE i DID A RESEARCH PAPER ON tHE sHETLE AND THE KIBBUTZ AND HOW SIMILAR THEY WERE. i ONLY HAD zABOWSKI AND hERZOG IN THE FIFTIES. hOW ENLIGHTENING IT IS TO REVIEW ALL THE DOCUMENTATION THAT "pETROVSKYsHETERN,S BOOK PROVIDES"iTS EQUALLY IMPORTANT TO HAVE THE OVERALL VIEW OF sCHALER'S FINE SYNTHSIS TO COMPLMENT IT.
charles.hoffman on July 31, 2014 at 8:57 am
after years living in the US, my father reflected on the shtetl where he'd been raised:

"It was a one-horse town; 'til somebody ate the horse"

Looking back on poverty and deprivation with nostalgia is the sign of a life with no hope in its future.

Want to post a comment? Please register or log in.

Most Read

What Jesus Wasn’t: Zealot

When Fox News' Lauren Green asked Reza. . .

Conservative Judaism: A Requiem

In 1971, 41 percent of American Jews. . .

Editors' Picks

Paradox or Pluralism?

Walzer’s paradox of liberation, if. . .

Lucky Grossman

Vasily Grossman was one of the principal. . .

The Future Past Perfect

Treasure and tragedy in the letters of. . .

In The Next JRB

  • Matti Friedman on Sons and Soldiers
  • Rachel Biale on We Were the Future
  • Bernard Wasserstein on Mark Mazower What You Did Not Tell
  • And more...
Copyright © 2017 Jewish Review of Books. All Rights Reserved. | Site by W&B