Jewish Review of Books

Underground Man: The Curious Case of Mark Zborowski and the Writing of a Modern Jewish Classic

By Steven J. Zipperstein
Summer 2010

The most influential of all popular renderings of Eastern European Jewry in the English language and, arguably, the book that Jewish historians of the region loathe more than any other, is Life is with People. Few books written in the last half-century have more resolutely enveloped the Eastern European Jewish past in nostalgic amber. It was, to be sure, only one of a cascade of books, some of them translated from Yiddish, that sought to do much the same thing in the midst or the immediate wake of Hitler's war, among them Maurice Samuel's The World of Shalom Aleichem, Bella Chagall's memoir Burning Lights, Abraham Joshua Heschel's elegy The Earth is the Lord's, and Roman Vishniac's book of photographs Polish Jews. But Life is with People was the most ambitious of the lot. Published in 1952, it sought to capture an entire civilization from cradle to grave in 400-odd pages of accessible, even buoyant prose. The world it explored was, it insisted, continuous with—but also distinct from—everything around it, not quite part of Russia or Poland yet inside both, a kind of island of unadulterated Yiddishkayt before it was diluted, then destroyed. 

The book—originally subtitled "The Jewish Little-Town in Eastern Europe" and altered once it appeared in paperback in the early 1960s to "The Culture of the Shtetl"—concentrates on the essence of this culture, which, as it sees it, was the "shtetl." Shtetl is Yiddish for small market-town, and Life is with People examines shtetls not in their considerable variety but as instances of a single ideal type presented in the present tense, as if it still existed.

The book's enduring appeal (it went through several editions, sold more than 100,000 copies, and is out of print now for the first time in almost 60 years) can probably be traced to its sweetness; its blend of collective genealogy and ethnographic Jewish lore. It is the rare commemoration that leaves the reader feeling good, even though the world it depicts has been obliterated. Its tone is conversational, and it takes the reader through the rhythms, the sounds of the Jewish week starting with the Sabbath, and on to schooldays, workdays (depicted, despite the pervasive poverty of Eastern European Jewry, mostly in cheery tones), marriages, circumcisions, and deaths. It is an ethnography that is also a "how-to" book ("Prayers are accompanied by a rocking movement, from the waist to the toes"), and yet one that understands how to satisfy its readers by doing little more than nudge them toward an unobtrusive voyeurism.

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