The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe [NOOK Book]


The shtetl was home to two-thirds of East Europe’s Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, yet it has long been one of the most neglected and misunderstood chapters of the Jewish experience. This book provides the first grassroots social, economic, and cultural history of the shtetl. Challenging popular misconceptions of the shtetl as an isolated, ramshackle Jewish village stricken by poverty and pogroms, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern argues that, in its heyday from the 1790s to the 1840s, the shtetl was a ...

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

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The shtetl was home to two-thirds of East Europe’s Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, yet it has long been one of the most neglected and misunderstood chapters of the Jewish experience. This book provides the first grassroots social, economic, and cultural history of the shtetl. Challenging popular misconceptions of the shtetl as an isolated, ramshackle Jewish village stricken by poverty and pogroms, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern argues that, in its heyday from the 1790s to the 1840s, the shtetl was a thriving Jewish community as vibrant as any in Europe.

Petrovsky-Shtern brings this golden age to life, looking at dozens of shtetls and drawing on a wealth of never-before-used archival material. The shtetl, in essence, was a Polish private town belonging to a Catholic magnate, administratively run by the tsarist empire, yet economically driven by Jews. Petrovsky-Shtern shows how its success hinged on its unique position in this triangle of power--as did its ultimate suppression. He reconstructs the rich social tapestry of these market towns, showing how Russian clerks put the shtetl on the empire’s map, and chronicling how shtetl Jews traded widely, importing commodities from France, Austria, Prussia, and even the Ottoman Empire. Petrovsky-Shtern describes family life; dwellings, trading stalls, and taverns; books and religious life; and the bustling marketplace with its Polish gentry, Ukrainian peasants, and Russian policemen.

Illustrated throughout with rare archival photographs and artwork, this nuanced history casts the shtetl in an altogether new light, revealing how its golden age continues to shape the collective memory of the Jewish people today.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Shtetls (small towns with large Jewish populations) are popularly remembered as places where the Jews who lived there were considered pious, powerless, and poor and where the pace of life was set by the Sabbath, festivals, and holy days. Petrovsky-Shtern (Jewish Studies, Northwestern Univ.; Lenin's Jewish Question) argues that this fallacy is drawn from the era of the shtetl's decline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries after the tsarist government, administratively responsible for the towns, destroyed the local economy. Rather than a place of poverty and weak industry, the shtetl, during its heyday from roughly 1790 to 1840, was a dynamic engine of economic life. Jews living there dominated liquor manufacturing and made up the majority of innkeepers and guild merchants. Petrovsky-Shtern marshals an impressive array of archival and literary sources to reconstruct the licit and illicit economy of the towns, the family life of the residents, and their patterns of consumption—including alcohol and book purchases. VERDICT General readers may find the first chapter about legal definitions somewhat slow going. Past that point, however, the vibrancy of shtetl life in the days before it was destroyed by the Russian state comes through vividly. This book should appeal to anyone interested in Jewish or Eastern European history.—Frederic Krome, Univ. of Cincinnati Clermont Coll.
The New York Times Book Review - Jonathan Rosen
…if he sometimes works too hard to push over the old straw shtetl in favor of one that "at its height was afraid of nothing," Petrovsky-Shtern also succeeds in vividly evoking a Jewish world that survived not merely in spite of its neighbors but in complex collaboration with them. There is a reason much of this has been forgotten. The golden-age shtetl lies at the heart of what the historian Timothy Snyder calls "the bloodlands," a region that was a central battleground in the war against the Jews. Which makes The Golden Age Shtetl a moving feat of cultural reclamation and even, in its way, an act of quiet heroism.
Publishers Weekly
Neither a comprehensive history of Eastern European Jewish life or the shtetl, Petrovsky-Shtern, professor of Jewish Studies at Northwestern Univ., focuses on three provinces—Volhynia, Podolia, and Kiev—of the then Russian Empire during what he deems the golden age period, 1790–1840, when the shtetl was “the unique habitat of some 80 percent of East European Jews.” Here are portraits of Jewish life in small towns and cities quite different from those Sholom Aleichem immortalized in Fiddler on the Roof, where Jews lived in “an impoverished yet God-fearing dwelling place” afflicted by Russian pogroms. In this account, Russian authorities had a “relatively benevolent attitude” toward Jews. While some Jews were poor, others thrived as traders, owning stalls at fairs that, in the city of Berdichev, featured a casino, horse races, and trapeze artists. Petrovsky-Shtern also notes how important Jews were in selling liquor and owning taverns, introducing us to shtetl criminals and surveying Jewish folklore relating to the Land of Israel (such as tunnels under houses supposedly leading to Jerusalem). At times Petrovsky-Shtern gets bogged down in anecdotal detail, but this is a colorful, exhaustively researched study of a period when Jews were fully at home in shtetl life. 50 photos, 1 map. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"The Golden Age Shtetl should . . . fascinate the curious lay readers and scholarly specialist alike. Its strength is that it neither romanticizes nor vilifies the shtetl, and conforms to no ideological agenda; instead, shtetl Jews emerge from its numerous anecdotes as simply and deeply human."—Andrew N. Koss, Mosaic Magazine

"Petrovsky-Shtern's chapters on the vital economies of smuggling and alcohol production and distribution, and on the use of violence in shtetl society and Jewish crime and Russian justice, are full of mesmerizing stories and are gratifying to all who have long suspected that there was something not quite right with the conventional portrayal of the shtetl Jews as sheep. Where there are sheep there are wolves, and Petrovsky-Shtern shows that plenty of the wolves were Jewish. . . . [A] hugely entertaining, informative work."—Susanne Klingenstein, Weekly Standard

Kirkus Reviews
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400851164
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 3/30/2014
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: Course Book
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 159,154
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern is the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies at Northwestern University. His books include "Lenin’s Jewish Question", "The Anti-Imperial Choice: The Making of the Ukrainian Jew", and "Jews in the Russian Army, 1827-1917: Drafted into Modernity".
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Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION What’s in a Name? 1
CHAPTER ONE Russia Discovers Its Shtetl 29
CHAPTER TWO Lawless Freedom 57
CHAPTER FOUR The Right to Drink 121
CHAPTER FIVE A Violent Dignity 151
CHAPTER SIX Crime, Punishment, and a Promise of Justice 181
CHAPTER SEVEN Family Matters 213
CHAPTER EIGHT Open House 243
CHAPTER NINE If I Forget Thee 273
CHAPTER TEN The Books of the People 305
CONCLUSION The End of the Golden Age 341
Abbreviations 357
Notes 361
Acknowledgments 417
Index 421

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