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.
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.
"[The Golden Age Shtetl] is a colorful, exhaustively researched study of a period when Jews were fully at home in shtetl life."--Publishers Weekly
"Petrovsky-Shtern 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. . . . Petrovsky-Shtern's book is lively and entertaining. A welcome study that is by turns picturesque and scholarly, startling and accessible."--Kirkus
"Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern . . . has written a work that should be required reading for all those interested in, perplexed by or driven to madness by this subject. The produce of prodigious archival research, primary source materials and mastery of numerous languages, The Golden Age Shtetl tells a history that has rarely been transmitted in scholarly books, around the dinner table or even in Yiddish literature."--Jonathan Brent, Moment Magazine
"[T]he author's 15 years of research, 355 pages of lively writing and archival photos more than achieve his goal of recreating 'a three-dimensional, colorful and picturesque shtetl.'"--Neal Gendler, American Jewish World
"If earlier accounts of the shtetl, such as Zborowski's Life Is With People, described it as 'not a place but a state of mind,' then Petrovsky-Shtern's work restores a physicality or material reality to the shtetl. Here are a series of locations with a real history, as opposed to a 'timeless existence.' And, along with other modern historians, Petrovsky-Shtern gives us a context to understand the places where many of our grandparents and great-grandparents came from."--Aaron Howard, Jewish Herald Voice
Table of Contents:
INTRODUCTION What’s in a Name? 1
CHAPTER ONE Russia Discovers Its Shtetl 29
CHAPTER TWO Lawless Freedom 57
CHAPTER THREE Fair Trade 91
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