The mythical Anatevka of “Fiddler on the Roof” has conjured up enduring shtetl sights and sounds for three generations of Jews (and non-Jews) worldwide who remain in the thrall of the blockbuster musical and its central character, Tevye, the put-upon dairyman who seems the absolute embodiment of all its woes.
Theatergoers, movie viewers, and devotees of “Fiddler” recordings connect deeply to the bittersweet amalgam of Sholem Aleichem stories about a village under stress and a Tevye broken and bewildered by the decrees of the czar, the growing feistiness of his wife and daughters, the unchecked violence of the Cossacks, and the seeming fickleness of the Almighty to his variety of plights.
Great theater, yes, but not quite the historical real deal.
Fortunately, a vastly more focused picture of shtetldom is supplied by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, a professor of Jewish studies at Northwestern University. His expansive and formidably researched “New History of Jewish Life in Eastern Europe” provides the perfect counterweight to the intense emotionality of “Fiddler.”
Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern shares both the micro and macro of the hundreds of shtetls comprising the Pale of Settlement during the century before “Fiddler,” which was set in the 1880s. These communities were essentially geographic hybrids, containing elements of both villages and towns and serving as bridges between them. They were defined demographically for revenue purposes, first by Polish nobles and then by Russian bureaucrats.
Shtetls constituted a thriving arc of entrepots – duty-free trading posts – between western Europe and interior Russia and pulsed as centers of commerce and contraband. Their inhabitants were resilient and resourceful, mainly but not exclusively Jewish. Anatevka once belonged in this robust category, but when Tevye decamped to America (at the same time, incidentally, when my mother left Ukraine as an infant), they had been ground down by a ruthless and cunning campaign of the czars and their satraps.
Instead of using these geographic entities as progressive models for a Russian society still mired in serfdom, rulers from Catherine to Nicholas II chose a much darker course. Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern notes the cruel irony that just as shtetls reached the narrow window of a “golden age,” which he defines as between 1790 and 1840, the seeds of their destruction were being sown in St. Petersburg.
The campaign was fueled by a xenophobic and resurgent Russian nationalism targeting Catholic nobles and the Jews who served them in newly appropriated territories. These populations had been absorbed during three partitions of the Polish kingdom between 1772 and 1795, and later, chunks of Ukraine had been added. (Does that sound ominously current?)
Suddenly, the czars were confronted with sizable cohorts of non-Eastern Orthodox subjects, along with up to 1.2 million Jews. The rub was how to Russify these outliers and break the grip of an almost-feudal symbiosis between the Polish nobles, known as magistrates, and the Jewish traders, merchants, and craftsmen in their service. The arrangement, though hardly equitable, endured for centuries and seemed to benefit both parties.
Magistrates owned the shtetls’ land and buildings, issuing edicts, levying taxes, and dispensing justice unilaterally. Jews produced, distributed or traded everything from vodka to vellum and conducted the festive but highly competitive fairs and marketplaces at which all manner of goods were sold or bartered. (Gentiles remained dumbfounded that Jews distilled the vodka but didn’t drink it.)
Jews also functioned as the premier innkeepers for the crowds thronging marketplaces. Their dwellings often contained rooms, stables, and vending stalls under one roof. Most Jewish inhabitants were industrious, pious (some exuberantly chasidic, others formatively Zionistic), and generally conformed to the decisions of the kahal, or community umbrella organization. Shtetlkeit, however, hardly was free of gossip, jealousies, infidelities, or brawling.
With so many political, social, economic, and religious currents in play, Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern concentrates on the fates of the inhabitants in Volhynia, Podolia, and Kiev provinces, compromising the new leading edge of imperial Russia and fleshing out the Pale of Settlement’s geographic contours. His narrative roams as freely as the vast geography he covers.
Catherine the Great became the first ruler to deal with the new realities of borders and population. She surveyed her expanded realm and immediately targeted the Polish landowners as internal threats. Yet she felt more maternalistic toward their Jewish charges, and to her way of thinking, acted with restraint toward them.
Catherine’s mercantile policies and her paranoia about European enlightenment ideals contaminating the motherland soon resulted in huge tariffs, closed borders, open smuggling, and the first disruption to the ebbs and flows of shtetl life. The quotidian, predictable rhythms of this unique and exuberant existence were squeezed by ambitions for an uber Russia on a footing with the other great powers.
Polish magistrates were stripped of their estates or forced to sell them for a song after falling prey to newly competing pseudo-shtetls and workshops set up in the interior of the country. Jews now had to report each commercial transaction to the czar’s representatives or deal with a corrupt police chief or the fickle Russian courts. A whole new set of intermediaries had been superimposed as the Polish legacy was being dismantled.
At least in the early decades of Russian rule, the Jewish population tried to prove its fidelity to their new masters. During the Napoleonic invasion they subscribed heavily to the Russian cause since they could not serve in the army. This was especially true of urban Jews and first-guild merchants with the financial wherewithal to do so.
By the late 1820s, Nicholas I began conscripting Jews in an attempt to further stamp them with a Russian identity. In the 1830s, censorship was imposed on Jewish printers and only two houses were allowed to continue the trade. Jews were nimble and inquisitive, though, so books were passed on or bootleg copies smuggled in great quantities. Indeed, smuggling in all sectors of shtetl life seemed to increase in direct proportion to Russian restrictions and interdiction.
By the 1840s, the kahals, or community Jewish councils, had ceased to function.Jews whose shtetls had failed (by design) were limited in resettlement rights to other shtetls only, thus increasing a spiral of distress and despair. Education “reforms” were promulgated to further erode and blur ethnic and religious uniqueness. In 1861 serfs throughout the empire were freed by Alexander II, sending a surge of Ukrainians into the shtetls as competitors to the already hard-pressed residents.
The uneasy “triangulation” of Russian, Jewish, and Polish interests unleashed and exposed the tensions of a giant entity falling woefully short of its parts. Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern quotes Moshe Rosman, a new scholar of Polish Jewry, as saying “the Lord’s Jews,” or the Polish magnates’ Jews, were now being turned into Russian imperial Jews, and the results were dismaying
Today many of these shtetls are either gone or given Russia, Polish, or Ukrainian identities. Wars, both hot and cold, revolutions, and redrawing of boundaries have further muddied the historical timelines. However, the names of Belogodka, Brailov, Kamenets-Podolsk, Slavuta, Talezhyntsi and countless others remain intriguing to ethnographers, historians, and family researchers.
Add Anatevka to the roster if you like. Petrovsy-Shtern wouldn’t object. He is, after all, in the business of increasing our connection and concern about shtetldom in a way that compliments rather than contradicts “Fiddler.” The echoes of “To Life” will always reverberate from these fascinating locales.