The 100 Yiddish Words Everyone Should Know: Shtetl

If you've seen "Fiddler on the Roof," and who hasn't, you've seen a shtetl, which in English just means "little town." "Fiddler" features the impoverished shtetl they call Anatevka, consisting of a Jewish section with some squalid houses, a merchant's section, and a little wooden  synagogue, and a Christian section, consisting of some squalid houses, a somewhat nicer Eastern Orthodox church, and a building with a few local officials.

American Jews all tend to think they must come from shtetls. We don't learn much about our European past, and so we tend to use "Fiddler" to fill in the gaps. We especially suffer due to an older (and now almost completely gone) first generation of immigrants who were notoriously recalcitrant to discuss the subject. You'd press them on their lives before America and they would wave a hand dismissively and say, eh, it's the old world, who needs to talk about it?

As a result, a lot of us just sort of think we came from Jewish towns in Russia that occasionally suffered attacks from Cossacks, and a lot of us don't really know what a Cossack is, except they were some sort of early breakdancers. We know marriages were arranged by yentas in the shtetls. We know these shtetls were Yiddish speaking, and very Orthodox, and that men danced with bottles on their heads. And we know that at some point things got bad and we had to come to America, and that was life in Europe.

All these things were true, to some extent, except the matchmakers being called yentas -- they were called shadchans. Yenta was just the name of the character played by Molly Picon in the film, and it's not a very nice thing to call someone.

But all the things we think we know about shtetls were also not true, to an extent. For instance, most of us didn't come from Russia, and we get confused because the places we did come from were under Russian control from the late 1700s on, and so that's what our ancestors put as their nationality when they came here. Russia controlled an enormous part of Eastern and Central Europe, called the Pale of Settlement, and they called it this because here is where they encouraged Jews to settle, while discouraging them from settling in Russia, although there were some Jewish communities in the west of the country. The Pale of Settlement included parts of  Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Moldova, Latvia, and Ukraine. Even Anatevka, the shtetl from "Fiddler," is not in Russia -- it's Ukrainian.

There is more that we get wrong about shtetls. Rather than being all-Jewish hamlets, they often had a majority gentile population, and many of them were factory towns rather that the rustic agrarian village of Tevye the Dairyman. And rather than being pockets of isolated Jewish piousness, they were often market towns, and could be surprisingly worldly. In fact, shtetl residents often made fun of Jews from small rural villages in the way that my New York cousins made fun of their hayseed relatives from Minneapolis, never mind that Minneapolis isn't a small town and never mind that the hayseed relative was me.

And so it goes, fact upon shtetl fact that we get wrong. If you're an American Jew, there's a pretty good chance your ancestors did not live in a shtetl, but in a big city. If you did have shtetl ancestors, they may not have been especially religious, as there was a Jewish enlightenment called the Haskalah. Or they may have been religious, but from a weird sect that nobody in the family discusses anymore, like the Frankists, who followed the Polish false messiah Jacob Frank in the 18th century. And instead of being attacked by Cossacks, your ancestors might have been Cossacks, like the  Israilovsky Regiment, which consisted of nothing but Jews and was founded with the intention of invading Israel.

History is complicated, too complicated to piece together from grandparents who refused to discuss the subject. Instead, we have sort of buffed down the edges of history into a simplified tale of shtetl Judaism, and, as a result, the shtetl still looms large in Jewish imaginations. They're the stories we got: Shtetls were popular subjects in Yiddish literature, sometimes as folkloric centers of Jewish identity, sometimes as corrupt bastions of small-mindedness. Shtetls were awfully useful, from a literary perspective. 

As a result, it sometimes seems like the shtetl was less a real place and more a metonym for the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe. It's as though Americans went abroad and insisted to everyone that every single one of their ancestors came from Buford, Wyoming, and all our literature was set in Buford, and our art consisted of dreamlike images of cowboys playing banjos on the tops of barns or flying through the air over a lonesome prairie. As a result, Steven T. Katz's book "The Shtetl: New Evaluations" calls these European towns "probably the greatest invention of modern Jewish imagination." We needed to come from somewhere, after all, and none of our grandparents were willing to discuss Frankist orgies in Częstochowa. So we all became Fiddlers on Eastern European shtetl roofs.

American Jews may not actually be shtetl Jews, but, in our hearts, we're shtetl Jews. The Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, is designed to recall a shtetl. The Jewish press likes to refer to isolated communities of Hasidim living in upstate New York as American shtetls. When opera singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell traveled performing Yiddish songs last year, news articles said he was reviving the music of the shtetl. Never mind that Russell's repertoire was largely drawn from the music of Leningrad State Opera's former basso, Sidor Belarskym, who lived and frequently performed in the tiny shtetl of Los Angeles. The Canadian Yiddish web series Yidlife crisis has a partner series called Global Shtetl, where they visit Yiddish-flavored communities throughout the world. So far, they have been to such small Jewish towns as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and London.

So you see, that's how it is for us. Even when things aren't shtetl, we think they are shtetl. 

Some uses of the word shtetl:

Shtetl in My Mind, Martin A. David: "Even the Jewish communities springing up on the Internet carry on the spirit of the shtetl. In these electronic shtetls all and none are strangers. The spirit of community is woven together by people who may have never seen each other's faces." 

KALISZ: A journey of return, Rosalind Brenner: "This was his shtetl, the only place he was accustomed to. Each of the narrow roads led to the park, which opened to the village square, a bustling market place, except on Saturdays, of course, when nearly all the Jews went to shule" 

36 Letters, Joan Sohn: "JewishGen organizes tours for 'shtetl schleppers,' people who are looking for their roots in the towns where their families lived for generations. They often feel fortunate to find even an intact cemetery, because the Jews are gone."