The Golden Age – Shtetl


The Goden Age – Shtetl
A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe
By Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern
Princeton University Press – £22.95

”After all, ”shtetl” as a word is nothing but a cultural artifact, a caprice of collective memory. It signifies a vanished Jewish Atlantis, a yearning for a distant and utopian national culture and for the redeeming traditional values of east European Jerusalem, that ”holy community” that we tend to strip of corporeality and then sugercoat its imaginary residue. This book fleshes out the shtetl and adds some salt to it” (What’s In A Name?/A Locust Of Action’).

What with the media’s current, nigh utopian uproar due to the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone’s brash braggadocio flim-flam with regards Judaism yesterday (May 28th); I thought it might be an idea to try and perhaps replenish some of the hope, if not a mere kernel of inspiration that the Jewish faith has bequeathed over the last few thousand years.

The history of which, if truth be told, goes back a tad further than that of the Labour Party. But what do I know?

The Golden Age Shtetl – A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe does much to re-instill a modicum of belief in said history, that, so far as the shtetl is concerned, is something of a lost (economic) paradise that reeked of colossal potential: ”this book brings the reader into the shtetl and the shtetl to the reader on a journey through the high moments of shtetl life, exposing the world that Russia, Poland, and Ukraine irretrievably lost.”

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern is indeed right.

Other than the distant, musical trajectory of Fiddler On The Roof (a village where ”anything made of stone […] the church, a factory, the administration offices – was clearly not Jewish, except, of course, the tombstones. The hand-polished copper candlesticks and samovars of the inhabitants of Anatevka shone like rare treasures in that sepia world of decay”), the life of the shtetl has indeed been lost amid a world of horribly myopic foresight.

Or extreme lack of, which may account for just one of the many reasons one may feel compelled to investigate this book’s ten chapters (with such beguiling titles as ‘Russia Discovers Its Shtetl,’ ‘The Right to Drink,’ ‘A Violent Dignity’ along with ‘Crime, Punishment, and a Promise of Justice’).

An intuitive read, which Israel Bartal – author of The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772-1881 – describes as turning ”upside down the nostaligic image of the shtetl as a decaying Jewish village, presenting the historical shtetl as a place where Jews enjoyed prosperity and stability. Drawing on huge archival evidence, this pathbreaking study challenges our historical mind and provides an innovative account of the Jewish experience in nineteenth-century Russia.”

Aligned throughout with rare archival photographs and artwork, this more than nuanced history casts the shtetl itself in an altogether new light; revealing how its influential golden age continues to shape the collective memory of Jewish people to the present day. As Petrovsky-Shtern writes in chapter nine’s ‘If I Forget Thee’: ”Jews naturally preserved the image of the shtetl, bemoaned the loss of the East European Jewish town in the fires of war and revolution, and cherished the quest for its remnants, the ethnographic expeditions of the early twentieth century, because the shtetls were the Volhynia dwellings of Jacob and the Podolioa tents of Israel. Although the Balaia Tserkov or Shepetovka were ordinary Ukrainian towns, the presence of a Jewish ”holy community” infused these towns with a sense of holiness. Every Jew from the shtetl knew that the shtetl was no Jerusalem, and yet everybody knew that there was a spark of Jerusalem in the shtetl.”

It’s just such a spark that continues to linger and light the way, if not the day of elegaic enlightenment. So take note Comrade Livingstone, who himself, might want to have a read of this charming and well-documented book himself.

David Marx


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