Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Golden Age: Shtetl: a new history of Jewish life in East Europe by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

This is a lively well researched, well written history of 18th and 19th century Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement.  It is a lesson that teaches the truth about "the Fiddler on the Roof".  It clarifies exactly what was a Shettle.  It is certainly more than an "Anatevka"!  Professor Petrovsky-Shtern teaches us that most of our understanding of Shtetl life has been falsely idealized and simplified through that famous Broadway show and movie.  He sets the reader straight with copious evidence of the vibrant life and close relationships between the Jews and the Polish gentry and the Polish peasantry.  He reminds us that the Jewish settlement in Pale was a majority culture that was not afraid to stand up and fight back, a community that did not play the victim!

 He shows the evidence of the Jewish trade, Jewish monopolies, and Jewish middlemen to protect the Polish Gentry's investments.  It's a life of feudalism that is advantageous for the Jewish community between the Polish upper class and peasantry.

He shows that with industrialization that comes with the partitions of Poland, the Jewish people are now at a loss on how to relate to a centralized government that views the community as a project to ameliorate. After so many years of independence and autonomy the Jewish community struggles to maintain the status quo unsuccessfully.  Industrialization destroys the Shettle economy and trade and forces the Jewish people to find work in the big cities.  The centralized state smashes the autonomy of the Jewish community!

The Professor's style is rhythmic and lively exhibiting much research and learning.   This is a very excellent, readable textbook on Jewish life in Modern Eastern Europe.

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