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  • Everyday Life and the ShtetlA Historiography
  • Jeffrey Veidlinger (bio)

The idea of the shtetl has become so romanticized in the Jewish imagination of today that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. The shtetl first emerged as a popular setting for fiction in the late nineteenth century, at a time when romantics and populists throughout Europe were valorizing the peasantry and common folk for their alleged purity and for sustaining the national values that were supposedly being corrupted in the urban metropolis, while enlightened reformers used the simple folk as a foil to demonstrate where the nation had gone wrong. Jewish writers had few Jewish peasants and farmers to lionize or satirize and so turned instead to the small-town folk, the shtetl Jews, as an archetype.

It was in the small town that 'common folk' were imagined to lead 'everyday lives', whereas in the city everything was 'extraordinary'. While extraordinary events did occur in small towns, and Jewish luminaries did live in small towns (albeit usually only before leaving for the city), studies of the shtetl have tended to focus on the routine rather than the exceptional and on ordinary folks rather than luminaries. Whether from an economic, social, or cultural perspective, the study of the shtetl is often about what Fernand Braudel termed the 'realm of the routine'.1 Although the study of everyday life is often associated with the Annales school in France or Robert Lynd and Helen Lynd's 1929 study of 'Middletown' in America,2 in the Russian context its origins can also be seen in the type of ethnographic work done in the provinces in the late nineteenth century. In the aftermath of the Great Reforms of the 1860s, scholars and writers across Russia became fascinated with provincial life: some in order to learn about the environment they were seeking to change; others in order to preserve and record a lifestyle that they believed was about to disappear.3 The turn to the shtetl coincided with the mid-nineteenth-century Russian literary emphasis on the provinces and daily life, epitomized by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin's 'Provincial Sketches'.4 [End Page 381]

The shtetl as a concept and as a source of Jewish life owes much of its popularity today to its role in fiction. Small-town Jews figured largely in the stories of Israel Aksenfeld, Sholem Aleichem (Shalom Rabinovitz), Mendele Moykher Sforim (Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh), S. Y. Agnon, and Y. L. Peretz, and the fictional shtetls of Kasrilevke, Kabtsansk, and Tuneyadevke entered the geography of the Jewish world, along with the existing but highly fictionalized town of Chełm. 'Anyone who is familiar with our Russian Poland knows what a little shtetl is', wrote Aksenfeld. 'A little shtetl consists of several small houses. Every second Sunday there is a fair, and the Jews trade in liquor, grain, cloth, and tar.'5 Russian Jewish writers, as well, wrote of the shtetl: N. Naumov-Kogan's 'In a Remote Shtetl', for instance, appeared in the 'thick' journal Vestnik Evropy in 1892 and told of an assimilated Jewish student who returns to his native town as a teacher.6 In these stories, the shtetl is filled with well-meaning but naïve folk, whose simple charm and old ways challenge the modern readership to reflect on the nature of progress.

At the same time, the shtetl (mestechko in Russian; miasteczko in Polish) was beginning to enter the vocabulary of non-Jewish Russian and Polish writers as a Jewish space. Vladimir Korolenko wrote of the 'mestechko in which we lived' with its 'Jewish businesses (gesheftn)' in In Bad Company, and Gogol set The Fair at Sorochyntsi in a mestechko, where Jews and Gypsies intermingled with Ukrainians.7 But the shtetl was not only a literary invention, it was also a reality of life for millions of Jews, a fact recognized by historians, demographers, sociologists, and ethnographers for generations.

The first historians to write about the Jews of eastern Europe from the Wissenschaft des Judentums school did not view the shtetl as a category of analysis. In the relatively little space Heinrich Graetz gave Russia and Poland in his History of the Jews,8 he wrote...


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