I happened on a reference to The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern and took advantage of Amazon’s “Sample the beginning of this book for free” offer, and having read the introduction I’m now eager to read the book itself. It’s one of those books — like Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 (LH post) and Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (LH post), both covering the Polish/Ukrainian/Russian territory that has suffered so much from history and is the focus of this book — that change the way you think about the history of a substantial part of the world. As you can tell from the title, Petrovsky-Shtern’s focus is on the shtetl, except that they didn’t call it that when it was in what he terms its golden age, from the 1790s to the 1840s, when it was a thriving type of community (taken over by the Russian Empire from Polish “private towns”) in which Jews ran the economy (fairs, markets, taverns). As I wrote over at XIX век, it provides essential background for understanding the Ukrainian and Belorussian communities early-19th-century Russian novelists wrote about; I thought especially of Narezhny (LH post), with his peasant communities whose economic focus is a prosperous Jewish tavern-keeper. Here are some passages from the introduction:
Jews only called their locality a shtetl once they had gotten out of the shtetl. […] For loyal shtetl dwellers, the word shtetl was too charged with pejorative and condescending meanings. God forbid a traveling Jewish merchant from Brody would tell the Jews of Medvedovka that they lived in a shtetl, or even worse, a shtetele. […] They lived in a town, a shtot—nothing less. […] Like the Russian administrators who sought to define mestechko [the Russian term], the Jews ignored the significance of demography and statistics. What mattered to the Jews was not the size of the place but what the Jews did there. […] If they had a scribe there, a rabbi in charge of marriages and divorces, two knowledgeable Jews serving on the rabbinic court, and could issue a sophisticated document, this was definitely a town, a formidable center of Jewish life. […]
Today we readily call any locality in East Europe where Jews once lived a shtetl, although the Jews who lived there two hundred years ago called it a town and the Russian bureaucrats called it a mestechko. The shtetl thus absorbs various meanings and the tension between them: the Polish legal and economic private town, the Russian administrative mestechko, and the Jewish religious “holy community.” It was precisely the combination of these factors that created the triangle of power, shared by Poles, Jews, and Russians—that shaped the shtetl golden age. […]
Any number of trading Jews sufficed to make a shtetl insofar as they dominated within the corresponding trading or urban estate. This book calls a settlement a shtetl if it had elements of the old Polish leaseholding economy, an established trade and a marketplace, and a liquor trade—all run predominantly by Jews, who paid taxes to the Russian state treasury and bribes to the Russian police, and who organized themselves into a traditional Jewish community. That multiethnic settlement was a shtetl. […]
Had Russia come to grips with the shtetls’ character and activity, its relations with its Jews would have taken a different path. This did not happen. Political and ideological interests had the upper hand over common sense, and the shtetl found itself at the epicenter of a longlasting if latent war between the Russians and the Poles. Since the Russians were playing the game on their own territory, they won, at the expense of interethnic tolerance and the golden age shtetl.
The story has a sad end, but it sounds well worth reading.