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.


  1. My Yiddish native speaking friend from the Satmar hasidic community in Brooklyn once defined shtetl as “a town that has a marketplace where you can make a living. Anything smaller is a ‘dorf.’” My Grandfather spoke of his town, Orgeyev (Orhei, Moldova) as a “shtot” while my Dad and family refer to it as a “shtetl.” I have been there: it is definitely a shtot.

    As for selling alcohol, Jewish brewers and taverns were so widespread that the 1900 census for the village of Podu Iloiae near Iasi lists one third of the village’s 900 Jews as brewers or tavern owners. My mentor, the Moldavian Yiddish writer Itzik Svarts (1906 – 2002) told me that one of the Iron guard’s accusations against Jews was that they had “alcoholized” the Moldavian peasant by introducing plum trees, buying the fruit and selling it back to them in distilled forms. This makes sense when you read the oldest traveler’s descriptions of Moldavian life from itinerant priests in the 16-18th centuries: they always comment on the sobriety of the Moldavian villagers. Ever been to contemporary Moldavia or Moldova? Today sobriety is not their strong point.

    The first Romanian pogroms in Bukovina in 1912 were conducted almost as a temperance movement against the brandy sellers. Itzik wanted to find a concrete economic explanation for antisemitism, but in his words “the peasants rebelled against the drug dealers.”

  2. SFReader says:

    This was an official position of Russian government as well.

    Jews were regarded as undesirable elements which would undermine and ruin peasant economy, therefore, Jewish settlement outside of former Poland and Ukraine was prohibited.

    Sometime in the second half of 19th century it was discovered that Jews adopted Russian language and culture in large numbers and were really really good at getting an education, which in Tsarist Russia was a ticket to the elite.

    As Russian elite did not want such competition, it answered with tightening existing restrictions on Jews which led many educated Jews to turn to revolution.

  3. Like the Russian administrators who sought to define mestechko [the Russian term], the Jews ignored the significance of demography and statistics.

    This is a slightly strange formulation. I wonder if Petrovsky-Shtern means “ignored demography and statistics”. That would imply that they ignored everything connected with demography and statistics, including their “significance”. I can’t make sense out of the idea that one can pay attention to something (= not ignore it) and yet (deliberately) ignore its significance. The passage would make sense if he’s thinking of the French ignorer meaning “to be unaware of”.

  4. @Stu Clayton: I take it to use “significance of” to mean “what was signified by.” I would never use “significance” in that fashion, but I think I have encountered it before (although perhaps never in prose written by a native English speaker). I can’t access the OED at home, so I haven’t checked to see what it has to say about such a definition.

  5. “What is the signigifance of it all?” — memo attached by Harold Ross to a submitted manuscript by James M. Cain

  6. In my experience “shot” and “shtetl” are largely interchangeable, and contrast, as zaelic notes, not with each other but with dorf, whose residents are primarily engaged in agriculture. But Petrovsky-Shtern’s assertion that “Jews only called their locality a shtetl once they had gotten out of the shtetl” seems like a misrepresentation or misunderstanding, even in the nineteenth century.

    Tavernkeeping, it must be noted, generally went on outside shtetlekh, in the countryside. Like mills, taverns were primarily Jewish-run and meant that a much larger number of Jews (though still a minority) lived in rural settings than is generally imagined.

  7. A misrepresentation or misunderstanding? Have you made a special study of the period 1790-1840 for years, as Petrovsky-Shtern has? I mean, I’m not saying “He’s right and you’re wrong because he wrote a book about it,” but he’s clearly done a tremendous amount of reading in original documents and he explicitly says that his results contradict the generally accepted picture of the shtetl (which is based on the much later, impoverished version celebrated by Sholem Aleichem et al.), so I’m interested in knowing on what you base your dismissal.

  8. I was certainly overly dismissive (hey, it’s an online comment!), and wouldn’t claim to know his field as well as he does. But I’ve read a fair amount of pre-Sholem Aleichem (and pre-Mendele) Yiddish literature, and while his broader point, that these authors invented a nostalgic shtetl is certainly correct, I know that “shtetl” was an unremarkable word to use to describe a… well, a shtetl, before their time, even though it didn’t yet have the Fiddler on the Roof connotations. (I pause to note that Tevye lived in a dorf, not a shtetl. That was basically the most important biographical fact about Tevye.) In any case, you can only judge what “shtetl” meant in 1790-1840 based on Yiddish-language texts, and those happen to be rare in that period. The most prominent one I can think of is the collection of Nachman of Bratslav’s tales, Sipure Mayses and I’m almost certian (i.e., don’t feel like checking now, but should check later) that he (or his amanuensis) uses the term “shtetl” in a conventional manner.

  9. From a linguistic point of view – what’s the big deal?. The Jiddish shtet or shtetl (with maybe a Gmc diminutive -l) is obviously the same as German Stadt or Swedish stad (‘town’ or ‘city’). originally meaning ‘place’ (c.f. Hampstead). And so is the Russian mesto, ‘place’

    As for town I think it’s related to ON (and modern Scandinavian) tun, meaning ‘the fenced area around your house’

  10. The face of our records doesn’t permit certainty, but it’s probable that OE tūn originally meant a settlement of any size. By the 14C, the smaller ones had come to be known by the French word village, leaving town to the larger places. The early OE Erfurt Glossary (preserved there, written in Cologne after a lost English original) glosses the Latin word conpetum as “tuun uel ðrop”, the last being the English cognate of dorf with sporadic metathesis. The ‘enclosed ground’ sense is last recorded in English in 1425 in the Wycliffite Bible translation of Matthew 22:5, “But thei … wenten forth, oon in to his toun [King James Version farme], anothir to his marchaundise.”

    Only one sense of the once comprehensive noun stead (from stand) survives: ‘property in land, farm’ is archaic now, and the main use is in in stead of ‘in lieu of, in the place of’, now almost always written instead of.

  11. I think we could be pretty certain about our modern ’town’ words having their origins in either ’stead’ (where someone or somethings stands) or ‘tun’ (fenced enclosure or immediate surroundings). Semantically tun and gård have the same meaning in Swedish, the latter being the one used in modern language. And this is the word for town in Slavic, grad or (Russian) gorod (with the Slavic faiblesse for metathesis). Yard is the regular English rendering while garden has made a round-trip to France. French jardin is of Gmc (Frankish) origin.

    So the words seem quite old, in one way or the other reflecting our transition from nomads to residents. I might be on thin ice but I believe I’ve read that the final -stan in the name of each and every Central Asian country has the same meaning of a place where some people have settled down (instead of rambling around).

  12. Indeed it does. The immediate source is Persian, but the PIE root is *stā-, which happens to have undergone little or no sound-change in several branches of IE. The AHD4 appendix entry lists an enormous number of English words from this root through many different pathways: steed, stud ‘breeding animal’; stool; estancia, stage, stance, stanch ‘stop bleeding’, stanchion, stanza, stative, stator, stay ‘remain’, stet; arrest, circumstance, constant, contrast, cost, distant, extant, instant, obstacle, obstetric, oust, rest ‘remainder’, restharrow, restive, substance; etamine, stamen, stammel; penstemon; starets; stand, understand; standard; stound; stithy; staddle, stall, starling ‘protective structure’, stalwart; stem ‘stalk, tree trunk’; stalag; estaminet; stead, shtetl; stat ‘immediately”; station; armistice, solstice; stasis; bestead; astasia, astatine; destine; obstinate; estate, étagère, stage, state, statistics, statue, stature, status, statute; constitute, destitute, institute, prostitute, restitute, substitute, superstition; stature; stable ‘animal shelter’, constable; stable ‘not easily moved’; enstatite; assist, consist, desist, exist, insist, interstice, persist, resist, subsist; apostasy, catastasis, diastase, ecstasy, epistasis, epistemology, hypostasis, iconostasis, isostasy, metastasis, prostate, system; histo-; histiocyte, histogram; post ‘stake’; stow; stoa, stoic; store, instauration, restore, staurolite, tauro; stylite; amphistylar, astylar, epistyle, hexastyle, hypostyle, octastyle, peristyle, prostyle, stylobate; stud ‘vertical beam’; starboard, steer ‘direct’; stern ‘rear of a boat’; steer ‘castrated bovine’; stirk.

  13. Impressing, John, real impressing! I’ll stay tuned.. What came into my mind was the name of the city Istanbul, ‘Constantinople’, where Christianity in the Middle East in 1453 finally lost to Islam.

    One of the explanations to the name is the Greek εις την πόλιν (eis ten pólin), ‘in the town’ . Another that it is Turkish islam bol meaning ‘much islam’. Couldn’t we in the Germanic world stick to the viking name Miklagård meaning ‘big place’ (‘mikla’, ‘mikil’ being a cognate to much).

    Talking of big places, the name ‘York’ is originally the viking Jorvik. ‘Jor’ is old Norse for ‘horse’ and ‘vik’ is ‘bay’. So, John, you live in the New Horse Bay, let be that just as many people are living there, (and in London town), as in the whole kingdom of Sweden.

  14. I think the best etymology is none of these, but Stambuli < Konstantinopolis, with Turkish epenthetic /i/. The Greek suffix -polis appears in Turkish place names as -bolu, not -bul. The name as-Stambouli is a known Arabic surname, presumably given to those who were in at the conquest of Constantinople. As for Mickleyard, there is no mention of it in any Old English source, though it’s plausible enough, and in one of Tolkien’s earliest writings he speaks of “Micelgeard the Heartless Town”.

    Old York, unlike New York, is not on a bay, and the name Jórvík is the result of a double dose of folk etymology: it was originally Place of the Yews to the British/Welsh and then Boar-town to the English. Indeed, both my names as well as the name of my dwelling place are ultimately derived from the yew tree; read the whole subthread down through “Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?”

  15. David Marjanović says:

    Huh. What happened to my comment?

    shtetl (with maybe a Gmc diminutive -l)

    Definitely so.

    BTW, the weird German spelling with -dt is from 16th-/17th-century Dutch, where -dt was used to indicate final fortition to /t/ of morphological |d|. Ever since the High German consonsonant shift, High German has underlying |t| there; and indeed the spelling Statt exists, but is only used metaphorically, adverbially even (statt, anstatt “instead”; obsolescent an seiner Statt “in his stead”, Heimstatt “home”).

    As for town I think it’s related to ON (and modern Scandinavian) tun, meaning ‘the fenced area around your house’

    Fun fact: the German cognate Zaun means exclusively “fence”.

    the Slavic faiblesse for metathesis

    This one is fully regular: you find -ar- in what is now northwestern Poland (Białogard, Stargard Szczeciński…), -oro- in East Slavic, and -ra- elsewhere.

    The immediate source is Persian,

    The ultimate source, however, is Rājasthān according to… something I once read… somewhere. :-/

    the PIE root is *stā-

    It’s *stah₂-. This is not merely derived from the hypothesis that PIE didn’t allow roots to end in a vowel, but it’s required to explain the /tʰ/ in Sanskrit and its descendants.

    What came into my mind was the name of the city Istanbul

    The most convincing explanation I’ve read is that it consists of the stressed syllables of ή Κονστάντινου πόλις, which is attested (sorry for the anachronistic accents…) in the last few centuries before the conquest and was apparently becoming more common.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, my comment is awaiting moderation. Twice now. Sorry.


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