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A Concise History of the Shtetl

A Concise History of the Shtetl

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The Mir Shtetl
The Mir Shtetl

The image of the shtetl is often synonymous with Jewish Eastern European life. Shtetl is Yiddish for “town,” and refers to the small pre-WWII towns in Eastern Europe with a significant Yiddish-speaking Jewish population. Jews occupied a large percentage of the shtetl, and were often the majority. They worked as shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, carpenters and water carriers, and Jewish life flourished. Families would live in the same shtetl for generations, forming close-knit communities.

Women and children in the shtetl of Czortkow, Ukraine. (photo: Alter Kacyzne)
Women and children in the shtetl of Czortkow, Ukraine. (photo: Alter Kacyzne)

How the Shtetl Was Born

The beginnings of shtetl life go back hundreds of years, to before the 17th century, which saw the greatest growth of shtetls. Formed in the territories of the old Polish Commonwealth, shtetls were originally estates of the landed nobility. Jews were encouraged to settle there to boost economic growth. Many of the settlers had come from western and central Poland, which were rife with antisemitism. Even after the disintegration of the estates, the Jews remained.

A Polish shtetl in the winter
A Polish shtetl in the winter

What You’d See

In addition to humble hovels, gardens and shops, the Jewish shtetl was distinguished by a number of special institutions:

Shul: The synagogue was a center of Jewish life. Men would gather in the synagogue early in the morning and late at night for prayers, a Torah class and some neighborhood chitchat.

The shul in Zabłudów, Poland. (photo: Mathias Bersohn)
The shul in Zabłudów, Poland. (photo: Mathias Bersohn)

Cheder: In a society where even the nobility was often illiterate, Jews stood out as a people committed to educating their young. Cheder, which means “room” in Hebrew, was a one-room-school house where young boys would learn to read Hebrew and study Bible, Talmud and Jewish law.

A cheder for boys in Dlugosiodlo. (photo: Alter Kacyzne)
A cheder for boys in Dlugosiodlo. (photo: Alter Kacyzne)

A cheder for girls in Laskarzew, Lublin. (photo: Alter Kacyzne)
A cheder for girls in Laskarzew, Lublin. (photo: Alter Kacyzne)

Hekdesh: Caring for guests takes a central place in Jewish life. As such, many shtetls supported a hekdesh (Hebrew for “sacred [place]”), where wayfarers and other indigents could find lodgings when in need.

Beit Din Shtibl: Jewish life in the shtetl was regulated by Torah law. Business disputes, divorces and other legal matters would be brought to the learned men in the Beit Din Shtibl (courthouse) for resolution.

Free loan society in Ciechanow, Poland.
Free loan society in Ciechanow, Poland.

Beit Midrash: While the shul was primarily a place of prayer, a beit midrash (study hall) was a place of serious scholars, where Torah learning took place at all hours of the day and night.

The beis medrash in the shtetl of Lyakhovichi, Belarus, during World War I, filled with those too old or young to be drafted
The beis medrash in the shtetl of Lyakhovichi, Belarus, during World War I, filled with those too old or young to be drafted

[Some Jewish people lived in even smaller villages or hamlets where these amenities were often not found.]

The People You’d Meet

A shamash knocks on the window, reminding the residents that Shabbat is about to begin. (photo: Alter Kacyzne)
A shamash knocks on the window, reminding the residents that Shabbat is about to begin. (photo: Alter Kacyzne)

In addition to shoemakers, tanners, smiths, gardeners and peddlers, the Jewish community had its own set of functionaries:

Rabbi: Of course, there was the rabbi of the community, who would answers questions of Jewish law, support his community’s interests and provide for its spiritual well-being.

Melamed: Often destitute by the modest standards of shtetl economy, the melamed taught children Torah in the cheder.

Shamash: Tasked with running the synagogue, the shamash (warden) would make sure that the house of G‑d was clean, neat and cared-for. Often, he would make his rounds in the wee hours of the morning, waking slumbering villagers for morning services with a rap on the shutters.

Zogerke: Since many women in the shtetl were illiterate, the zogerke would lead them in prayer and

A young woman in the Satu Mare shtetl in Romania. (photo: Roman Vishniac)
A young woman in the Satu Mare shtetl in Romania. (photo: Roman Vishniac)
study. Often she would read to aloud from Tze’ena Ure’ena, a Yiddish rendition of the weekly Torah portion with a commentary based on Midrashic and other sources.

Shadchan: The family is the bedrock of Jewish life, and as such, great lengths are taken to help children find a suitable partner and marry. The shadchan would help find matches for the young men and women of a community.

A wedding in Ushpol (Uzpaliai), Lithuania. (photo: Reuven Milon/JewishGen)
A wedding in Ushpol (Uzpaliai), Lithuania. (photo: Reuven Milon/JewishGen)

Shochet: Central to the laws of kosher is the requirement that all meat come from healthy animals that have been slaughtered in a specific manner. Families would bring their animals to the ritual slaughterer to prepare them to be eaten. The shochet was a devout and pious man.

Maggid: While the rabbi was concerned primarily with the nuts-and-bolts of Jewish law, the maggid was responsible for the moral, emotional and inspirational side of life. A powerful orator, he would seek to inspire the villagers to live honestly, kindly and piously.

Baking matzah in the shtetl (photo: Yad Vashem)
Baking matzah in the shtetl (photo: Yad Vashem)

Community Organizations

Jewish communal life was highly organized. Often, a chevra (society) would be formed to ensure that things were run in the best possible manner. Some of the common chevras thatwere formed in the shtetl are still existent in Jewish communities today:

Hachnasat Kallahhelped poor brides and grooms get married.

Chevra Kadishaprepared the dead for burial.

Hachnasat Orchim—welcomed guests.

Bikur Cholim—visited and cared for the sick.

The soup kitchen in Novogrudek
The soup kitchen in Novogrudek

There were also a number of chevras formed for the purpose of prayer or study. Chevra Tehilim would gather to say Psalms in the early morning; Chevra Mishnayot would band together to study the Mishnah, etc.

Shtetl Life

Market day would bring hundreds of wagons of peasants into town, selling goods. With the money they earned, they sometimes frequented the Jewish owned taverns and shops.

Market day at a shtetl in Poland
Market day at a shtetl in Poland

While the bustle of market day was an important part of shtetl life, it was not as important as the day of rest, Shabbat. Every week, Jews would spend Shabbat with their families and in the synagogue. Work would cease, and the scrimping and saving of the week would give way to meals of fish and meat.

A man purchases herring for Shabbat in Mukacevo. (photo: Roman Vishniac)
A man purchases herring for Shabbat in Mukacevo. (photo: Roman Vishniac)

A typical shtetl street - this one is in David Horodok, Belarus - picturing the town well/water pump
A typical shtetl street - this one is in David Horodok, Belarus - picturing the town well/water pump

Despite a sometimes idealized vision of shtetl life, it was far from perfect. Roads were unpaved, and poverty was widespread. Pogroms, attacks by the peasant population or marauding Cossacks, devastated many shtetls across Central and Eastern Europe.

Even after shtetl life was destroyed in the Holocaust, there were some communities that rebuilt a shtetl-like existence elsewhere. Small hamlets like Kiryas Tosh outside of Montreal, and Kiryas Joel and New Square in upstate New York, were created in the decades following the Holocaust in an effort to simulate the quiet, wholesome and pious atmosphere of pre-WWII shtetl life.

Chaya Mindel Way is a student at Brandeis University, studying Jewish History and French. She most recently spent time at Machon Chana seminary. She was raised on an organic farm in Maryland, and spends her time with animals, learning languages, or reading books.
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