The Thoroughly Modern Shtetl

The Thoroughly Modern Shtetl

Theodore Bikel says he identifies so closely with his stage role as Tevye the Milkman that he sometimes lapses into character. And, Bikel told an audience in New York this week, "people still approach me on the street to ask, ‘How are things in Anatevka?’ ": the fictional shtetl where "Fiddler on the Roof" is set.

What is true for Bikel holds true for the idea of the shtetl itself. Most Jews envision their ancestral hometowns as thousands of Anatevkas: peasant villages bathed in the glow of religious community and also blighted by poverty, superstition and ignorance. But Jews who spent their childhoods in the shtetl recall a very different, more complex picture.

Several projects now under way aim to topple "Fiddler on the Roof" and provide a more accurate portrait of the last decades of Jewish life in the shtetl before the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. Documentaries, photography exhibits, publications and even a planned replica of a shtetl in Israel reveal a world where religious tradition and communal life coexisted and sometimes collided with modern elements in the market towns that were home to Eastern Europe’s Jews for centuries.

"When you look, you see that the shtetl in 1930s had movies, photographs, electric lights. Some people wore the latest styles, they had soccer teams and bicycle races," says Jeffrey Shandler, an author and assistant professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University. That discovery often surprises people, Shandler says, and their reaction "shows what expectations they have of this world."

For many people, it’s "Fiddler": despite the fact that the stories by Sholem Aleichem that inspired the show were set in a village with only one Jewish family. For the musical, Tevye’s family was transposed to a shtetl, which from the post-war American-Jewish vantage point was the paradigm for all Eastern European Jewish life.

But, says Shandler, "there’s a big difference between a shtetl Jew and a village Jew."

For one thing, Jews made up significant portions, sometimes even majority populations in the market towns, known in plural as shtetlach. In different periods and parts of present-day Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, they were given autonomy over Jewish communal affairs. And while they had to buy licenses from gentiles, they could own businesses and practice trades. Life was often difficult and anti-Semitism was a fact of life, but by the early 20th century many Jews had prospered; most were well-educated; all worshipped freely.

"They were as civilized and as cultured as we are here," says the filmmaker Andrew Goldberg, whose latest documentary, "A Yiddish world Remembered," is set to air on PBS in August.

That is evident in another documentary, which premieres at the JCC in Manhattan on June 13. In "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," a handful of the 51 Jewish survivors of the town in present-day Ukraine describe their young lives among a once thriving Jewish community. According to a 1921 census, Luboml was 91 percent Jewish.

The film intersperses the interviews with some of the 2,000 photographs Aaron Ziegelman and a small staff collected from families and archives around the world. The photographs are the work of roving shutterbugs and studio photographers. They show the marketplace surrounded by stores and workshops at the heart of the town; the fortress-like, 16th-century synagogue; Jewish religious schools and integrated Polish classrooms. Alongside family gatherings and holiday celebrations, the images document Jewish charitable organizations, Zionist and socialist youth groups, sports teams and a Yiddish theater troupe dressed for "King Lear."

Now a real-estate entrepreneur and philanthropist in New York, a 10-year-old Ziegelman left Luboml for America with his sister and his widowed mother in 1938. Within four years, Germans and Ukrainian police had murdered an estimated 8,000 Jews from Luboml and the surrounding area, including all of Ziegelman’s remaining relatives in Luboml.

Since 1996, exhibitions based on Ziegelman’s archives traveled to more than 50 sites in the U.S. and Israel. The collection will be housed in the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. The film, which has yet to find a distributor, is a further step in Ziegelman’s mission to emphasize Jewish life over Jews’ horrific deaths.

Still, Ziegelman says, "There was nothing special about Luboml except that is was the same as thousands of other shtetls in Poland and Russia and Eastern Europe."

A small exhibition of photographs now on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage reveals striking similarities to the Luboml collection. "Lives Remembered" includes 60 images taken by Zalman Kaplan, who was the town photographer in the Polish shtetl of Szczuczyn.

Kaplan perished along with nearly all of the Szczuczyn’s 3,000 Jews in the Holocaust. The images that survived had been taken out by Jews or were sent to relatives who had emigrated prior to the war. One of them was Kaplan’s son Moyshe, who changed his name to Kaye Marvins and opened a photography studio in Houston.

Marvins and his son Michael tracked down Kaplan’s photographs, plus 20 others that reveal what Shandler describes as "a decidedly modern community": a visitor from Paris in a chic white dress, a married couple listening to a phonograph, a group of sweethearts sharing rented bicycles. One photograph shows the town’s Jewish mayor posing with a group of German Jewish prisoners in 1915.

Kaye Marvins died before the exhibition was completed, an example of the urgency with which such projects are taking place today. "The last people who remember this world even as young children are now senior citizens," says Shandler, who wrote an essay for the exhibition’s catalogue.

Andrew Goldberg’s dwindling family spurred him to action. "Of my grandmother’s brothers and sisters, there had been six of them, and now there are three." He and his documentary team interviewed two-dozen Yiddish-speaking Jews who grew up in cities, towns and villages across Eastern Europe.

Goldberg says that in making "A Yiddish World Remembered," he had to overcome "a natural tendency" to portray Jewish life the way "they show you Tevye in the movies."

He was also influenced by stories and legends of his own Yiddish-speaking roots in the Ukrainian towns like Kreminitz and Beilitz: one grandfather was reportedly eaten by wolves. Another dove into a river after lost candlesticks and drowned.

The episode is reminiscent of an early scene in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, "Everything Is Illuminated," which traces the novelist’s origins in a imaginary shtetl named Trachimbrod. Other new fiction draws on the shtetl as a symbol of Jewish bona fides: in Thane Rosenbaum’s "The Golems of Gotham," the protagonist’s 13-year-old daughter, a violin prodigy, enraptures crowds outside Zabar’s with an impromptu version of mournful shtetl melodies.

"We’re reaching the point where the representation of the world that we have come to see as core, essential and fundamental to our understanding of Eastern European Jewish life" had been "given the imprimatur of a special kind of authenticity," Shandler says.

But, he cautions, "The more you look back, the more you realize it was anything but uniform, timeless or independent of the culture around it."

Shandler is the editor of "Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland Before the Holocaust." Due out in September from Yale University Press, the book is a selection of essays from three contests held in the 1930s by YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research. Written mostly in Yiddish and Polish, the autobiographies provide insight into the nature of ordinary Jewish life on the eve of the war. The writers represent Polish Jewry as largely urbanized and Westernized, well read, and deeply concerned about their individual futures in the face of deepening economic depression and the fate of the Jewish community amid growing nationalism and anti-Semitism. Only two of the 15 contributors to "Awakening Lives" are known to have survived the war.

Shandler says he expects successive generations to discover new aspects of Jewish life in pre-war Eastern Europe. The fall of the Iron Curtain has opened new troves of archival material to researchers; a new body of teachers and students is dedicating itself to the subject matter, he says. "The process of investigation will continue because we will ask the children of these people, ‘What do you remember from your parents?’ "

A decade from now, visitors to "The Living Shtetl in Israel" may also experience firsthand what Yaffa Eliach refers to as "the greatness of Jewish life."

Eliach chronicled the 900-year history of Jewish settlement in Eishyshok, the shtetl founded by her forebears, in "There Once was a World." The 1998 book was also made into a PBS documentary, and her photographic research grew into "The Tower of Life," a three-story mosaic of portraits at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

"I felt it’s not enough to have an exhibit now, it’s not enough to have a book now," Eliach told The Jewish Week. "It’s time to build a shtetl so people will come to participate: not only to view Jewish life, but to participate in Jewish life."

Eliach says she expects to begin building early next year on the 124 acres given to her Shoah Foundation by the town of Rishon Le Zion. Some 400 actors will populate the town, which Eliach sees as the Jewish answer to Colonial Williamsburg.

"Every element showing shtetl life will be accurate and will show real historical life," she says. Replicas of period buildings will span nine centuries of Jewish history in the region. A castle, modeled on the one at Eishyshok, will house an exhibit on Jewish ritual and Jewish cultural contributions worldwide.

In essence the recreated shtetl will be a celebration of the diaspora in the center of Israel.

The town will be based on Eishyshok’s plan, with representative buildings from other shtetlach. Eliach’s ambitious scheme also includes outlying villages and streets depicting Sephardic Jewish life. She even expects to highlight the significant role women played in running the shtetl as well as the interaction between Jews and their gentile neighbors. There’s even a shtetl parking lot.

Eliach is admittedly far from her goal of raising $100 million; some pledges were diverted instead to victims of the terrorist attacks in the United States and Israel. But she has received about $2 million from the State of Israel and feels confident that other donors will see the importance of preserving what she sees the legacy of Eastern European Jewry.

"Shtetlach have been misrepresented," Eliach says. "People were able to build their lives there, people were able to stay there, get married and have their children there. We’re not going to focus, like ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ on the poverty and the running away."

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