Opinion

What Does Shtetl Mean?

How a historical term informs a news project

Photo Credit: Mo Gelber

Mar 23, 2023 10:55 AM

Updated: 

Mar 27, 2023 1:00 PM

We have chosen to call this independent news website covering New York’s Haredi population “Shtetl” in homage to the area’s close-knit Jewish communities. But what does the word mean? And why did we choose it?

It’s not so simple.

Originally a diminutive of the Yiddish word “shtot,” “shtetl” was just one word among the many Russian and Polish words that Jews used for their hometowns in the Pale of Settlement. Related to the German word “Stadt” meaning town, the Yiddish “shtetl” had a range of meanings including ones that we would recognize now from usages like “Chinatown” or “The Five Towns.”

But that’s not what it means now. In the last 150 years, two upheavals radically changed the usage and the spirit of the word.

First came European mass urbanization in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. Jews had always lived in cities, but as populations moved en masse to industrialized environments they looked back with nostalgia on their former country dwellings. The warm light shone by authors such as I.L. Peretz or Sholom Aleichem associated the “shtetl” with a folk memory that downplayed its diversity and deprivations. As Steven Zipperstein puts it in his essay “The Shtetl Revisited,” “Even less heartening features of the shtetl, for instance its undeniable poverty or intolerance toward internal dissent, appear in retrospect as having positive implications in their encouragement of com­munal and familial cohesiveness.”

Still, the cities of Lithuania, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine hosted a new, vibrant Jewish culture which, given time, could have matched the successes of their more established western counterparts. Tragically, the Holocaust wiped out most of European Jewry including the vast majority of Eastern European Jewry urban and rural. The grieving remnant of the Jewish people was left to memorialize them, and in post-Holocaust culture, sought comfort in a mythical eternal past. 

At the core of the myth was an imagined small town or village with an exclusively Jewish population, particularly in the area that was the Pale of Settlement – the western part of Russia to which Catherine the Great confined her Jewish subjects in 1791. But shtetls, even early in the nineteenth century, could just as well be a vibrant economic hub around the market in a large town as a rural settlement eking out a scant living.

So, while not a complete fabrication, the portrait of a uniform, enduring history, erases crucial differences between different settlements and different eras. Food, language, and social makeup were all subject to quite drastic regional variation and they kept changing over time. Even the quintessentially Jewish nature of the shtetl is a myth. Not only were shtetls in constant commerce with non-Jewish neighbors, the shtetls themselves contained many non-Jews. As Gennady Estraikh explains in the introduction to The Shtetl: Image or Reality, “It’s a distorted picture of the shtetl which completely excludes its non-Jewish residents or reduces them to extras… in an all-Jewish saga.”

Photo Credit: Mo Gelber

In the current American imagination it’s difficult to separate history from the nostalgic image of the shtetl peddled by popular entertainment in productions like the iconic 1971 movie, “Fiddler on the Roof.” Yes, “Fiddler” shows pogroms and poverty, but it shows them — along with intermarriage — as threats to an authentic Jewish way of life that never existed. Between that Oscar-winning blockbuster and the 8-year Tony-winning run of the 1964 Broadway production (plus over 50 years of revivals) the rosy-tinged anachronistic caricature has deeply colonized the popular understanding of the shtetl at the expense of a more complex truth.

Others beyond the entertainment world, too, have a particular vested interest in painting a historically inaccurate and unchanging snapshot of the shtetl as somehow authentic. As with any other society, there are those in power in contemporary American Shtetls who want to establish their positions as guardians of tradition and their values as natural, eternal, and authentic. They hearken back to an imagined golden age of the shtetl as a reason for their continued authority. 

In fact, though Shtetls were characterized by tightly-bound communities, religious tradition, and poverty, they were part of a larger, vibrant network that spread across the supranational region. Indeed, loose networks of federated shtetls played an important role not only in the cultural and economic life of Eastern European Jewry but of Europe as a whole. Work by contemporary historians such as Zipperstein, Estraikh and David Myers, show that the actual settlements were extremely varied in terms of religious observance, cultural creativity, and broader political acceptance as they developed from villages in the 13th century to urban centers in the twentieth. 

To use the word today, as Shtetl: Haredi Free Press does, is an attempt to refer to its characteristic as a small, tight-knit Jewish community that maintains a traditional way of life centered around religious practices, cultural traditions, and a close-knit community. The term can carry connotations of poverty and a simple way of life, but also of strong communal ties and a rich cultural heritage. Those are exactly the characteristics of the Haredi communities that stretch from Boro Park and Williamsburg in Brooklyn across New York City, and a number of other areas in the New York area including Monsey, New Square, and Kiryas Joel.

The word “shtetl” lost its accuracy as it became a simple one-size-fits-all term to describe a complex and changing series of historical Jewish places, each with their own flavors and their own dramas. By focusing on today’s shtetl we want to show that the shtetl is anything but simple or uniform. As with all Jewish settlements throughout history, there has been, and continues to be, a remarkable amount of variation. We want to get away from nostalgia, away from cliche, and away from received wisdom and tell the actual stories of today’s Hasidic and Litvish Jews living in New York’s shtetls. 

Dan Friedman is the former executive editor of the Forward. A digital consultant and communications specialist, Dan has a PhD from Yale, an MA from Cambridge and his byline has appeared in the New York Times, the Financial Times and the Washington Post.