"Yidishkeyt ("Jewishness") and menshlikhkeyt ("humanness") were the two major values of the shtetl community around which life centered. Both the sacred and the profane were integrated in this way of life. The traditional ideals of piety, learning, and scholarship, communal justice, and charity, were fused in the warm and intimate life style of the shtetl. Thus the Yiddishkeyt and the menshlikhkeyt of the shtetl were expressed in innumerable activities, all of which were geared toward the goal of living the life of a good "Jew" and were manifested in the synagogue and at home, in the holiness of Sabbath and the humdrum existence of the market, in the structure of the community and in the organization of the family.
The synagogue reflected the social structure of the community and its individual members. The synagogue, whether a shul, a Ukrainian kloyz, or a Polish shtibl, was the house of prayer, the house of study, and the house of assembly combined.The seating arrangement in the synagogue reflected the social structure of the community: along the eastern wall, where the Ark was located, were ranged the most honored members of the community, the rabbi and the sheyne Yidn (the dignified Jews), the men of learning, of substance and of status, ie, men with "status--yikus"--symbol of distinction acquired through family position in the community or individual achievement in learning, business, or community participation. The seats facing the eastern wall were occupied by the balebatim or burghers, and behind them were placed the proste Yidn or common Jews--the humble folk, usually assumed to be ignorant, poor, and uneducated. The value of the seats decreased with their distance from the eastern wall, until at the western wall were found the beggars and needy strangers. These were cared for by various community institutions as well as special associations.
The home of the individual was the basic unit in the culture and life style of the shtetl: it was founded on a patriarchal and closely knit structure on traditional lines. His home was the place where the shtetl Jew enjoyed his Yidishkeyt in the serenity and peace of Sabbath, in the rituals of the Passover seder, or in the dignity and holiness of the High Holidays. It was where he derived the nakhes--the proud pleasure--from the achievement of his children, the son, or the son-in-law. There he fed the stranger on Friday and provided meals to the poor student in the yeshivah. However the home was also part of the community, and hardly any important activity at home was separable from the synagogue or the total community. Birth and death, bar mitzvahs and weddings, illness and recovery were family events which tied the home to the synagogue, and by extension to the community. No family event was a private event, for life in the shtetl was life with people, and therefore part of the total community. Family joys, as well as family sorrow, were shared by the community, which had the right and duty to express its approval or disapproval about the conduct and behavior of the family as a whole or of each of its members. Thus community control over the life of its individual members became one of the major regulating forces in the shtetl society, which succeeded in surviving for centuries without a police force to maintain its internal law and order.
The market and marketplace were the source of shtetl livelihood and the meeting place with [non-Jewish] neighbors. The shtetl Jews served as middlemen between the big city and village economy. They brought urban products to the Polish, Ukrainian, or Rumanian peasant who visited the market, or as peddlers bought from him the agricultural produce of the villages which they sold in the city. The financial scale of these transactions limited. Only a few Jews in the shtetl engaged in enterprises on a larger scale involving substantial capital. The majority of the shtetl population lived in poverty, where the major problem was to earn enough during the week in order to be able to buy a chicken or a fish for Sabbath, or to save up enough money for Passover mazzot. To make a living the shtetl Jew tried his hand at anything and often at a numer of things. Trades and occupations could vary with the season, as well as with a special opportunity encountered at the marketplace. Men and women, old and young, were daily involved in the difficult task of parnose ("livelihood"). Often women and children remained in charge of the stall or the store, while men traveled in the area looking for bargains or peddling city wares.
*The underlying feeling of the shtetl Jew in all transactions with the [outside world] was the conviction that no matter how friendly the interaction might be, he was never sure that it would not end in bloodshed and death."
The social, political, and economic forces in the 19th and 20th centuries eroded the patterns of life which had evolved in the shtetl. Pogroms and persecutions, economic depressions and political revolutions caused mass migrations of Jews to larger cities in Europe and across the ocean to the United States."
The physical existence of the shtetl ended with the Holocaust, but the values--behavior patterns and social attitudes continued on in the children of shtetl parents.(13)
*In the Russian Pale, experiences of riots, pogroms, and massacres, which often began at the marketplace would spread to homes and synagogues.
A question regarding the origin of surnames was sent to the Gesher Galician group, (Special Interest Group that is part of Jewishgen.org) ; Member Peter Zavon responds:
"Q: I always wonder why the most Jewish are bearer of surnames with germanic and slavic sounds. The Jewish from this area changed their authentic names or they mean the same in Hebraic?
A: Jews in most of Europe did not use surnames until forced to take them by the governments in power from about the time of Napoleon. Before Napoleon, Jews used patronymics (Israel ben Chaim, for example, meaning Israel the son of Chaim). The Napoleonic reforms gave Jews more equal treatment by government but required that they take permanent surnames. The central and eastern European Empires saw the advantages of permanent Jewish surnames in terms of better tracking for taxes and military service. They adopted this requirement in the early 19th century, with less attention to granting more equal treatment for the Jews.
Most states required that the selected surnames be in the language of the state, or at least that the names not be Biblical in some senses. The language of the Austrian Empire and of the germanic states was German. The secular language of the Jews of central and eastern Europe was Yiddish, a language with substantial roots in medieval German. The language of the Russian Empire was Russian, a slavic language. Thus the surnames of central and eastern European Jews sound germanic or slavic because they are.
Sometimes there was indeed a meaning that might translate from a Hebrew term, but in some areas only a limited number of specified names were available for Jews to choose from."
A question sent to Gesher Galicia SIG; member Deena Gordon responds:
"Subject: Occupation of Liquor Manufacturer for Jews in 1840s
Tavern - Perhaps the most widespread profession of the Jews in Eastern Europe was tavern owner. These taverns might be located in isolated regions with the Jewish owner and his family living on the premises. When times were bad the tavern owners would be unable to pay the excessive rents demanded of them by the noblemen from whom they rented the premises. These noblemen would throw the Jews and their families into their private dungeons. Even during times of prosperity there was always the constant fear of having their lease revoked by unstable landowners. Running a tavern was often a hazardous occupation. Owners would build special hiding places behind locked doors for those occasions when patrons became very drunk, unruly, and dangerous.
Poretz Mansion - The poretz was a nobleman in Poland who had complete control over the shtetl and often owned most of the town's real estate.
Surrounding his home were gardens, orchards and farms which were often rented to Jews. In the Ukraine, the upper stratum of the szlachta, the magnates owned huge properties. They were the absolute rulers of the peasants (really serfs) on their lands. The magnates were eager to develop these territories, and they found the Jews useful in this regard. Jews collected taxes, fees, tools, and produce from the serfs. Some noblemen founded private cities where Jews were welcome, laying the basis for the large zone of Eastern Europe where much of the middle class was Jewish, a situation that persisted through the nineteenth century.
Liquor Manufacturer - Orthodox Jews would buy from the peasants the potatoes and grains that were unusable for making breads, etc. to make liquor. It was indeed an honorable profession."
Table of Contents -
Chapter 1 -
Chapter 2 -
Chapter 3 -
Chapter 4 -
Chapter 5 -
Chapter 6 -
Chapter 7 -
Chapter 8 -
Chapter 9 -
Chapter 10 -
Guest Book -