The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

When you think of a shtetl, what comes to mind? For many it might be Anatevka of “Fiddler on the Roof” fame, for others it might be the brief glimpse you get of the Mousekewitz family home at the beginning of “An American Tail” or the shtetl too small for a name in “When the Angels Left the Old Country.” All bring to mind a poor, shabby town that Jews are being driven to leave either by force or for better economic prospects. But that’s not all a shtetl ever was and the title, “The Golden Age Shtetl,” isn’t an exaggeration. Shtetls were once flourishing economic centers with packed markets and a constant rotation of fairs where Jews flourished as merchants and artisans. They were also a highly complicated dance of economics and politics that rose out of Russia’s partitioning of Poland in the late 18th century. 

Image ID: An excerpt of text reading, "The dizzying array of available goods offered by Jews suggests that it was a supermarket, not just a marketplace." The caption reads "Love that this technicality allows you to say that shtetl Jews ran the first supermarkets." End ID.

Having never been one for economics, I was a little worried when the very first thing the book dove into was the technical economic definition of a shtetl, but I was ultimately very impressed at just how easy everything was to understand. This book is extremely well written and highly accessible for the lay reader interested in Jewish history. Each chapter focuses in on a specific aspect of shtetl life, from Jewish presence in the vodka industry to book printing and the rise of Hasidism, which builds to an incredibly rich picture of the shtetl at the height of its glory. 

Something else that “The Golden Age Shtetl” does incredibly well is navigating the balance between big picture and small detail items. For example, the broad discussion of Russia’s decision to place a ban on international trade is coupled with the varied individual and community responses and efforts to continue importing and selling contraband goods, and the discussion of the Russian government’s anxieties about Hasidic and kabbalistic books is paired with the statistics of what books the average Jew actually had in their home. This might not seem like a big deal to some, but when a book is trying to cover a large span of time, enriching detail can sometimes get to lost focusing only on the big picture, or alternatively, forgoing context for granular detail. This book hits that sweet spot of balance right on the head. 

Image ID: An excerpt of text reading, "Pinhas Yosef Bromberg from Starokonstantinov a purveyor of the Zhitomir military hospital, brought twenty Hebrew books from him to read while traveling from Volhynia to St. Petersburg on business." The latter half of the sentence is underlined in purple pen. The caption reads "Me packing for literally any trip." End ID.

It should also be noted that the term “golden age,” is not negating the problems that still existed during this period. Political and economic decisions from the Russian government could and did make life difficult even before the highly antisemitic turn in the mid-19th century, but the point this book makes is that there was more to the shtetl than that, and, in fact, shtetls were pretty far from the oppressed Anatevka at their hay day. For a period, Jews were even equal actors in the shtetls’ culture of violence—leading to my favorite chapter cold open in the book about a Jewish hatmaker treating Christianity the way Christians often treat Judaism, in a rude and derogatory manner. 

A rich and nuanced book, “The Golden Age Shtetl” brings to life a bright, varied and lively image of the shtetl that can only enhance the shtetl in cultural memory. You can pick it up direct from the press or at the bookstore of your choice. 

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