Lesson
Duration:
1 class period

Understanding the Life of Shtetl Jews

Overview

Many of Sholem Aleichem’s stories take place in shtetls, or predominantly Jewish market towns, that existed in eastern Europe during and prior to sholem Aleichem’s time. While small and somewhat self-contained, shtetls were vibrant centers of Jewish culture and tradition. The film Laughing in the Darkness provides a glimpse into life in the shtetl. The selected clip discusses the characteristics that marked these lively communities, and it sheds light on Sholem Aleichem’s childhood in a shtetl and the impact that growing up there had on him.

 

Learning Goals

This lesson focuses on the lives of Jews who lived in the shtetls of eastern Europe. Students will explore characteristics of the shtetl and the advantages and disadvantages of living in these small, relatively homogenous communities. By studying the shtetl, we can appreciate its rich and vibrant culture, reflect more generally on the ways in which minority groups interact with the majority, and examine how stereotypes and prejudice often shape the way the public views such minority groups. In this lesson, students will examine different representations of the shtetl and consider similarities and differences between life there and life in their own communities today.

Essential Questions

  1. What constitutes a community? What holds a community together?
  2. How might a community establish an identity of its own? How might such an identity be influenced by the way the outside world perceives a community?
  3. How do communities respond to hardship?
  4. To what extent is being part of a close-knit community advantageous? To what extent might it be challenging?

Context

This lesson focuses on the lives of Jews who lived in the shtetls of eastern Europe. Students will explore characteristics of the shtetl and the advantages and disadvantages of living in these small, relatively homogenous communities. By studying the shtetl, we can appreciate its rich and vibrant culture, reflect more generally on the ways in which minority groups interact with the majority, and examine how stereotypes and prejudice often shape the way the public views such minority groups. In this lesson, students will examine different representations of the shtetl and consider similarities and differences between life there and life in their own communities today.

The term shtetl (Yiddish for “small town”) usually refers to the numerous market towns that existed in eastern Europe from the mid-seventeenth century up until World War II. Looking to develop profitable and successful agrarian estates, Polish nobles often hired Jews to manage their estates in the Polish countryside; Jews were favored for this kind of work because they were unlikely to become economic rivals of the Polish nobility due to the government’s restrictions and prejudices in the Polish Commonwealth. For the most part, Jews were not allowed to own land, and their experience as merchants, connections with other Jewish communities, and financial skills made them ideal intermediaries between the Polish landlords and their farmers. The vast majority of the Jews, however, were poor and worked as peddlers, petty artisans, and shopkeepers: as teamsters and bricklayers, shoemakers and tailors, dairymen and blacksmiths, they provided services to the people of the shtetl and its surrounding villages. When parts of Poland came under Russian rule, Catherine II of the Russian Empire established the Pale of Settlement, which largely prevented Jews from living anywhere but the former Polish countryside. Under Russian rule, shtetls continued to thrive as bustling market towns, connected to other shtetls and larger cities through commerce but still deriving much of their vitality from their close-knit nature in response to the restrictions of the world beyond them. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were more than five million Jews in the Russian Empire. Over 90 percent of them lived in the Pale of Settlement. But with changing economic conditions, the emancipation of Jews in western European countries, and the fear of programs in the east, many chose to leave the shtetl. Drawn to cosmopolitan cities in Europe and to the United States, where cultural and economic opportunities allowed for greater degrees of freedom, Jews formed large urban communities that quickly surpassed the shtetl in primacy and economic relevance. By World War II, the days of the shtetl as a vibrant center of Jewish life were over.

The Pale of Settlement, ca. 1855. Originally formed in 1791 by Russia’s Catherine II, the Pale of Settlement was a region designated for Jews. For political, economic, and religious reasons, very few Jews were allowed to live elsewhere. The area mostly falls within today’s Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, and Moldova. At the end of the nineteenth century, close to 95 percent of the 5.3 million Jews in the Russian Empire lived in the Pale of Settlement. In early 1917, the Pale of Settlement was abolished, permitting Jews to live where they wished in the former Russian Empire. This region continued to be a center of Jewish communal life until World War II.

Today, the shtetl is often looked upon with a sort of fond nostalgia as a harmonious, homogenous community archetype. This view often disregards the poverty and lack of opportunities that also characterized such places, as well as their diversity. While Jews often made up the majority of the population in a shtetl, many shtetls were home to both Jews and non-Jews. Many shtetl Jews traveled outside of their hometowns for work and thus had more contact with the outside world, particularly in the bigger towns, where the effects of modernization eroded the boundaries of the Jewish community from both the inside and outside. Still, it is important not to downplay the sense of community that the Yiddish language and Jewish religious institutions and practices provided Jews in the shtetl. Schools, markets, and synagogues were built to reflect the needs of the Jewish population (for example, butchers were kosher and schools provided religious education), and their presence contributed to the close-knit sense of community.

A Jewish street with a church in the background, Lutsk, Ukraine, ca. 1926. Despite the bloody pogroms during the Russian Civil War, Jews lived in Ukraine alongside Christians until World War II.

There can be little doubt that Sholem Aleichem’s fictional shtetl of Kasrilevka helped to establish the pervasive idealized image of the shtetl as a homogeneous community, especially as his popular stories featuring Tevye the Dairyman were depicted in the film Fiddler on the Roof. During the time that Aleichem was writing his stories, the shtetl was in economic, cultural, and demographic decline, so a nostalgic view resonated with many people. In Aleichem’s writings, however, Kasrilevka represents more than a folkloric ideal of the shtetl. His work also speaks to many important aspects of both the physical and spiritual life of Jews before the end of the nineteenth century, and one can find in his body of work not only an emotional range, from suffering to humor, but also illuminating portrayals of emerging tensions between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern.

This lesson gives students an opportunity to study the nuances of shtetl life while also thinking about the ways in which communities are often shaped and defined by pressures from the surrounding world, as much as they are defined by the commonalities that brought a given group of people together.

View of Scheibler’s textile factory, Lodz, Poland, 1936. Industrialization drew millions, including Jews, to European cities, bringing diversity on an unprecedented scale and accelerating the pace of Jewish integration.

 

 

Materials

  • Film clip 2: Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, 2:22–6:52
  • Excerpt: "Leaving, Surviving, Rebirth: Life Stories," by Mordechai Wasserstrum
  • Reading: “The Town of the Little People,” by Sholem Aleichem
  • Images: Photography by Roman Vishniac as well as modern images of Jews
  • Image: The Fiddler (1913), painting by Marc Chagall

Activities

  1. Gallery Walk Activity

    The resources listed above can be used to explore different elements of the shtetl. When used together, they can help paint a complex and nuanced portrait of life in the shtetl. It may be fitting to introduce students to these works using the Gallery Walk teaching strategy, as described in the second activity listed below.

    If you choose to do use the Gallery Walk strategy, hang images from this lesson (the photographs and the painting by Marc Chagall) around the room before the start of class. Use as many of the images as you wish and cluster them as you see fit; you might group the Vishniac photos at one station, for example, and the “modern” images at another. Questions to promote discussion are provided with these images later in the lesson.

  2. Watch film clip from "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness": Understanding the Life of Shtetl Jews

    You may wish to introduce the lesson by showing the film clip. As students watch the clip, have them write down all of the adjectives or imagery that they hear or see describing the shtetl or life in the shtetl (i.e., “small,” “isolated,” “share a common culture”). Write three categories on the board: Positive, Negative, and Neutral. Ask each student to identify a word or image that he or she noticed and to indicate under which category that word or image falls. Students can then discuss this classification and whether they agree, making changes as needed. With this list describing shtetl communities in mind, ask students to think about the ways in which communities are described. How are images of a particular community formed, and how might such images contribute to the formation or perpetuation of stereotypes? You might then introduce the following activities.

  3. Read Mordechai Wassurstrum's passage and consider,  Who Were the People of the Shtetl?

    The following is an excerpt from the memoir of Mordechai Wasserstrum, in which he describes the survival of his family during the Holocaust. In the excerpt, Wasserstrum talks about the shtetl in Poland where he grew up, Radzyn Podlaski, comparing it to other shtetls and describing its inhabitants. During World War II, the German army invaded Radzyn and deported most of its residents to the death camps. Wasserstrum’s family was able to evade the Nazis and escaped to the Soviet Union.

    Wasserstrum arrived in Israel without his parents in 1943 with a group of children who were saved by the Jewish Agency. (This organization was able to save him and several hundred Jewish boys and girls who joined the independent Polish army as it marched on Tehran, Iran. They became known as the Tehran Children.) After the war, the Wasserstrum was reunited in Israel with his family, who had survived in the Soviet Union. They made Tel Aviv their home. Wasserstrum went on to become an educator in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. An admired teacher, he died in 2009 at the age of 79.

    Radzyn, or in its full name, Radzyn Podlaski, is [a town] in the county of Lublin, about 50 kilometers east of Warsaw, the capital [of Poland]. When the war started, there were about four thousand Jews living there. Most of them were killed in the Holocaust, in the Treblinka extermination camp.

    Similarly to many Jewish shtetls (small towns), the houses were mostly made of wood, with the occasional stone buildings. The Jewish residents of the town were good people, who made their living mostly as merchants and craftsmen. They knew how to maintain their deep attachment to Judaism, to religion and even the Zionist idea. In those towns one could find synagogues, shtibalach (small synagogues) and rabbis’ courts, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, active youth movements such as HaShomer Hatzair and Beitar, Poaley Zion and the Bund, which was an anti-Zionist workers’ movement. There was even an illegal communist movement. Alongside the traditional “heders” (religious schools) there was a branch of the Tarbut School, which combined Judaic studies with a general studies program and a modern high school. Even the secular Jews were closely attached to the Jewish tradition. Radzyn was an example of coexistence: Orthodox Jews and secular Jews, right-wingers and leftists, all maintained a good and decent relationship. The town featured a lively variety of social and communal activities. All of that was cruelly and utterly destroyed in the war. Nothing was left, except for some tombstones and some shacks where gentile Poles lived.

    Ask students to list unfamiliar terms and names they encounter as they read, and help them find the definitions.

    Then ask:

    • What were some of the different organizations and youth movements Jews were involved with in Radzyn before the Nazi invasion?
    • In what sense was Radzyn “an example of coexistence”? How does Wasserstrum describe the interaction between tradition (religion, for example) and modern ideas (such as socialism and Zionism) in his small town? What observations might you make about the life of Jews in eastern Europe prior to the war?

     

  4. Read Sholem Aleichem's story  “The Town of the Little People

    Sholem Aleichem’s story “The Town of the Little People,” describes Aleichem’s famous fictional shtetl of Kasrilevka. The following questions may be used to assist students in their reading of the text:

    • At the beginning of the story, the narrator gives a list of different Yiddish words for someone who is poor. Why do words that mean similar things often have different connotations?
    • How do the people of Kasrilevka reclaim negative words or stereotypes and turn them into sources of pride in their communities?
    • Based on the text, what seem to be the major features of a shtetl such as Kasrilevka? What do those features say about the reality of life in the shtetl?
    • What can you infer about the relationships between residents of Kasrilevka?
    • The story ends with a description of the Kasrilevka cemetery. Why does the cemetery mean so much to the people of Kasrilevka? What might the cemetery symbolize to the community?
  5. This activity uses the Gallery Walk teaching strategy to examine and engage with several representations of life within shtetls. In the Gallery Walk, students will be looking at several photographs taken by Roman Vishniac and comparing them with other images depicting Jews as ordinary Europeans. All images are from the period just before World War II. The Gallery Walk should also include the painting, The Fiddler (1913),  by Marc Chagall, which can be interpreted separately.

    Roman Vishniac (1897–1990) was a biologist and photographer who is noted for the vast collection of photographs that he took of eastern European Jews before World War II. While these images may be aesthetically pleasing and poignant, they have often been used to both romanticize the shtetl and to perpetuate the image of Orthodox Jews living in poverty (see Suggested Extension 1 for more information about Vishniac and his photographs). Several images depicting eastern European Jews in modern urban settings from the same period, also provided with this lesson, can be included in the activity as a counterpoint to Vishniac’s images.

    Marc Chagall was born in 1887 in the town of Vitebsk (Belarus), inside the Pale of Settlement in Belorussia, which was part of the Russian Empire at the time. Chagall received a traditional Jewish education and was then able to attend a local high school despite Russian restrictions banning Jews from such schools. He developed a keen interest in painting at an early age, and after some initial training, he moved to the Russian art capital of Saint Petersburg (where Sholem Aleichem also worked). After receiving instruction from several artists, including Paul Gauguin, Chagall moved to Paris to explore its vibrant art scene and continue to develop his skills among the best painters in the world. With the Nazi occupation of parts of France in 1940, Chagall and his wife feared for their lives. They were put in contact with the American rescuer Vivian Frye, who helped them flee from Marseilles to New York in 1941. Chagall’s painting style was influenced by artistic trends of the time, but his images drew uniquely on Jewish life in eastern Europe. His body of work presents a mosaic of Christian and Jewish themes. His famous image The Fiddler (1912) inspired the title Fiddler on the Roof for the musical production of Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye and his Daughters” (or “Tevye the Milkman”).

    The contrast between the two sets of photographs in this activity, as well as the painting by Marc Chagall, can be used to deepen students’ understanding of competing representations and stereotypes related to the shtetl.

    The prompt questions included with the images may be placed above the posted images in the classroom to help students think about these issues while viewing the gallery. If students are less familiar with analyzing and interpreting images, you may want to go over some of the steps from the Analyzing Visual Images and Stereotyping teaching strategy and use these as a guide for thinking about the images. Allow about 20 minutes for students to complete the activity. Encourage students to respond to the questions posted above the images, but explain that these questions are simply meant to guide the conversation and that the students are welcome to explore different questions and ideas that arise. Let students know that they are free to write down thoughts, comments, and questions they may have in their notebooks as they complete the gallery activity.

    As a way of developing a further conversation, you might want to have students stand next to an image that was particularly interesting, striking, or confusing to them (there should be at least two or three students at each station, ideally). In these groups, students can then have small discussions about the questions listed above their selected work. At the end of the time allotted (5–10 minutes, depending on class time), students should be ready to present to the rest of the class on what their group talked about and what further questions or comments arose in their discussion.

    Gallery Walk: Roman Vishniac

    1. Which photos, or which aspects of these photos, are most striking to you? What sorts of emotions do these photos evoke?
    2. Many people have expressed concern that photographer Roman Vishniac chose to show only one dimension of Jewish life in the shtetl. As art historian Carol Zemel argued, “Emphasizing exhaustion and defeat, the helpless and the strange, A Vanished World [one of Vishniac’s well-known compilations of photographs] presents a costumed and pathetic people who are without potency or agency, at ease only in study or prayer, and too emasculated to survive. By presenting them and their world emblematically as the site of misery and orthodox spirituality, Vishniac’s images reiterate a familiar trope: the Jew as exotic other and eternal sufferer.” Do you agree with Zemel’s conclusion? What kind of people and/or experiences might be missing from this collection of photos?
    3. In what ways might these photos reinforce stereotypes about Jewish people? In what ways might they contradict stereotypes?

    Gallery Walk: Images of Urban European Jews from the 1930s

    1. How do these images differ from Vishniac’s photos or other common depictions of prewar eastern European Jews?
    2. How is Jewish life depicted in these photographs?
    3. Why do you think these images were taken? Might the photographers of these images have biases, as well?

    Gallery Walk: The Fiddler by Marc Chagall

    1. Artist Marc Chagall painted this representation of his hometown after having left Russia and moved to Paris. How does he remember his hometown? What elements stand out for him?
    2. How do people tend to remember their childhoods and their former communities? Are there certain things that people tend to romanticize or things they try to forget?
    3. What images do you see in this painting? What might they represent?

    "The Fiddler, 1912" by Marc Chagall. Oil on canvas, 188x158cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. This painting, done in Paris, depicts a fiddler against the background of a town resembling Chagall’s childhood shtetl, Vitebsk. It recalls aspects of Chagall’s life in Russia, integrating both Christian and Jewish elements and practices. The fiddler hints at Chagall’s upbringing among the Hasidim who used music and dance to bring a community together and inspire religious devotion. Fiddler on the Roof, the musical and cinematic adaptations of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, borrowed their names from the painting.

  6. Debrief Discussion

    To wrap up the lesson, you may choose to have a class discussion covering what students have learned about shtetl life. What is their perception of the shtetl? If they already had an idea of what the shtetl or shtetl life was like, how has that impression changed? What was surprising to learn? Did any elements of shtetl life or communities remind students of their own communities or other communities they know? Alternatively, you may want to have students respond to these questions as writing prompts or in their journals. This might also be a good time to pose the essential questions listed at the beginning of this lesson.

Extensions

Suggested Extension 1: Read the article published in the New York Times called “A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac.” 

Roman Vishniac’s depictions of Jews and Jewish life are often lauded as having compassionately preserved a culture on the eve of its destruction—as having documented a now “vanished world” (as one of Vishniac’s famous compilations is titled). Author Elie Wiesel pointed to the value of this in his introduction to Vishniac’s compilation To Give Them Light: “[Vishniac] illuminates all that came before, all that remains from long ago, all that preceded the tragedy of the century . . . Thanks to you, Roman, the executioner has not entirely prevailed. Granted, he has succeeded in killing his victims’ future, but thanks to your art, their past has eluded his grasp.”

Step 1: Vishniac’s photographs are some of the only visual representations of Jews before the war that exist, and thus they are often assumed to be comprehensive depictions of Jewish life. It is important to keep in mind that his representations—primarily static, superficial depictions of Jews in poverty and steeped in religious tradition—provide but one limited portrayal, bound to a specific time and place, of the wide and complex range of Jewish life and culture around the world during this period. Some critics have even noted that Vishniac purposely chose to photograph those who looked particularly or stereotypically Jewish. “By presenting them and their world emblematically as a site of misery and orthodox spirituality, Vishniac’s images reiterate a familiar trope: the Jew as exotic other and eternal sufferer,” art historian Carol Zemel argued. In 2010, the New York Times published an article called “A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac.” The article documented curator Maya Benton’s discovery that many of Vishniac’s most famous images had been staged and that Vishniac had often added false captions to create drama or tell a more evocative tale.

Step 2: Have students read this article and respond to the following questions:

 Why do you think Vishniac chose to edit his photos the way that he did? Can we still learn anything about the shtetl (or at least about the way the shtetl was perceived) by looking at Vishniac’s images?

At the end of the article, Maya Benton says, “What’s interesting to me is less Vishniac’s tendency toward mythology than the Jewish need to have those mythologies and the attachment they have to them. . . . Why are people so attached to the other story? The real story is so much better.” Why do you think people might be attached to the story of the archetypical shtetl? Why might there be a “need” to hold onto and preserve such stories, even though they may not be entirely true? Do people besides Jews who grew up with Vishniac’s images feel this “need,” as well? Why? You might ask students how their own communities are romanticized in popular memory. You may also choose to look at more of Vishniac’s images, which can be accessed online from the Roman Vishniac Collection, and have students analyze them using Facing History’s Analyzing Visual Images and Stereotyping teaching strategy.

Suggested Extension 2: Read George Ella Lyon’s poem “Where I’m From.” Then begin a group discussion.

This extension can be used to help students further explore some of this lesson’s essential questions about the relationship between one’s community and his or her identity. It can also be used to help students think about their own community and the degree to which it shapes their own sense of identity.

Have students read George Ella Lyon’s poem “Where I’m From.” Then begin a group discussion. Here are a few questions you can use to start a conversation about this work:

  • According to the poem, what are the elements that shape identity? To what degree is identity shaped by where we are from?  
  • How coherent is our identity, according to this poem? How fixed is it?
  • What factors changed the identity of Jews in the shtetl? What factors have changed people’s identity in your community?
  • How much choice do we have when it comes to our identity?

You may want to have students do a Think-Pair-Share activity with classmates they do not know well to help them learn about a community other than their own. You may also have students write their own “Where I’m From” poems about their communities.

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