In This Review

The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe
The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe
By Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern
Princeton University Press, 2014, 448 pp.

For one shining period, the shtetls of eastern Europe were not the melancholy, ramshackle places familiar from Fiddler on the Roof. On the contrary, argues Petrovsky-Shtern in this important history, from the 1790s, when parts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were incorporated into the Russian empire, until the 1840s, shtetls were economically vibrant, culturally diverse, lively merchant communities. Had the Russians left these communities intact as the private holdings of Polish magnates, sustained by Jewish traders and businessmen and unburdened by serfdom, these areas might have remained a dynamic western outpost of the Russian empire. But beginning in the 1840s, industrialization and Russian nationalism destroyed that prospect and transformed the shtetls into something closer to the popular image that persists today. In a tour de force of archival research, Petrovsky-Shtern re-creates life in the shtetls in all its amazing richness: the whirl of trade fairs, taverns, inns, and the traditional Jewish house, alongside prolific smuggling, the social role of liquor, Jewish-Slavic relations, “kosher” sex, and the flowering of Hasidism.