( , diminutive form of Yiddish
שטאָט, "town", pronounced very similarly to
the South German diminutive "Städtle", "little town"; cf. MHG
: stetelîn, stetlîn, stetel) was typically a small
town with a large Jewish
. Shtetls (Yiddish plural: שטעטלעך, shtetlekh) were mainly
found in the areas which constituted the 19th century Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, the Congress Kingdom of Poland, Galicia,
city, like Lemberg or Czernowitz, was called a shtot ( ); a smaller village
was called a dorf ( ).
The concept of shtetl culture is used as a metaphor for the
traditional way of life of 19th-century Eastern European Jews.
Shtetls are portrayed as pious communities following Orthodox Judaism
, socially stable and
unchanging despite outside influence or attacks. The Holocaust resulted in the disappearance of
the vast majority of shtetls, through both extermination and mass
exodus to the United States and what would become Israel.
The history of the oldest Eastern European shtetls began about a
ago and saw periods of
relative tolerance and prosperity as well as times of extreme
poverty, hardships and pogroms
The attitudes and thought habits characteristic of the
learning tradition are as evident in the street and market place as
The popular picture of the Jew in Eastern Europe, held
by Jew and Gentile alike, is true to the Talmudic
The picture includes the tendency to examine, analyze
and re-analyze, to seek meanings behind meanings and for
implications and secondary consequences.
It includes also a dependence on deductive logic as a
basis for practical conclusions and actions.
In life, as in the Torah, it is assumed that everything has deeper
and secondary meanings, which must be probed. All subjects have
implications and ramifications. Moreover, the person who makes a
statement must have a reason, and this too must be probed. Often a
comment will evoke an answer to the assumed reason behind it or to
the meaning believed to lie beneath it, or to the remote
consequences to which it leads. The process that produces such a
response-- often with lightning speed-- is a modest reproduction of
Not only did the Jews of the shtetl speak a unique language
), but they also had a unique
rhetorical style, rooted in traditions of Talmudic learning:
In keeping with his own conception of contradictory
reality, the man of the shtetl is noted both for volubility and for
laconic, allusive speech.
Both pictures are true, and both are characteristic of
the yeshiva as well as the market places.
When the scholar converses with his intellectual peers,
incomplete sentences a hint, a gesture, may replace a whole
The listener is expected to understand the full meaning
on the basis of a word or even a sound...
Such a conversation, prolonged and animated, may be as
incomprehensible to the uninitiated as if the excited discussants
were talking in tongues.
The same verbal economy may be found in domestic or
The shtetl operates on a communal spirit where giving to the needy
is not only admired, but expected and essential:
The problems of those who need help are accepted as a
responsibility both of the community and of the
They will be met either by the community acting as a
group, or by the community acting through an individual who
identifies the collective responsibility as his own...
The rewards for benefaction are manifold and are to be reaped both
in this life and in the life to come. On earth, the prestige value
of good deeds is second only to that of learning. It is chiefly
through the benefactions it makes possible that money can "buy"
status and esteem.
This approach to good deeds finds its roots in Jewish religious
views, summarized in Pirkei Avot
On three things the world stands.
On Torah, On service [of God], And on acts of human
(charity) is a key element of Jewish
culture, both secular and religious, to this day. It exists not
only as a material tradition (e.g tzedaka boxes), but also
immaterially, as an ethos of compassion and activism for those in
Material things were neither disdained nor extremely praised in the
shtetl. Learning and education were the ultimate measures of worth
in the eyes of the community, while money was secondary to
status.Menial labor was generally looked down upon as
, or prole
. Even the poorer
classes in the shtetl tended to work in jobs that required the use
of skills, such as shoe-making or tailoring of clothes.The shtetl
had a consistent work ethic which valued hard work and frowned upon
laziness. Studying, of course, was considered the most valuable and
hard work of all. Learned yeshiva
did not provide bread and relied on their wives for money were not
frowned upon but praised as ideal Jews.
Interaction with Gentiles
The shtetl's main interaction with Gentile citizens was in trading
with the neighboring peasants. There was often animosity towards
the Jews from these peasants, resulting in extremely violent
from the Gentiles on the Jews,
resulting in many Jewish deaths. This, among other things, helped
foster a very strong "us-them" mentality based on differences
between the peoples. This can be seen in the play Fiddler on the Roof
The May Laws
introduced by Tsar Alexander III of Russia
banned Jews from rural areas and towns of fewer than ten thousand
people. In the 20th century revolutions, civil wars,
industrialization and the Holocaust destroyed traditional shtetl
existence. However, Hasidic Jews
have founded new communities in the United States, such as Kiryas
Joel and New Square.
There is a belief found in historical and literary writings that
the shtetl disintegrated before it was destroyed during World War
II; however, this alleged cultural break-up is never clearly
The shtetl in fiction and folklore
figures prominently in the
Jewish humor as the legendary town of fools. Kasrilevke, the
setting of many of Sholom Aleichem
stories, and Anatevka, the setting of the musical Fiddler on the Roof
(based on other
stories of Sholom Aleichem) are other notable fictional
novel Everything Is
Illuminated, by Jonathan
Safran Foer, tells a fictional story set in the Ukrainian
shtetl Trachimbrod. (Trochenbrod)
The 1992 children's book Something from Nothing
written and illustrated by Phoebe
, is an adaptation of a traditional Jewish folktale set
in a fictional shtetl.
List of shtetls
Map of the Pale of Settlement
- Life is With People: The Culture of the Shtetl by Mark
Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog. 1962 edition.
- Excerpt from Pirke Avot from aish.com.