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Changing the Image of the Shtetl

Rokhl’s Golden City: Painting Eastern European Jewish life as a golden age leaves out the nitty-gritty reality of those who lived on the margins

Rokhl Kafrissen
December 24, 2020
Original photo: Patrick Riviere/Getty Image
Original photo: Patrick Riviere/Getty Image
Original photo: Patrick Riviere/Getty Image
Original photo: Patrick Riviere/Getty Image

On Jan. 7, 1945, Abraham Joshua Heschel stood before a group of scholars at YIVO to deliver a eulogy for Eastern European Jewry. A year later, that Yiddish-language eulogy was published by Schocken, followed in 1949 by an English translation, which received the title The Earth Is the Lord’s: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe.

Jewish custom is to bury the dead as quickly as possible. Heschel’s hesped (eulogy) was fittingly timely, coming even before the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on Jan. 27, 1945. That date would be considered of such significance that 60 years later it was designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the United Nations.

But Jan. 7 marks a different kind of anniversary, one specifically relevant to American Jews. Heschel’s eulogy was perhaps the first text constituting what historian Sheila Jelen identifies as the “salvage poetics” of postwar Jewish American identity. The Earth Is the Lord’s was just one of many “folk ethnographies” appearing after the war. Other familiar folk ethnographies include Fiddler on the Roof, the photographs of Roman Vishniac, and Life Is With People. In Salvage Poetics: Post-Holocaust Jewish American Folk Ethnographies, Jelen examines how these texts functioned less as accurate representations of Jewish Eastern Europe, and more as products of postwar “reconstitution of an American Jewish ethnicity.” Within this framework, American Jews began to imagine “the shtetl” as a timeless, completely Jewish locus for all of Eastern European Jewish history. Everything from the largest metropolis (shtot) to the tiniest village (derfel) would be swallowed up by the newly emergent shtetl.

Much about the future of American Jewry can be read in Heschel’s work. But what interests me is a certain kind of imagery found throughout the brief text. He writes of Eastern European Jews: “They had disdain for the rough, for the coarse, and tried to lend an inward dignity to everything they did.” The Earth Is the Lord’s, like similar folk ethnographies reduced “East European Jewish life to almost entirely spiritualized sketches, ignoring geography, economics, and the bulk of modernity.”

There are a number of readings possible of the smooth, refined Eastern Europe of Heschel’s eulogy. First, of course, is its immediate context as tribute to the recently deceased. Then there is the figuring of Ashkenaz as an easily accessible wellspring of spirituality. The Eastern European period, Heschel writes, was “the golden period in Jewish history, in the history of the Jewish soul.” Jewish Eastern Europe is presented as so ethereal, even physical obliteration is no barrier to those American Jews who seek it.

But Heschel’s ethereal shtetl presents moments of cognitive dissonance. In his Eastern Europe, “drunkards were rarely seen among Jews” and witticisms were “alien to the spirit of their humor. Puns are almost absent in Yiddish … Nor was bodily weakness or deformity an object of humor.” It’s true that there were different social conditions and norms obtaining around Jews and alcohol, but it is slightly absurd to claim the absence of “drunkards.” And as to the absence of puns, the importance of wordplay and puns begins with the Hebrew Bible itself, and enjoys great prominence in all sorts of Yiddish sayings and jokes, especially the bawdy kind.

Heschel’s satiny smooth Eastern Europe was, no doubt, an imagined place of great comfort for Jews of his time, and decades to come. But to be honest, from the vantage point of the smoothly bland American suburbs of my own childhood, it sounded really and truly, indescribably boring. Who could possibly bear a life of such unrelenting refinement?

Though he wasn’t writing specifically about Heschel, Eddy Portnoy’s Bad Rabbi speaks exactly to this problem. History, he writes, “lacks the taste, the smells, the aching tedium … of everyday life.”

The postwar apologetics of Heschel and others indeed had a profound effect on American Jews. Most of all, they believed it! Specifically, these Eastern European folk ethnographies reinforced and coincided with American Jews’ revision of their own history here. Representing one’s community as a model minority was surely a strategy of self-preservation and communal safety. But in the process of upward flight, the downwardly mobile are erased from history. No wonder counterhistories of bad Jews are so perennially popular. The best of all of these, in my opinion, is still Bad Rabbi. Portnoy examines the prewar Yiddish language popular press in Warsaw and New York to find “amkho, the uniquely Jewish rabble,” the forgotten Jews who also “deserve a place in the historical record.”

Again, Heschel’s imaginary landscape of refinement is at odds with the grimy texture of modern urban Jewish life. Portnoy unpacks “the nitty-gritty of daily life, the quotidian grind, the stories of the criminals and lowlifes, the human detritus that gets washed away and forgotten.” A typically lurid headline from Warsaw’s Unzer expres (Our Express) newspaper might be, “Arrests Made After Lesbian Night Club Discovered” or “A Secret Narcotics Den Was Uncovered: Opium and Cocaine Found.”

The Earth Is the Lord’s presents the final century of Eastern European life, the great urban eruption of secularizing Jewish life, as lacking in the timeless, essentialized grandeur of Ashkenaz. Which is strange, as Heschel himself was born in Warsaw in 1907. The “human detritus” the Yiddish dailies so lustily chronicled was no less part of Heschel’s Jewish life than the world of the yeshiva and the scholar. After all, as Portnoy points out, so many of our beloved (and many still-to-be beloved) Yiddish literary artists and intellectuals supported themselves as journalists. Heschel’s vision doesn’t just erase the Yiddish criminals and cocaine fiends, it erases a part of himself, too.

Again, it’s understandable why historians have traditionally shied away from studying Jewish crime and criminals, what Ephraim Shoham-Steiner calls “voluntary marginals.” For one thing, he points out, criminality was the foundational libel aimed by Christian Europe at its Jews. Jews (allegedly) killed Jesus and they (allegedly) continued to engage in ritualistic murder, using the blood of Christians for their Passover matse. In his fascinating new book, Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe, Shoham-Steiner notes that past historians ignored certain sources out of self-censorship and a “long tradition of apologetics.” Scholars who did deal with Jewish crime in medieval Europe insisted that its cause lay outside of the Jewish community, with “the implication … that medieval Jewish society was inherently law-abiding and chaste, if not outright holy.” Modern historians had myriad justifications for this selective historiography, including the ideological exigences of both the Wissenschaft movement and modern Zionist scholarship.

But Shoham-Steiner returns to the subject with an eye to correcting the evasions of earlier historians. The sources are extremely limited, mainly rabbinical responsa, as well as some other contemporaneous Jewish writings, and as legal documents from Christian judicial institutions. He includes some of these as appendices and the book is worth it alone just for these accessible translations of medieval primary sources and the extremely salty tales they tell.

What is inescapable across hundreds of years and a wide swath of Europe is that Jews were hardly sealed off from their Christian neighbors. Jews and Christian often formed legitimate business partnerships, as well as criminal partnerships, and, at times, the responsa show a starkly cleareyed acknowledgment of that criminal activity. Rather than being persecuted by the surrounding Christian society, Jews were granted a high level of internal jurisdiction over criminal matters and Jewish merchants held some extraordinary privileges. While theft was an extremely serious crime, Jewish merchants were exempt from certain criminal procedures, such as trial by ordeal (in which an accused thief’s hands might be passed through fire to test his innocence).

Some of the criminal activity examined in the book stems from the “plunder economy” of 11th-century Germany, in which neighboring lords were constantly raiding each other. Dealing in plundered goods was an area of great potential profit, with attendant risks. And if you think Jews avoided business with Christian authorities, take for instance the 11th-century Rhineland Jews who had “shady dealings with a renegade Christian cleric.” One merchant (the anonymous “Reuven”) bought gold fixtures from the cleric. He overhears other merchants (including the other anonymous “Shimon”) plotting to rob the cleric. As it turns out, the cleric had stolen the gold from a church. The plotters figured he would be unlikely to go to authorities and report them if they robbed him. As you can guess, since the case ended up before the rabbis, things did not go smoothly for any of the parties involved.

While Jews and Crime in Medieval Europe deals with “voluntary marginals,” another new book takes on an even more disturbing, potentially explosive topic, those whose marginality was involuntary. I talked about Natan Meir’s new book, Stepchildren of the Shtetl: The Destitute, Disabled, and Mad of Jewish Eastern Europe, 1800-1939, extensively when I wrote about the cholera wedding back in March. Meir argues that “not only the disabled, but all of Jewish society’s undesirable people served as scapegoats. Since in some sense they represented all of Jewish society, that society could, by sacrificing them, by placing the blame for Jewish suffering on them, redeem itself from its abject, suffering state.”

It’s a horrifying thought to modern sensibilities, and certainly a framing of traditional Jewish Eastern European life at odds with Heschel’s. These social marginals were the Other within Europe’s Other. And, as Meir writes, as Jews worried about the way they were perceived by Christian Europe, they projected that worry onto the Other in their midst. Marginals were seen as a communal liability but also possessing something of the magical and exotic.

History, of course, is always a product of the present time. It cannot be otherwise. But stories like these fundamentally challenge our habit of seeing the past as Other. They recenter the vital human experience, and all its glorious textures, within the grand narrative of Jewish history.

ALSO: Acclaimed Klezmer trumpeter Susan Watts is hosting a two-part Master Class series: Klezmer Spotlight Sessions. Dec. 27 at 2 p.m. she’ll be in conversation with DJ Socalled, Montreal’s own Josh Dolgin. More info here … In yet another “only during a pandemic” piece of innovative programming, Daniel Galay will be offering a unique three-part course in January focusing on spoken Yiddish, specifically intonation. Of interest to singers and actors, or anyone who wants to sound like a native speaker. More info here … Wojciech Tworek will give a talk on “The Rise of Hasidic Yiddish Theatre” at University College London, part of the Ada Rapoport-Albert Seminar Series in Hasidic Yiddish. Feb. 2, 6 p.m. ... New history app alert: The Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow has a new app using archival pictures (and more) to tell the story of Polish Jewry … New York’s storied Town Hall theater recently hosted a live program exploring its connection to Yiddish theater. Now available on YouTube … Seems almost hard to believe, but the folks at the Naomi Prawer Kadar International Yiddish Summer Program are planning on holding their summer intensive in-person during July 2021 … I’m shepping a ton of nakhes seeing the Congress for Jewish Culture’s recent 100th anniversary production of The Dybbuk named a New York Times Best of 2020: Theater to Stream. Yes, it really is that good, proving that a great text transcends time, and great performances can transcend any medium. Watch here.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.