cover image 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

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern. Princeton Univ., $29.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-691-16074-0

Neither a comprehensive history of Eastern European Jewish life or the shtetl, Petrovsky-Shtern, professor of Jewish Studies at Northwestern Univ., focuses on three provinces—Volhynia, Podolia, and Kiev—of the then Russian Empire during what he deems the golden age period, 1790–1840, when the shtetl was “the unique habitat of some 80 percent of East European Jews.” Here are portraits of Jewish life in small towns and cities quite different from those Sholom Aleichem immortalized in Fiddler on the Roof, where Jews lived in “an impoverished yet God-fearing dwelling place” afflicted by Russian pogroms. In this account, Russian authorities had a “relatively benevolent attitude” toward Jews. While some Jews were poor, others thrived as traders, owning stalls at fairs that, in the city of Berdichev, featured a casino, horse races, and trapeze artists. Petrovsky-Shtern also notes how important Jews were in selling liquor and owning taverns, introducing us to shtetl criminals and surveying Jewish folklore relating to the Land of Israel (such as tunnels under houses supposedly leading to Jerusalem). At times Petrovsky-Shtern gets bogged down in anecdotal detail, but this is a colorful, exhaustively researched study of a period when Jews were fully at home in shtetl life. 50 photos, 1 map. (Apr.)