(p. 15) Smuggling looms large not only in the economy of Petrovsky-Shtern’s shtetl but for its symbolism, too. The author is interested in the way aspects of one world slide inside another. His golden-age shtetl was born when Russia swallowed a giant slice of Poland at the end of the 18th century and went from having few Jews to overseeing vast numbers of them, many of whom lived in privately owned Polish towns.
These towns are the essential ingredients of the hybrid world Petrovsky-Shtern is celebrating. Polish nobles had permitted Jews to live there on the condition that they ran the outdoor markets, sold liquor and in general acted as engines of trade. When the towns fell under Russian rule, Jews retained many of their economic privileges while expanding their civil rights, especially after they displayed a willingness to inform on their erstwhile Polish overlords.
Shtetl dwellers became adept at playing the declining Polish nobility off against bribable Russian officials. The czar had not yet laid his heavy hand on the trade by which shtetl Jews powered the economic growth of western Russia. Neither had he made nationalism the supreme ideology and Eastern Orthodoxy synonymous with Russian nationalism.
That would come, and as the Russian treasury bought up more and more of the private towns and trade died, Russia repurposed shtetl Jews as scapegoats for a restive peasant population.
For the full review, see:
JONATHAN ROSEN. “World of Our Great-Grandfathers.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., July 27, 2014): 15.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 25, 2014.)
The book under review is:
Petrovsky-Shtern, Yohanan. The Golden Age Shtetl: A New History of Jewish Life in East Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.