1974 CSJO Conference Keynote by Gerry Kane

Good morning… it has fallen on my head to deal with cultural roots in eastern Europe and the Shtetle; define what the roots are; relate the need for teaching this particular topic in our secular schools and touch on format, suffice it to say our cultural roots are in eastern Europe and particularly the Shetetlach or Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Rumania, the Ukraine, Bohemia, Bessarabia… chunks of country ruled by kings and princes who could look at maps and proudly trace the borders of their separate kingdoms, but, what none of them saw was the other kingdom… the kingdom of Yiddishkeit that cut across all their princely frontiers to unite the Jews of the Shtetlach in "their own people's culture and independent style of life and thought… (this was) an original gallery of human types (with) fresh and rueful modes of humour, irony, lyricism, paradox… there Yiddishkeit entered its golden age,"1 The world of the Shtetle was not the contemporary urban world of the Sephardic Jews, in Holland and England, but a world shut off from the rest of Europe by the arbitrary pale of settlement established by Catherine the second in 1791, which restricted five million Jews to the villages of Shtetlach of twenty-five provinces of the Russian empire.

I will not deal too much with physical descriptions of Shtetle life and types… rather with attitudes of the Shtetle that are perennial to the experience of the Jewish people; historic values that can meaningfully help us develop a proper attitude to extrapolating the material we need in bringing to our children a feeling for Jewish culture that will help them understand the tradition of a religious yesterday in the light of a secular today.

The world of the Shtetle was "internally a spiritual kingdom and externally a society in peril… a society on the margin." 2 on the One hand fundamentalist in faith, superstitious, resisting secularism or change in fear that it would be the undoing of a faith mired in empty scholasticism, on the other hand/ life on the margin meant that Jews were forbidden to own land… barred from colleges and universities,,, they were restricted to certain skills and crafts… they lived in the constant fear of the vested authority that extracted onerous taxes but did nothing to protect them.

The Shtetle was a closed highly formalized congregational society in which rachmonos or compassion was the vital core of interpersonal relationships… learning was the instrument of social mobility and the Sabbath was the moment every Jew waited for to relieve the meanness of the rest of the week.

It's being an inward looking congregational society that gave the Shtetle strength to live in the shadow of external lawlessness and disorder, the 613 mitzvos or commandments a pious Jew was supposed to obey helped keep together the congregants in a pattern of lawful order. All social action and interaction was based on Talmud and torah, "since no realm of life is divorced from the law embodied in the holy books, the Shtetle draws no line between the religious and the secular, for the Shtetle, the opposition is not so much between secular and non-secular, as between Jewish and non-Jewish," 3

It is particularly important for us attending a conference on secular Jewish education to realize that in the Shtetle a Jew without learning was considered incomplete… that historically and traditionally the wealthy Jew was one whose glory was reflected primarily in learning not gold.

And here we come to the basic reason for studying the Shtetle from a secular point of view. We can learn from the Shtetle attitude toward learning. In learning, in drawing the cloak of tradition and culture around him. The Shtetle Jew did not make a distinction between past and present. In the study of Talmud and torah past and present were inter¬woven. The dry dates of history weren't important. What was important was the realization that no aspect of life was divorced from the law embodied in the holy books.

As secular Jews we cannot bring creativity to our existence as Jews, nor develop programs for our children, without drawing that same cloak of tradition and culture around us; viewed and interpreted in the light of our temporal secular needs, tradition is the basis for renewal, Without it there is no identity.

The most exalted position in Shtetle rank was the Talmud Chochem - a master of traditional knowledge and interpretation, learning gave one yikhus… pedigree; gave one prestige… authority… status.

There were three levels of education in the Shtetle; a Cheder for the youngest, where from the age of three, ten hours a day, the child was taught the elements of reading and prayer; was given a basic introduction to the study of chumish. The learning was by rote. And, the teacher, obviously not a Talmud Chochem. It was generally assumed that a man who fell to the teaching of little children for a living did so because "he (had) failed elsewhere," 4

On the second level the Shtetle educational system introduced the boy to the Gemorrah Cheder. It was here he was introduced to the study of Talmud, law, interpretation and argument. It was here the child brought his reason to bear on the ancient subject matter in order to bring a contemporary understanding to the religious tradition that shaped his being. And, if a boy was judged to have the capacity to bring honour to himself and his Shtetle he was sent to the third level of the educational system — the yeshiva — from which it was hoped he would graduate a Talmud Chochem.

"The learned tradition then, not only serves to transmit the culture but is also a cohesive force, maintaining unity and continuity in time and space. Deprived of a common territory and common national history since the diaspora, the Jews have maintained a stable realm in the domain of the intellect, when a scholar takes a sacred book into his hands he immerses himself in the tradition that reaches out of the far past, into the living present." 5

I have stressed the love of learning as the emotional centrality of existence in the Shtetle… and I listed three levels of schooling, all in Hebrew, but, there was a fourth level, the Talmud torah, for those whose parents could not afford tuition; for those children who were destined for trade. Here the teaching could even be in Yiddish. The goals here were not intellectual achievement but bare literacy; something which the vast bulk of peasants amongst whom the Jews lived did not have.

To speak of a class separation in the Shtetle in modern sociological terms is, I think, wrong. The ability to rise to yichus through learning, preserved a certain degree of social fluidity and, in the Shtetle few Jews owned any massive means of production. Fewer still sold only their labour power, they existed on the margin as tradesmen; servicing each other and the surrounding peasants, they were the shoemakers, draymen, cobblers, tailors, butchers. They were under folk amcho, as Sholem Alaichem's tailor, Shimeloe shirker, used to say… unser folk, amcho… our poor working people. And, though there was no class system. There was a caste system of sorts that broke into three parts: the shayne yidn — the most learned… the balebatishe leit or respected merchants… and finally the prosteh mentshn -- the ordinary folk -- most of our grandmothers and grandfathers who eked out a meager existence from day to day and waited each week for the glory of the Sabbath when they could celebrate something.

There were two governments in the Shtetle, the tzars, which looked after extracting taxes, and the community government, made up of Shtetle people and the rabbi who administered civil control, this authority was centered on the synagogue which was not only a house of worship, but a house of assembly, in which it was as natural to discuss social problems as it was theological ones. "No clear cut distinction is made between religious and secular functions, since for the Shtetle Judaism is not a religion but a way of life." 6

And this is what must be transmitted to our children. Judaism is a way of life. And our way of life handles the tradition and contributes to the tradition from a secular point of view. In the Shtetle each man was responsible for the community and the community was responsible for each man, in the Shtetle there was an enormous emphasis on reason and law.

It was a highly verbalized culture. The world was brought out of chaos by words. "In the beginning god said, 'let there by light.'” 7 Words are all powerful. And, it has been the historical experience of the Jews that the word is the threshold to the deed.

In Shtetle culture words are also a catharsis. You don't fight the Czar and his black hundreds physically -- you use words. Hostility finds it’s outlet in humour: “may you sit on live coals."

I said earlier that in the Shtetle each man was responsible for all. And part of this responsibility is centered around the concept of tsdokeh. Tsdokeh doesn't mean charity. It means social justice. "Life in the Shtetle begins and ends with tsdokeh. When a child is born, the father pledges a certain amount of money for distribution to the poor. At a funeral the mourners distribute coins to the beggars…" children are trained in the habit of giving. Every celebration is accompanied by gifts to the needy. Every home has its pushke in which coins are dropped to be contributed for some good community service.

In the Shtetle there was no distinction between personal benefaction and community functions. Tsdokeh was the essence of the Yiddish hartz. The giving of tsdokeh was both a duty and a joy. What a glorious concept for our children to grow with and apply not only in the Jewish community but the general community.

My approach to the Shtetle has stressed the veneration for learning — Even though narrow — the sense op history that pervades all learning — and the spirit of tsdokeh — social justice. I haven't talked of beauty. There was nothing beautiful about the Shtetle; generally a ramshakle, dirty, muddy, dusty village, with houses, synagogue and Mikveh huddled together, with a marketplace in the square where mostly the women carried on the business of the week while the men studied. That is, those who had the capacity. The shoemakers and tailors worked. The danger in talking about the Shtetle is to talk about it only with nostalgia. To present the stories of Sholem Aleichem, mendele, peretz to our children as a quaint look back is to devalue their meaning. To read the Shtetle stories without properly grasping the historical tension these stories reflect… without grasping the relevance of the Shtetle for us as secular Jews is to forget our secular roots. We are products of that tension, our secular roots develop out of the traditions of the Shtetle and the philosophical and social forces that helped destroy its congregational nature: the Haskalla, Zionism and socialism.

Yiddish literature, which made its appearance in the late nineteenth century "can be seen as the outcome of a meeting — at once affectionate and violent between the traditional religious culture of eastern European Jews and the humanistic enlightenment"8 of the Haskallah.

The strongly rationalistic Haskallah movement undertook an intellectual revival of the Jewish world and attacked ignorance and Hassidism, and they did it in Yiddish. Suddenly the closed Shtetle society had to contend with Jews attacking the structure of traditional thought and organization. The young people, even in the yeshivas, were secretly studying secular subjects. Were learning the language of their host countries; were reading novels. People were becoming caught up in the need for change. The haskallah didn't awake an intellectual hunger. For that was part of the Shtetle ethos. The haskallah switched young people from one objective to another; "from the Talmud to Russian…or French… from Rashid to Spenser." 9 it is in this switch that today's secular Jew confronts his history. A window was opened in the Shtetle and the draught brought fresh air to some and death to others. Dle prosteh mentchn, were soon listening to the arguments of former yeshiva students who returned to the shtetlach to talk about national pride, Zionism, or the building of a fraternal society right where they were, socialism. Any of you who have read Tevye will recognize in Tevye's son-in-law, pertchik, one of the new, revolutionary, secular Jews.

The secular winds of haskallah, Zionism, socialism, started to change the Shtetle. And, it was these winds that blew life into the great Yiddish folk literature of mendele, Peretz Sholem alechem, avrom reisn, Sholem asch and the others who wrote of the Shtetle. Theirs was a creativity of the highest order, and if we, in studying this literature, in presenting it to our children, do so only with nostalgia, we miss the social point. Their writings are of a society in transition, in which values were being weighed and re-defined. They wrote for an audience who understood the issues and knew that world not nostalgically. Their creativity was a force in establishing a new societal circumstance, but it was a force rooted in continuum, in tradition, with respect for tsdokeh, social justice and learning. And, that is why the study of the Shtetle, particularly through its literature is important for the secular Jew. The dry bones of formal history don't give the true feeling of living on the margin the way mendele's luftmensch from tunyadevkah describes the pointlessness and hopelessness of Jewish occupations in the Shtetle. The study of dry history doesn't give a sense of peoplehood. And, if we declare ourselves secular Jews we declare ourselves Jews of a particular sort who have an obligation to create out of our roots, a worthwhile, healthy, continuing tradition. And, the only way we can create is to, like the religious Shtetle Jews, inculcate in our children a love of learning and justice and familiarity with the texture of Jewish life through the ages.

And, it is not enough to bring in pictures out of Shtetle life… or read quaint stories or even have our parents or grandparents romanticize Shtetle life for the children. There must be a creative, secular perspective that will make our children want to carry on culturally as Jews. Our teaching must appropriate "the progressive historical values of the Jewish people as symbols which inspire us in facing our problems today."10 We must make sure our children are not presented with a smidgen of esoteric culture "but with the songs and scenes of struggle, of sorrow, of victory, of folk humour, that comprise the full bodied history of the Jewish people." 11 We must make sure that our teaching is a creative experience for our children.

Itshe Goldberg, in the December 1973 issue of Yiddish kultur, painfully reviewing the destruction of Yiddish literature, sadly wrote of the Jews in the soviet union: "a folk vos shaft nit is doch farmishpet tsum Untergain, vos vet vern?" 12 a people who do not create are condemned to disappear. What will become of them? Creativity is not a literary exercise but more an exercise in identity. Certainly that is part of the reason we organize secular Jewish schools; to give a creative, secular substance to the identity of our children. To water the roots of their Yiddishkeit.

General Bibliography

  1. Rosten, Leo, The Joys of Yiddish, Mcgraw Hill, 1968 Zborowski, Mark and Herzog, Elizabeth, Life is with People, Schochen Books, 1973
  2. Bellow, Saul, (ed.), Great Jewish Short Stories, Dell publishing Co., Inc., 1963
  3. Cang, Joel, The Silent Millions, A History of Jews in the Soviet Union, Taplinger Publishing Co., New York, 1969
  4. Howe, Irving and Greenberg, Eliezer,(ed.), A Treasury of Yiddish stories, the Viking press, 1954
  5. Howe, Irving and Greenberg, Eliezer,(ed.), A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry, Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1969 Samuel, Maurice, The World of Sholem Aleichem, Vintage Books, 1973
  6. Goldberg, Itche and Rosenfeld, Max., (ed.), Morris Rosenfeld, selections from his poetry and prose, Yiddisher Kultur Farband, 1964
  7. Goldberg, Itche, Jewish Secular Education, Kinderbuch Publications, New York, 1961
  8. Goldner, Senford, Perspectives in American Jewish Life, Los Angeles, 1959
  9. Manners, Ande, Poor Cousins, Fawcett Publications, 1973
  10. Raisin, Jacob, the Haskallah Movement in Russia, the Jewish Publication Society in America, 1913
  11. Sachar, Howard Merley, The Course of Modern Jewish History The World Publish Company, 1958
  12. Singer, Joshua Israel, Of a World That is No More, Vanguard Press, New York, 1970
  13. Vineberg, Ethel, Grandmother came from Divoritz, Tundra Books, Montréal, 1971
  14. Zeligs, Dorothy E., A History of Jewish Life in Modern Times, Block Publishing Co., New York, 1947
  15. Yiddish Literature and Your Child, (A Symposium)
  16. Friends of Jewish Education and Service Bureau for Jewish Education, New York, 1965

Works Cited

  1. Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish, p. 370
  2. Howe and Greenberg, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, p. 3
  3. Zborowski, Herzog, Life is With People, p. 104-106
  4. Ibid, p. 119
  5. Ibid, p. 88
  6. Ibid, p. 215
  7. Ibid, p. 413
  8. Howe and Greenberg, A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry, p. 10
  9. Maurice Samuels, The World of Sholem Aleichem, p. 161
  10. Sanford Goldner, Perspectives in America Jewish Life, p. 142
  11. Ibid, p. 142
  12. Itche Goldberg, Yiddish Kultur, Dec, 1973