Friday, August 18, 2006

The Geriatric Shtetl

There’s going to come a time in the not-so-distant future when the last living person who lived in a shtetl, (the towns of Eastern Europe), will no longer be with us. Even in Chasidic communities almost everyone was born in America. In the Satmar town of Kiryas Joel over 90 percent of the town was born in America. People who were born after the war and returned to Eastern Europe never saw the shtetl because by the time they returned there wasn’t anything left. People who were born just before the war also didn’t see very much, since they were very, very young. Even people born around 1930 never saw the shtetl in all its glory. The time to have lived in a shtetl was before WWI. During the First World War, these towns were frequently ravaged either by the Russian or German armies and life never really returned to normal. This last point is brought out very poignantly in the Noble- Prize winning novels of S. Y. Agnon. Reading these novels, one gets a feeling for the depression and the decay that had already begun to set in. There may still be still a few people who remember the shtetl of old, but sadly they will not be with us for long. At that point, the idea of being from East Europe and heimish will begin to lose its authenticity. (More on heimishin in my blog of 6/21). It will become something of an imaginary home. Overtime, everyone will have been born in America or some Western country. (BTW Russians don’t count. They lived under the Bolshevik rule. They can talk about communism; they can’t talk about shtetlech.)

I am always of two minds about the “old country.” Part of me feels it was a center of backwardness, poverty and cultural illiteracy. The other part feels that even today we live off the crumbs of the shtetl’s table. If it were not for the cauldron of Jewish settlements, our cultural and religious life today as Jews would be severely diminished. We wouldn’t have had Yiddish theater, which means we wouldn’t have had Broadway musicals. We wouldn’t have had Hollywood in the same way, since most of the first generation of Hollywood moguls came from the shtetl. And most importantly, we wouldn’t have Chassidus, the movement that revolutionized Jewish life in the eighteenth century, and gave it new energy and impetus. Groups like the Zionists, Volkists, Jewish Mensheviks (Bundists) and their kin folk the Jewish Bolsheviks, Yiddishists and Hebraists, Agudists and Maskilim are all indebted to their East European origins.

I wonder what’s going to happen to American Jewish life, when there are no more Jews who remember life in Eastern Europe. I remember once talking to a Reform Rabbi, and I let the word “Yiddishkeit”, (the name for the Yiddish-speaking culture of Eastern Europe), slip. Before I could say “Sorry, I mean Judaism”, he snapped back saying “My ancestors were already in America in 1850. Don’t ever talk to me about Yiddishkeit. It’s totally irrelevant in the context of America.” At his end of the Jewish spectrum, where patrilineal descent rules, he had a point. I’m sure some of his congregants came over on the Mayflower.

What I think will happen, and to some extent is happening already, is that a collective fantasy and idealization is taking shape. The realities of the shtetl will disappear, and it will begin to look more and more like Fiddler on the Roof. For example, many if not most Orthodox Jews sincerely but incorrectly believe that Poland and Hungary before the war were predominantly Orthodox. Not true. The Orthodox circa 1940 were already under 40% of the population almost everywhere. One way to see this very clearly is to read the Yizkor books published just after the war by the landsleit organizations as a memorial to their ‘home towns’. There are over a 100 such volumes with detailed essays in Yiddish, Hebrew and English, written by individuals who had vivid, mostly accurate and loving memories of their birthplaces. If you take it upon yourself to work your way through this gold mine of information, it quickly becomes obvious how far secularism, socialism and Zionism had already taken hold.

The towns were complex dynamic places with different shades of Orthodoxy and secularism. They we’re morphing and mutating constantly in a natural organic way, as the Jews tried to come to terms with the modern world. When Hitler came and wiped it all out the memories became frozen. The further transformations of Jewish life which were now happening in America and Israel became more erratic and convoluted. We ended with an assimilation more extreme than anything that would have occurred had the shtetl been allowed to develop. We also ended with a situation where a very, narrow sector of East European Jewish life is remembered and celebrated.

Following Boyarin, if we think of the Jews of Europe as an INTERNAL colony of the Christian nations of Europe, the relationship of American Jews to their colonial home should be understood along the same lines as the attitudes of the children of other post colonial subjects to their imagined home communities. There is now a literature on the subject that is part of the new discipline called post-colonial studies, and it’s worth exploring.

I came across an unbelievably interesting (to me) video of Munkacs in 1933. The movie shows both Orthodox and non religious Jews as integral to Munkacs, exactly as one would expect.

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