Officially, the shtetl was the small-town Jewish community of Eastern Europe. But to its residents the shtetl was more than a town—it was a whole way of life. To understand the shtetl is to understand hundreds of years of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
Jews lived in thousands of shtetls in the territory bounded by the Black and Baltic Seas and the Vistula and Dnieper River Basins. Each shtetl was uniform, linked by economic and family ties with other shtetls. Quite often the shtetls were located near a river or a small lake. In the center of the town was the market place, where on Christian holidays fairs were held. Although members of the shtetl did business with each other, their economy was based on trade with the peasants of the countryside.
Families often lived in the same shtetl for generations. It was not uncommon for three generations to live together under the same roof. When a daughter married, the son-in-law was taken into the house and a little room was partitioned off for the couple.
The shtetl was a close-knit community. People were always involved in their neighbors’ affairs. They lent and borrowed things, helped in time of need and generally were closely bound to each other. No one was isolated or alone. The whole shtetl was like a chain providing strength and endurance for its inhabitants.
From Sunday through Thursday the shtetl Jews were busy earning their living. But on Friday things changed. Early in the morning, the women started chopping fish to prepare the Sabbath meal of fish, soup, fowl, wine, and hallah. All week long the people scraped and borrowed to provide food for their festive Sabbath meal.
Toward afternoon the bath attendant rushed through the streets calling the men to come to the public bath so that they could approach the Sabbath in physical and spiritual cleanliness. The public bath was an important institution in the shtetl’s life, the men alternating with the women in its use. After the Sabbath meal, the master of the house usually took a nap from which he arose to test his sons on what they had learned at the heder during the week.
For the Jews of the shtetl the Sabbath and other religious holidays were a time to forget their daily problem’s and hardships and to reflect on the richness of their heritage. It was a time to give praise and thanks to God for seeing then through another week.
With the conclusion of the Sabbath the shtetl Jews went back to their everyday life of scrimping, working and saving in an effort to escape generations of poverty and perhaps the confines of the shtetl itself.
Because they generally kept to themselves in order to preserve their culture, the Jews were thought by many to be clannish. They were considered as foreigners because they spoke a strange language—Yiddish.
Various Russian governments and officials attempted to Russify the Jews. When the Jews refused to give up their own culture, Czar Nicholas II turned his anti-Jewish campaign to another course of action. Jews living in the cities were forced by government decrees to sell their homes and businesses. At the same time, with the full knowledge and backing of government officials, riots or Pogroms broke out in a number of Russian cities. Jews were stoned and beaten; their houses were burned; the survivors were ordered to move to the interior of Russia, in a special quarter of the Western provinces—the Jewish Pale.
Three waves of pogroms occurred in Russia, each worse and broader than the last: they took place in 1881-1884, 1903-1906, and in 1917-1921.
On April 27, 1881, the city of Yelisavetgrad was the site of the first anti-Jewish riots in Russia; Kiev was the second on May 8, 1881. During the last nine months of 1881 there were over 160 towns and villages in which cases of riot, rapine, murder and spoliation occurred.
The May Laws of 1882 restricted the rights of Jews to settle in the cities, curtailed their religious rights and forced them to resettle in unfamiliar territory. Jews were restricted to the towns and cities of the Pale of Settlement. The government’s strategy was to convert one-third of them, force another third of the Jews out of Russia, and starve the remaining third. In addition, many Jews feared conscription into the Russian army, where additional attempts were made to convert them.
The forced movement of the Russian Jews from small villages and the city of Moscow to “The Pale” did not stop the government campaign against them. In April 1903, hundreds of Jews were massacred in Kishinev and thousands were left destitute. Additional pogroms followed throughout Russia. The magnitude of the various massacres led the United States Congress to adopt and receive the President’s approval of a Joint Resolution passed in 1906 “that the people of the United States are horrified by the reports of the massacre of Hebrews in Russia on account of their race and religion and that those bereaved thereby have the hearty sympathy of the people of this country.”