“Stetl” – the small Jewish town

Reality and silver dream – from a collector in Győr

What is a shtetl?

The Yiddish word “stetl” means (small) town.

Settlements where a significant part of the population was Jewish and spoke Yiddish were called shtetl. The stetls of the 14th and 19th centuries, which developed in Eastern Europe, mostly in Polish territory, were originally the property of the land-owning nobility. To promote economic growth, Jews were encouraged to settle on their estates. Many of the settlers came from western and central Poland, where anti-Semitism was traditionally high.

Tipsy wine merchant on horse-drawn carriage

The heyday of Jewish towns lasted until about the 1840s. There were several reasons for the decline, one being the deterioration of the economic situation and the overpopulation of the settlements, and the other being the growing anti-Semitism also in these areas from the 1880s onwards. The pogroms caused nearly two million Jews to leave Eastern Europe by 1915. By this time, three quarters of the Jewish population in the region lived in shtetls. During World War II, the inhabitants of the towns were either killed locally or deported and most of them perished in concentration camps. A few managed to emigrate, mainly to the United States, where they tried to continue the “stetl tradition”.

Reflection at the Sabbath tablel

People and institutions

The two main institutions in the shtetl are the Shul, which is the synagogue, and the Cheder, the “room” where Jewish boys learned Torah, Talmud and the laws of Jewish life.

Who might we have met in a classic shtetl?

Blacksmith makes horseshoes
Goat herder with his reluctant goat
Water carrier at heron well
Old Jew and his birds under dovecote

In addition to the traditional occupations of the Jews, such as shoemaker, blacksmith, tailor and other skilled trades, there were also many religious „jobs”. In addition to the rabbi, the Melamed, the teacher, was an important figure in Jewish (religious) life in the shtetls. The Shamas made sure that the Shul was clean and fit for use. The Zogerke led the prayers and studies of the girls and women.

Torah scribe (shofer) at work

A prominent role was played by Shadchan, the well-known matchmaker. At the same time, the Hachnasat Kala helped financially to marry off poor brides and grooms. While the rabbi was the knower of Jewish law, the Maggid was responsible for the moral and emotional life of the townspeople. 

Teacher on his way home

Chevra Kádisa, or the Holy Society, is still the organisation that deals with religious funerals.

Arguments under candelabra

Hachnasat Orchim is an association for welcoming guests, while the Bikur cholim is a society set up for its members to visit and help the sick in the community.

Talmudists by wheel well

The Shochet, or butcher, took care of slaughtering the animals according to kosher rules.

Market and Shabbat

Today, many imagine life in the shtetl as an ideal, perfect world, but the Jewish town was full of poor people and the utilities in the small villages were very poor. Life in the shtetl was most lively on market days, when many families came to the town either to sell their produce or to buy goods for the home. After the market, the traders and their companions would spend part of their daily income in the local inns and shops, mainly owned by Jews.

Coal man pulling the yoke

Saturday is the most important day of the week here too. On this day, the town was silent, with locals visiting only the synagogues. Families ate at home, and fish and meat were on the table, which most people could not afford on a normal weekdays.

Despite the destruction of the classic stetls in Europe during the Second World War, settlements based on the former stetl tradition can still be found in the Americas.

Stetl in art

The life of the stetl is presented in a sweet and affectionate way by Yiddish writer Sólém Aléchem in “Tobiah the Milkman”, in which he tells eight short stories from the life of Tevye, a milkman from the Kiev (!) area. The musical “Fiddler on the Roof” by the Bock-Stein-Harnick trio, which premiered in 1964 and was filmed in 1971, is based on the work of Áléchem.

In painting, the Jewish town has also left its mark, often depicted by artists such as Marc Chagall, Chaim Goldberg, Carl Osterzetzer and Mane Katz.

The Stettl tradition can also be found in the works of renowned silversmiths. In this article, we present miniature silver works of art from a collector in Győr, representing life in the Jewish town.

Markings on the silver works of art (the works on display are by Ludwik Nast or his workshop)

Ludwik Nast

Ludwik Nast, the master jeweller, was born around 1801. His arrival in Warsaw and the beginning of his independent work are unknown. His son, also Ludwik, was born around 1830, and his wife Julia is also mentioned as a silversmith in 1840. The Nast workshop began its activities in the second half of the 1820s. After Ludwik the Elder’s death, the workshop and business were run by Julia until 1854, when his son Ludwik the Younger, having obtained his Master’s degree, took the business into his own name. The business ceased in 1887. The trademark of the Nastów workshop is the image of a snake biting its own tail. On the objects made in the workshop, the master mark LNast in italics was used with the workshop’s trademark, the hallmark and the name of the town.

Source: Dóri Miklós, Stetl – the Jewish town, ZsBlog 2018

Photos © collector from Győr

Featured image: Fiddler on the Roof (Chaim Topol, movie)