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DICTIONARY

Shtetl

[Yiddish; plural: shtetlekh] - A town, hamlet; a Jewish community having a particular social structure and customs. Shtetlekh perpetuated the traditions of the pre-partition Communities and constituted closed units. The Community's board had to give its approval in order for anyone to settle within the Community, open a workshop there, or marry someone who had come from outside it. The shtetlekh had their own cultural and intellectual elite, who served as local authorities and were not necessarily wealthy individuals. Events like births, marriages and deaths affected the group as a whole. Beggars and the poor were cared for.

Although this provided a sense of security, it also meant that each resident's life was under the community's watchful eye, and a need for privacy was considered to be something suspicious. According to the Krakow Community's statute of 1595, "If someone comes to a [room] and knocks, and people are inside and do not want to open the door, they should be punished." Various punishments were meted out to those who did not want to live according to the community's rules, or who were not able to do so: they were banned from entering the synagogue, the pillory and whipping. The worst of these was cherem, which meant exclusion from the community.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, traditional shtetlekh began to change, primarily as the result of reforms carried out by the partitioning powers, but also in the wake of emancipation and modern trends in society. Because the Jews were driven out of the countryside, they became very highly urbanized, particularly in the Russian partition. This situation persisted after Poland regained its independence. Examples of this were in Luck, in the Volhynia voivodship, where of a total population of 21,000, there were 15,000 Jews (over 70%); in Orla (Bialystok region), there were 1,167 Jews (almost 77% of the population); in Przytyk (Kielce region) - 1,852 (80.5%); and in Wysokie Litewskie (Polesie) - 1,902 (90.6%). The Jewish residents were united by a strong sense of local identity, and the very word "shtetl" took on an emotional connotation, much as the expression "small fatherland" (mala ojczyzna) has today.
Although during the interwar period cities like Warsaw or Krakow became the centers of Jewish cultural life, both for Orthodox and secular Jews, the shtetlekh were anything but provincial. Political parties were active there, and there were libraries, theaters, cinemas, newspapers, and popular science lectures-some even had sports clubs. In the small shtetl of Baranowicze, on the border, there were two Yiddish dailies, and in Kolomyja, Jews published ten Polish or bilingual titles; Jews also owned the cinema and theater there.
(A.C./CM)

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