1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating history of a centuries-old `multicultural experiment',
This review is from: Shtetl: The History of a Small Town and an Extinguished World (Paperback)Fascinating on many levels, this is an excellent account of one small Polish/Jewish market town, or shtetl, across 500 years of history. In her introduction, author Eva Hoffman is clear about her reasons for writing it. Poland has an unenviable reputation as unremittingly anti-Semitic; but places like her chosen focus, the town of Bransk, show a more complex story. And while the shtetl was no utopia, it wasn't a dystopia either. The author's task is to `remember strenuously' (14) how, as Poland is now once again tainted by rising anti-Semitism, it was possible for Jews and Poles to live side by side for so long in what was, in effect, a centuries-long multicultural experiment.
Hoffman sets the shtetl firmly and clearly in its historical context: with the remarkable 13th century Statute of Kalisz, the tone was set for laws that enshrined toleration as a way of life. Thereafter, the sizeable Jewish minority developed a numerically significant middle class that was increasingly economically integrated with the independent nobility or szlachta. The Jews even earned a measure of self-government through their own parliament, the Vaad Arba Aratzot, before instability provoked by Cossack uprisings to the east began to threaten relations with the wider community. Throughout this time, it seems Bransk's Jews maintained a largely separate social and religious existence, though it's clear there was a lot of friendly cooperation and social interaction at the level of individuals and families, and that weddings in particular could provide a focus for both groups to come together. Bransks's Jewish community was clearly lively, if somewhat professionally hierarchical, with active cheder and yeshiva schools and numerous other groups. Hoffman draws extensively for her accounts of social life on the community's yizkor book, or book of memory - one of hundreds compiled to preserve the memories of vanished communities after the Holocaust.
If the book dragged a bit in its accounts of the shtetl's shifting status as empires fought over Poland in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was clear that its inhabitants were very much part of the political debate that time engendered, even if Polish nationalism was presenting an increasingly shrill and exclusionary voice between the two world wars. Hoffman's account of the sufferings of the Jewish inhabitants of the shtetl is as harrowing as anyone familiar with the history of the period would expect. And with the shtetl now vanished, Hoffman wonders what might have been. Concluding that `experiments' like this only work where both sides strive continually to ensure that respect for difference and mutual belonging are in balance, she observes that the twentieth century up to 1939 increasingly saw identity politics win out over solidarity. A fine, reflective account of a vanished world - and food for thought about our future on a planet where, increasingly, `all the world's a shtetl', as very disparate communities are ever-more intertwined.