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The Jewish Shtetl in Lithuania

by Dina Porat

All over Eastern Europe hundreds of small towns existed for centuries with Jews forming the majority of their populations. These little towns had so much in common that one may refer to them as to one phenomenon, although they were spread over a large area in many countries. Was the Lithuanian shtetl – there were about 200 of them – unique in any way? Let us first try and sketch a picture of a typical shtetl before the Holocaust came and wiped them all out.

One could define a shtetl as a place where the majority of the population was Jewish and could be identified as such because of the most common language – Yiddish; also the typical buildings such as the synagogues and the Mikveh, the Beit Midrash and the cheder. Moreover, despite the process of secularisation, at least some of the inhabitants, especially the older generation, still grew beards and side–locks and women as well as men wore their distinct clothing. Life in the shtetl progressed according to the Jewish calendar – the Sabbath, the Holidays, the daily prayers. The crowd in the streets moved and lived according to the ebb and flow of the Jewish Halachah and traditions.

Most of the homes in the shtetlakh were low wooden huts, enlarged according to the needs of the families. It is no wonder, therefore, that almost every Yizkor book includes a section entitled ‘The Big Fire', and sometimes ‘The Big Fires'. Since the shtetlakh were located in the countryside, sometimes near lakes and rivers, the local nobility built their palaces in the vicinity, thus enjoying the view as well as the services rendered to them by 'their Jews'. The services of a priest were also needed, and so a typical triangle was created – the shtetl, the priests' parish and the nobleman's palace.

According to the testimonies, Riteve numbered about 200 families in the 1930s, 1600 individuals at most, many of them children. No matter how small the town was, public life was amazingly intensive: the Kehillah had its departments and services, funded by the taxes collected from the population and by

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wealthier members of the community. Thus the Kehillah managed to maintain the religious, educational and welfare services, which operated alongside a variety of voluntary organisations. The best example mentioned in most of the memoirs on Riteve is the Linat Tzedek', the spending of the night at the bedside of the sick, a voluntarily organised and extremely efficient operation.

An educational system was developed for all ages in Yiddish and in Hebrew, for the religious and the secular. The term 'People of the Book', relating to the Jews in their shtetlakh, was not an empty title: they were an island of literacy and constant study from a very early age, among illiterate and primitive peasants. A small place such as Riteve had a rich library and the leading newspapers reached it.

Another aspect of public life was the large number of political parties and organisations, which is perhaps characteristic of Jews: Socialists and Zionists, Communists and right–wingers, ultra–orthodox and atheists – the 20th century witnessed all these trends together, very often in the same family let alone in the same town. It seems that the most active, or at least the most conspicuous, were the many and varied youth movements, which enriched public life.

The economic life of a shtetl also had its unique character: the marketplace and the market days, when the gentiles would conic to exchange their agricultural products for other goods; the small shops, mostly kept by women; the artisans' booths and stalls, where they both produced and sold their products; the peddler making his rounds among the villages with small merchandise – all these gave the shtetl the positions of mediator between the towns and villages and provider of services to the local peasantry

It should be emphasised that, between the lines of nostalgia written in so many memorial books the poverty and the meagre means of many of the shtetl inhabitants may be clearly observed. Many needed the support of welfare organisations, both local and abroad. During the thirties, when the anti–Semitic economic policy of governments, such as that of Poland and Lithuania, made the Jews even more destitute, the emigration increased especially from the small towns. The young people, who felt that there was no future for them, left for the outside world. Many of them who started earning a living outside Europe sent their earnings home, thus supporting, sometimes actually saving, their families and the public facilities in their home town.

The Jewish shtetl led the autonomous life of a closed community headed by its leaders and guided by the Jewish codes of life. There were neither Jewish police nor a judicial authority or prison. And there was hardly any crime of any kind and almost no sins were committed. Heavy drinking, adultery, beating one's wife and children, all so common in the local society, were almost totally absent. It was the Jewish law, the Halachah, coupled with the intensive public pressure exercised inside a small group that kept the individual in line.

Even when the process of secularisation started changing the shtetl, it still

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retained many of its original features and religious leaders were respected by secular youth and vice versa. The best illustrations are the repeated descriptions, written by all survivors, of Rabbi Fundiler, the last rabbi of Riteve, being tortured to death by the Nazis. The grief as if for a common father, is shared by all. People born in shtetlakh felt, even long after leaving the place, a strong bond that tied them together, and the use of the Yiddish term ‘shtot bruder’ (town brother) is very common among then. Despite the poverty, the primitive physical conditions and the lack of constant communication with the outside world, these were places where a warm feeling of togetherness prevailed, and found its expression in a rich literature, memoirs and research.

Returning to the question we started with, we see the Lithuanian shtetl as basically the same as all the shtetlakh. Yet, as much as it is possible to detect its characteristics, it gave birth to a special type of Jew – the Litvak, namely the Lithuanian Jew: rather more logical than emotional; a bit more suspicious of others; very independent in his thoughts and deeds; exceptionally sharp and intense in his study of the Torah; quite proud of his uniqueness, as compared with the type of Jew created in other countries. In short, a Mitnaged – an adamant opposer of Hassidism, not only as a trend in Jewish thought, but as the expression of a group practising together the over–emotional external ceremonies, giving less scope for forms of individualism. Such Jews, coupled with their world–famous yeshivot which attracted scholars from other countries, the intensive study of Hebrew, the development of the Zionist movement, and the strong public cohesiveness, made the Lithuanian shtetl in certain respects a unique phenomenon.


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