poverty & the shtetl

THE ISSUE

Recently, a Jewish publication shared an article on “shtetlcore” (a play on “cottagecore”) fashion. Many Jews took issue with the article, finding it insensitive, as Jews in shtetls were plagued with antisemitic violence and systemically-enforced poverty. Of course, Jews (or “Zionists”) were then accused of exaggerating the history of pogroms and holding “contempt and disdain” for poor folks. So let’s talk about it.

 

YASMINE’S EXPERIENCE 

Before delving into the history of the shtetl, @yafa.yasmine shares her first-hand experience with poverty:

“When discussing poverty, one aspect that is often ignored, erased, or not amplified enough is the actual experiences of those who have lived through poverty versus those who have only observed it. I’m going to jump right into the inappropriate glamorizing of poverty by those who have never been poor.

While of course, through being poor some of our favorite family recipes and even cultural foods are born, we cannot romanticize the circumstances that created them to begin with. Let’s give a quick mention to how lack of access to certain foods contributes to vitamin deficiencies and other malnourishment-related illnesses; additionally, food deserts with lack of access to major food groups also have higher percentages of certain diagnoses. As someone who has been homeless and has had to literally steal to feed herself and her family, it is quite hurtful and even dangerous to romanticize the struggle of being poor. It also comes from a place of immense privilege to be able to ignore the severe trauma that is tied to hunger, and in truth, to ALL aspects of living in poverty.

TRIGGER WARNING (sexual assault, eating disorders)

My maternal grandmother’s family came to the US from Soviet Russia, escaping antisemitism. They lived in extreme poverty as new Jews to the country, and oftentimes barely had enough to feed all of the children. There were even times when her mother, my great grandmother, allowed adult men store owners to touch my grandmother at the age of 7, so that she could take a loaf of bread and milk home. This trauma also created a very complicated relationship with food for my grandmother which then in turn was passed on to myself and others in a form of an eating disorder. You were to clean your plate and never waste food but you also weren’t allowed to want more than what she thought was appropriate — all of this would result in chastising and name-calling. 

As a young adult, around 20, my husband and I found ourselves homeless after someone essentially scammed us out of all our money for an apartment. The next few months were some of the hardest. We were forced to steal to eat and even then what we got wasn’t near enough. We lived on potatoes, rice, onions and bologna sandwiches. It is no surprise that within that time I ended up in the ER with a severe ulcer. At only 20. We had to pawn jewelry, work odd jobs, and “hustle” to ensure our son had an enough formula and baby food.

Now almost two decades later, I have not only poverty PTSD but chronic illness that many of my doctors have attributed to my trauma during this time. Not knowing how one will feed themselves or their child is one of the most traumatizing experiences. Being forced to eat only what one can afford or is allowed access to creates not only a troubled relationship with food but health issues down the line as stated earlier. I recall one of our favorite meals to eat during this time was fried onions and rice. It was cheap and filling. It also tasted good, can’t lie. None of that changes the relationship to said meal. None of that changes the trauma and pain tied to that meal. None of that changes the fact that that meal represents the struggle of not being able to properly nourish myself or family and having nowhere to rest our head.

The same can be said for recipes like gefilte fish. A recipe born of Halacha and poverty, one that I actually love, is still deeply connected to a time when Jews were forced to live in shtetls and forced to make due with what we could scrape up because we were not seen as human. We as Jews can respect, honor, and even love the clothes, foods, and traditions that were born out of our subjugation as it is part of our history and exemplifies our strength, but no, it should not be romanticized. I’ve slept on floors, have gone to bed hungry, foregone doctors a lot to keep the lights on, sold blood to put gas in the car, and so on.

I respect and still will even make some of our favorite struggle meals, in many ways because it’s a comfort food; it makes me feel safe due to its familiarity, but I will never romanticize or glamorize the lack of nutritional access we endured while living in poverty, and what we had to do to afford just that. 

Paying respect and homage and passing down these recipes is so important but so are the stories of persecution attached to them. 

 

Poverty is more than just food or lack thereof. It’s a lack of access to all basic human rights, medical care, clean water, working plumbing, safe living quarters, transportation, clothing, and so much more.

I consider myself anti-capitalist which inherently makes me anti-poverty.

Not only should no one go without basic humans rights and needs but we should also address the way middle and upper class Americans — and, of course, the rich —  often use it as an aesthetic. From Kylie Jenner and her .99 ramen meal that went viral when if a working mom posted this as their kids dinner,  they’d be dragged across the internet for “such an unhealthy meal”, to clothing brands like Loewe making money off an outfit that horrifically resembled the uniform Jews were forced to wear in concentration camps, to hustle culture being “the goal” to make money by any means, except if you’re poor or Black or Brown, in which case you are then criminalized for doing whatever needs to be done to keep the family fed and clothed.

We should honor the stories of poverty, we should uplift poor communities and fight for access and respect and the decriminalization of being poor. But no, we should not romanticize the life that poverty forces upon you.”

“A vital relationship exists between nutritional status, human capital, and economic standing. Malnutrition adversely affects the physiological and mental capacity of individuals; which in turn hampers productivity levels, making them and their respective countries more susceptible to poverty. A two-way link exists between malnutrition and poverty, creating a vicious cycle with each fueling the other. Malnutrition produces conditions of poverty by reducing the economic potential of the population and likewise, poverty reinforces malnutrition by increasing the risk of food insecurity.” — “The Intertwined Relationship Between Malnutrition and Poverty”

 

PALE OF SETTLEMENT

Before delving into life in the shtetl — and what a shtetl is, exactly — we must first learn about the Pale of Settlement.

After the First Partition of Poland (1772) and czarist Russia’s acquisition of Polish territory, a large number of Jews suddenly came under Russian rule. In 1791, Catherine the Great decided that Jews in the Russian Empire would only be allowed within a territory known as the Pale of Settlement, encompassing Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, parts of Ukraine, east-central Poland, small parts of Latvia, and a small region of what is now western Russia. Even within the Pale region, there were restrictions on where Jews could or could not live. For example, Jews were banned from certain cities, such as Kyiv. At various times, Jews who’d been living in other regions of Russia were deported to the Pale.

In other words: Jews were essentially confined to a small region of the Russian Empire. Jewish freedom of movement was restricted. Those outside of the Pale were deported. Economic prospects were bleak, as Jews could not trade with those outside of the Pale. Certain professions were restricted to Jews; for instance, Jews could not participate in agriculture. Jews were the victims of regular pogroms (anti-Jewish massacres), oftentimes incited or supported by the governing authorities. For example, between 1881-1884, over 200 antisemitic massacres took place in the Pale of Settlement. In all, some five million Jews were essentially imprisoned within the Pale territory.

It wasn’t until 1917 that the Pale was abolished. Three decades later, almost the entirety of the Jewish population residing in the former Pale of Settlement was slaughtered during the Holocaust, often thanks largely to the collaboration of the locals with the occupying Nazi forces.

 

WHAT IS A SHTETL?

The word “shtetl” means “little town” in Yiddish. Sometimes, the term shtetl is used loosely and can describe predominantly Jewish villages in Europe starting in the 13th century. However, in general, the connotation of the term shtetl is specifically that of the Jewish villages in the Pale in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some shtetls were located outside the borders of the Pale but experienced similar social structures and challenges.

Shtetls would have a shul (synagogue), cheder (meaning “room” in Hebrew; a one-room schoolhouse for boys; some shtetls had schoolhouses for girls as well), hekdesh (a house that cared for the houseless/poor), beit din (rabbinical court), and beit midrash (study hall).

Generally, Jews lived within the shtetls, while gentiles lived outside the town. However, many shtetls were actually predominantly not Jewish. Jewish-gentile relations in the shtetl ranged from strained coexistence to violent. Jews were also the victims of almost constant antisemitic massacres, known as pogroms.

The Holocaust essentially ended shtetl life, with the overwhelming majority of Jewish shtetl residents slaughtered during the Nazi genocide.

 

POGROMS & POVERTY

Life in the shtetl was hard. Like Yasmine explained in the earlier slides, living in a traumatic situation, including poverty and persecution, is not mutually exclusive with developing a beautiful culture or experiencing moments of joy. After all, even Jews imprisoned in death camps during the Holocaust found ingenious ways to commemorate Jewish holidays. In the shtetl, Jews came up with delicious recipes with cheap ingredients (potatoes, onions) and celebrated with Klezmer music. This doesn’t mean that we should romanticize such inhumane living conditions.

Though Jewish communal institutions tried to take care of the poor, as well as the physically and mentally Disabled, extreme poverty and hunger in the shtetls was widespread. Poor women generally faced the most challenges. Roads were unpaved and even basic necessities were sorely lacking. Food insecurity was a problem, and the threat of antisemitic violence never waned.

The violence in the shtetls of the Pale of Settlement virtually never stopped. It’s important to understand that this violence was systemically-incited or enforced; in other words, it was either incited by the governing authorities or the governing authorities would choose to look the other way when locals, particularly Cossacks, ravaged shtetls and murdered Jews. As stated earlier, over 200 antisemitic massacres took place between 1881-1884. These massacres were not limited to murders, but included widespread sexual assault and bodily mutilation.

Between 1903-1906, some 2000 Jews were murdered in antisemitic massacres in the Pale of Settlement. The bloodiest of these pogroms was the 1905 Odessa pogrom, when 400 Jews were killed.

Easter of 1903 was especially bloody, with pogroms spreading to 64 towns. Though the Pale was abolished in 1917, the violence didn’t end. Between 1917-1923, some 50,000-200,000 Jews were massacred in what many historians consider a pre-Holocaust genocide.

It was all of this violence that prompted some 2 million Jews to immigrate to the United States at the turn of the century. Others became ardent Zionists instead, looking to find safety and sovereignty in Palestine.

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