A shtetl is a shtetl, but what, exactly, is a shtetl? A shtetl is a place to live. A shtetl is a state of mind. A shtetl is a memory. It is a memory of something that once existed and still exists. It is something that was ripped out and trampled, but like the horseradish plant—recognized by generations of Jews as the symbolic “bitter herb of affliction”—it never died; began to grow again from a shred of its torn up roots.
The “l” or “el” ending in Yiddish words signifies a diminutive. So a shtetl is a small shtet. Und vuss izt ah shtet? (and what is a shtet?) The word “shtet” means city or town, and shtetl is a smaller version of that. It’s a place where Jews live together as a community. It could be a whole town or a village. It could be a particular enclave in a city or it could be a neighborhood. The shtetl where I once lived, its streets clogged with pushcarts, Yiddish spoken in the streets, Yiddish newspapers sold on the street corners, Yiddish and Hebrew signs over doorways and on shop windows, covered most of the Lower East Side of New York City.
The concept of the shtetl is ancient. It is as old as Halacha, the body of Jewish laws and rules. It was certainly reinforced by the laws that govern all aspects of kosher food and eating—from the way animals are raised and slaughtered to the utensils used for preparing and consuming meals. Strictest adherence to kashruth made it almost impossible for Jews to take their meals with non-Jews. So, if you’re going to eat together, you might as well live together. However, lest one get the idea that all shtetls were entirely voluntary, know that repressive, restrictive laws and walls of hate also create shtetls. People live together when they are forced to live together. The Warsaw Ghetto was a shtetl.
Wherever Jews live together, there is bound to be some spirit of the shtetl. That spirit is the spirit of community. Intermingled with the foul haze of death that hung over the extermination and forced labor camps of the holocaust was the spirit of community—of shtetl. How ironic that was—since the camps, and the criminals who created them, were aiming at the destruction of the Jewish people, of our culture and of the spirit of the shtetl.
That spirit—sorely wounded—was not destroyed. It changed as all things change, but it has gone on. In towns and cities around the earth and throughout the land of Israel, it goes on. Even the Jewish communities springing up on the Internet carry on the spirit of the shtetl. In those electronic shtetls all and none are strangers. The spirit of community is woven together by people who may have never seen each other’s faces.
In all those places there are old Jews and young Jews, religious Jews and secular Jews, smart Jews and dumb Jews, rich and poor, crazy and very crazy. They tell jokes and stories. They argue and fight and pray together. They kvetch (complain) and kvell (boast). Deaths and illnesses are mourned; births are celebrated. Friendships, relationships, cliques and factions form, ferment and fall apart.
Some of the stories in this book took place in an imaginary shtetl. It is the shtetl that once stuck out like a nose from the map of the town of Narodny and later covered almost half of the imaginary town itself. This is my favorite shtetl. This is the shtetl about which I know the most. This is the Shtetl in my Mind.
Shtetl In My Mind is a collection of stories from a world that, for the most part, no longer exists. Parts of it disappeared with the passing of time and part of it was destroyed by the flames of war. The communities and small towns, known in the Yiddish language as shtetls, are held together in the minds and memories of story tellers.