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The Shtetl: An Incubator of Jewish Culture
Introduction Learning Activities Materials Bookmarks Standards
Learning Activities
This German map shows the 1794 partition of Poland
Source: Philadelphia Print Shoppe website
Before You Begin
Teachers should be sure to explore all bookmarked pages of the DVD-ROM used in this lesson.

Introductory Activity: What is a Shtetl?

  1. Ask the class if they are familiar with the word "shtetl," and know what it is or anything about it. Ask them to come up with a list (or a web diagram) outlining words they might associate with shtetl life.

  2. Explain that shtetls were small Jewish communities and towns in Eastern Europe in which a distinctive Jewish culture and way of life developed, lasting from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.

  3. Have the students ask any questions they have concerning shtetl life. Write these questions on the board, and be sure they are addressed by the end of class.

Learning Activity 1: History: The Formation of Polish and Russian Shtetls

Explain to students that shtetls originated in Poland in the sixteenth century, and, when Russia annexed the country two centuries later, were largely confined to a region known as the Pale of Settlement.

The first shtetls formed in Poland, following an influx of Jews to the region. Students will examine this wave of migration.

  1. View the video Heritage Bookmark Polish Jewry, which describes the arrival of German Jews in Poland in the late fifteenth century, in response to the Polish nobility's attempts to stimulate their economy.

  2. Ask students what they learned about the origin and role of Poland's Jewish population.

    • Why did the Polish nobility turn to the Jews, and how did the Jews respond?
    • How did the rest of Poland respond?
    • What are some of the benefits and drawbacks to economic competition?
    • How were economic competition and religious tension in the region related?

When Poland was annexed by Russia in the late eighteenth century (please note the time period change), Russia inherited a significant portion of the world's Jewish population. Life for these Jews was very different in Russia, and ultimately the Russian government confined them to a single geographic region called the Pale of Settlement.

The following video segment describes Russia's annexation of parts of Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine, and the reaction of Russian merchants who feared competition from the new Jewish population.

  1. Watch Heritage Bookmark The Russian Empire, cueing the segment to start with the narration "At the end of the 18th century Russia annexed…."

  2. Make sure students understand the creation of the Pale of Settlement. Pause the video when it displays a map of the area so students can see its borders.

  3. To learn more about Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement, read Heritage Bookmark Jewish Residence Restricted.

  4. Ask students to think about the impact of Russia's governance on the Jewish communities of Poland.

    • In what ways did life change, and in what ways did it stay the same?

Learning Activity 2: Culture: Life in the Shtetl

The distinctive culture of Eastern European Jews largely developed in the shtetls.

  1. Explain that Jews of the shtetl shared close economic ties with the Christians of the region while still participating in their own social institutions and strictly adhering to their religious beliefs and practices. Folktales, synagogue architecture, clothing, food, music, and special ritual objects are all a part of the unique shtetl culture that developed in this environment.

  2. Ask students what they think of when they hear the word "culture." What features or aspects make up the culture of a particular group of people?

  3. You might assist students by asking them what comes to mind when they think of Jewish culture. Answers will likely fall into such categories as

    • language
    • food
    • synagogues
    • art
    • music
    • clothing
    • holidays

  4. Help students by contributing some of your own answers that fall into these categories. Write all of the responses on the board and divide them into these categories to prepare students to explore the cultural features of Eastern European Jewry.

  5. Play the multimedia Heritage Bookmark Shtetl Life & Culture, which presents some of the distinctly Eastern European elements of the shtetl, such as the voice-like qualities of klezmer music and the local style of synagogue architecture. For Learning Activity 3, students will explore the multimedia panels at the end of the presentation.

  6. Ask students:

    • How did shtetl culture reflect the surrounding Eastern European culture, and how did it remain distinct?
    • Which cultural elements of the shtetl are you familiar with? Which are new to you?

Learning Activity 3: Going Back in Time: The Shtetl Talk Show

  1. Divide students into groups and have them conduct research on their own to create a talk show interviewing shtetl members about daily life. Students can use a fair amount of creativity in this project to determine what specific members of the shtetl community they will highlight and what topics they will discuss.

  2. Students can utilize the following resources in creating their shows:

      Heritage Bookmark Shtetl Life & Culture Video
      This video highlights the relative independence of the shtetl, with its own culture, language, and religion. It is run by its own local government and the rhythms of the Jewish calendar are paramount.

      Heritage Bookmark Shtetl Life Multimedia Panels: Folktales, Food, Music
      These panels explain the prevalence of folktales, the commonalties between shtetl food and traditional Eastern European fare, and the popularity of klezmer music.

      Heritage Bookmark Polish Jewry Multimedia Panels
      Torah study and Jewish scholarship were of utmost importance to Eastern European Jews. Religious educational pursuits gained them the respect and admiration of Jews throughout the world and allowed for the development of a unique culture.

      Heritage Bookmark Making a Living in Luboml
      From the memoirs of Yisroel Garni, the author reminisces about the economic life of a shtetl in southeastern Poland prior to World War I.

      Heritage Bookmark A Gentile's Description Historical Document
      This document is a Christian description of the active involvement of Jews in Polish commerce.

    Teachers can supplement these resources with books, websites, etc.

  3. Students will present their talk shows to the class and then discuss similarities/differences among the shows. Were there ideas/themes that were mentioned in every show?

  4. The teacher should make sure presentations include discussion of the market town, the Jewish economic role, and the shtetl governing structure. The teacher should present this material if it is not sufficiently covered by the students.

Culminating Activities:

Lead a class discussion to compare shtetl life with our own as 21st century Americans. To guide the discussion, ask students to consider the following questions:

  • What rituals/customs have remained constant?
  • Which have changed?
  • How has the emphasis on community shifted since the time of the shtetl?
  • What is easier and what is more difficult about being a Jew in today's society?

Have students form a mock kehilla (the Jewish governing body of the shtetl) and debate/discuss issues of concern in the shtetl.

  • Students should read the multimedia panel Heritage Bookmark Kahals to inform the activity.

  • Students should consider: Are any shtetl values and customs still relevant to Jews in today's society? Why or why not?

Extension Activity (Optional): The Shtetl in Modern-Day America

Discuss how elements of the shtetl have a presence in contemporary life. Specifically, you can discuss the revival of klezmer music in America (i.e. the Klezmatics, a New York City-based klezmer band that formed in 1986 and has released nearly a dozen CDs) or you can discuss the shtetl's impact on modern American literature using Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated (which is partly set in the shtetl of Trachimbrod) as an example. You can read and discuss passages from the novel or have students read the entire work and discuss. Ask students to think of other shtetl characteristics that continue to have an impact today.

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