Off the Shelf: Outsiders of the shtetl by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

An idealized view of the shtetl used to exist in the American mind – a wonderful place, filled with happy, observant Jews who lived joyous Jewish lives. Over the past several decades, scholars have been disputing that view, showing that shtetl life was more complex and far from perfect. A new work “Stepchildren of the Shtetl: The Destitute, Disabled, and Mad of Jewish Eastern Europe, 1800-1939” by Natan M. Meir (Stanford University Press) focuses on one specific aspect of shtetl life: its treatment of outsiders, those who, for a variety of reasons, needed help from the community in order to exist.

The treatment of these people varied over the large time period Meir discusses. That’s partly because the world changed due to economic and political shifts, many of which left Jews destitute and homeless. Although it’s an oversimplification of Meir’s complex work, there were roughly three different ways of viewing outsiders: 1) they were seen as having a special connection to God, which meant they should be well treated; 2) they were thought to have medical and emotional problems that could be taken care of through treatment and training; and 3) they became symbolic representatives of the Eastern European Jewish community as a whole – part of a larger malady that the Zionist Movement hoped to erase.

The author notes how the Jewish community always had mixed feelings about these outsiders, and those with very different problems – physical, psychological and economic – were often lumped together. He writes that “irrespective of their particular difference, marginal people are bounded together by their status as outsiders. Disabled people are visibly other in terms of the physical body; mentally ill people fall outside the cognitive mainstream that we are familiar with in everyday life; itinerant beggars and vagrants lack the fixed abode associated with ordinary settled life. These differences represent a tear in the fabric of everyday life and serve as a reminder of all that is base, ugly, unfair, repulsive in this world.” Outsiders made people feel pity, but also revulsion. Yet, madmen were considered to have a link to the supernatural. The same was true for orphans, who were often asked to lead the last prayer service of the Shabbat because their prayers were considered especially effective.

As Jewish populations modernized, their thoughts about outsiders changed, particularly those who begged for a living. Beggars began to be treated as idlers; some people believed that beggars were poor because they didn’t want to work. The problem was made worse by increasing economic problems that were no fault of those forced from their homes. Even villages that wanted to help the poor often didn’t have enough money to care for the poor in their own communities, let alone those traveling from place to place. Many villages restricted how long beggars could stay within their borders, forcing them to leave after that stated time. Rather than allow individuals to give money to the poor, communal organizations were created to distribute the funds. This led to the division of the poor into two classes: the deserving poor, who received funds, and the undeserving poor, who were not given money.

Matters did not improve in the early 20th century. Meir notes how these outsiders came to symbolize the entire Jewish community: “After the expulsions and massacres of World War I and its aftermath created hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees and orphans, many of them with serious physical and mental injuries, figures that had previously been outsiders now represented the mainstream of Jewish society.” Numerous philanthropical organizations were organized to help, while the Zionist Movement saw a return to the land of Israel as an answer to many of these problems. Yiddish writers also used outsiders in their writings in order to represent the decline of Jewish European society. 

The low status of outsiders allowed them to be abused when, in 1827, Czar Nicholas I instituted a draft. Jewish communities were forced to send recruits to the Russian army for a 25-year term of service. The question of how these conscripts were picked was a troublesome one. Rich families found ways to keep their sons safe, sometimes paying someone to take their place. Other times communities deliberately picked those who were on the margins: those who depended on the community for financial support and/or whose behavior was considered unacceptable. However, Meir notes that as unjust as some of the decisions were, “the ultimate responsibility lay with the brutal Nicholaevan regime, which had already made the task difficult enough by freeing prosperous merchants from the draft. The kahal was forced to act callously in order to meet the demands made of it.”

Meir covers a wide variety of material, too much to do justice in a short review. Perhaps one of the most important things he considers is how rarely were the actual voices of outsiders heard – whether in official documents or in the works produced by Yiddish writers. He also reminds readers that these are real people he’s writing about: “women and men, children and old people, who lived lives of extraordinary challenge, pain, and misery.” “Stepchildren of the Shtetl” is an attempt to discover the truth of their lives. It is also a complex scholarly work, filled with great detail. But anyone who wants to truly understand the reality of Eastern European Jewish life will learn a great deal from its pages.