AskDefine | Define shtetl

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From Yiddish shtetl, from German Stadt ‘town’.


  • , /ˈʃtet(ə)l/, /"Stet(@)l/
  • Rhymes: -ɛt(ə)l


  1. A Jewish village or small town, especially one in Eastern Europe.
    • 1992: However, you are right to suspect that there is some connection between my carefully considered opinion of the Hebrew people and this marvellous recital which your waxy ears, full of the cheesy gunk of the shtetl, have been so fortunate to hear. — Will Self, Cock and Bull
    • 2005: Most of the second-generation immigrant kids of his neighborhood had been [...] as desperate to go to college and become lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and leave the teeming city for the suburbs, as their parents had been to leave behind the shtetls of Russia — Martin Torgoff, Can't Find My Way Home (Simon & Schuster 2005, p. 8)

Related terms

Extensive Definition

A shtetl (, diminutive form of Yiddish shtot שטאָט, "town", pronounced very similarly to the South German diminutive "Städtle", "little town") was typically a small town with a large Jewish population in pre-Holocaust Central and Eastern Europe. Shtetls (Yiddish plural: שטעטלעך, shtetlekh) were mainly found in the areas which constituted the 19th century Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, the Congress Kingdom of Poland, Galicia, and Romania. A larger city, like Lemberg or Czernowitz, was called a shtot (); a smaller village was called a dorf ().
The concept of shtetl culture is used as a metaphor for the traditional way of life of 19th-century Eastern European Jews. Shtetls are portrayed as pious communities following Orthodox Judaism, socially stable and unchanging despite outside influence or attacks. The Holocaust resulted in the disappearance of the vast majority of shtetls, through both extermination and mass exodus to the United States and what became Israel.


History of the oldest Eastern European shtetls began about a millennium ago and saw periods of relative tolerance and prosperity as well as times of extreme poverty, hardships and pogroms.

Shtetl culture


Social structure of the shtetl

Thinking and talking things out

The zest for analyzing anything and everything was central to shtetl culture, not only in regards to religious study of the Torah and Talmud but also everyday life:
The attitudes and thought habits characteristic of the learning tradition are as evident in the street and market place as the yeshiva. The popular picture of the Jew in Eastern Europe, held by Jew and Gentile alike, is true to the Talmudic tradition. The picture includes the tendency to examine, analyze and re-analyze, to seek meanings behind meanings and for implications and secondary consequences. It includes also a dependence on deductive logic as a basis for practical conclusions and actions.
In life, as in the Torah, it is assumed that everything has deeper and secondary meanings, which must be probed. All subjects have implications and ramifications. Moreover, the person who makes a statement must have a reason, and this too must be probed. Often a comment will evoke an answer to the assumed reason behind it or to the meaning believed to lie beneath it, or to the remote consequences to which it leads. The process that produces such a response-- often with lightning speed-- is a modest reproduction of the pilpul process.
Not only did the Jews of the shtetl speak a unique language (Yiddish), but they also had a unique rhetorical style, rooted in traditions of Talmudic learning:
In keeping with his own conception of contradictory reality, the man of the shtetl is noted both for volubility and for laconic, allusive speech. Both pictures are true, and both are characteristic of the yeshiva as well as the market places. When the scholar converses with his intellectual peers, incomplete sentences a hint, a gesture, may replace a whole paragraph. The listener is expected to understand the full meaning on the basis of a word or even a sound... Such a conversation, prolonged and animated, may be as incomprehensible to the initiated as if the excited discussants were talking in tongues. The same verbal economy may be found in domestic or business circles.
Tzedaka is a key element of Jewish culture, both secular and religious, to this day. It exists not only as a material tradition (e.g tzedaka boxes), but also immaterially, as an ethos of compassion and activism for those in need.

Money and work

Material things were neither disdained nor extremely praised in the shtetl. Learning and education were the ultimate measures of worth in the eyes of the community, while money was secondary to status.
Menial labor was generally looked down upon as prost, or prole. Even the poorer classes in the shtetl tended to work in jobs that required the use of skills, such as shoe-making or tailoring of clothes.
The shtetl had a consistent work ethic which valued hard work and frowned upon laziness. Studying, of course, was considered the most valuable and hard work of all. Learned yeshiva men who did not provide bread and relied on their wives for money were not frowned upon but praised as ideal Jews.

Interaction with gentiles

The shtetl's main interaction with gentile citizens was in trading with the neighboring peasants. There was often animosity towards the Jews from these peasants, resulting in pogroms. This, among other things, helped foster a very strong "us-them" mentality based on an exaggeration of differences between the peoples:
A series of contrasts is set up in the mind of the shtetl child, who grows up to regard certain behavior as characteristic of Jews, and its opposite as characteristic of Gentiles. Among Jews he expects to find emphasis on intellect, a sense of moderation, cherishing of spiritual values, cultivation of rational, goal-directed activities, a "beautiful" family life. Among the Gentiles he looks for the opposite of each item: emphasis on the body, excess, blind instinct, sexual license, and ruthless force. |- | flag Belarus || Bobruisk || באַברויסק || Babruisk || 21,558 |- | flag Belarus || Brest || בריסק || Brisk|| 30,000 |- | flag Belarus || Minsk || מינסק || Minsk|| 90,000 |- | flag Belarus || Pinsk || פינסק || Pinsk|| 20,200 |- | flag Czech Republic || Prague || פּראָג || Prog|| 56,000 |- | flag Germany || Frankfurt ||פראנקפורט||Frankfurt|| 26,158 |- | flag Germany || Berlin || בערלין ||Berlin|| 170,000 |- | flag Hungary || Budapest || בודאפעסט || Budapest|| 184,000 |- | flag Latvia || Daugavpils || דענענבורג || Denenburg|| 11,106 |- | flag Latvia || Riga || ריגע || Rige|| 43,672 |- | flag Lithuania || Kaunas || קאָװנע || Kovne || 38,000 |- | flag Lithuania || Vilnius || װילנע || Vilne || 55,000 |- | flag Moldova || Chişinău || קעשענעװ || Keshenev || 70,000 |- | flag Poland || Gdańsk || דאַנץ || Dants |- | flag Poland || Kraków || קראָקע || Kroke|| 60,000 |- | flag Poland || Łódź || לאָדז || Lodzh || 223,000 |- | flag Poland || Lublin || לובלין || Lublin|| 40,000 |- | flag Poland || Poznań || פּױזן || Poyzn|| |- | flag Poland || Warsaw || װאַרשע || Varshe|| 400,000 |- | flag Poland || Wrocław || ברעסלאַו || Breslau|| 10,309 |- | flag Romania || Bucharest || בוקארעשט || Bukaresht || 100,000 |- | flag Romania || Cluj-Napoca || קלויזענבורג || Kloizenberg || 16,763 |- | flag Romania || Iaşi || יאס || Yos || 51,000 |- | flag Russia || Kaliningrad || קעניגסבערג || Kenigsberg || |- | flag Slovakia || Bratislava || פרעשבורג || Pressburg || 14,882 |- | flag Ukraine || Chernivtsi || טשערנאָוויץ || Cernowitz || 50,000 |- | flag Ukraine || Dnipropetrovsk || קאַטערינעסלאַוו || Katerineslav || 100,000 |- | flag Ukraine || Ivano-Frankivsk || סטאַניסלעװ || Stanislev|| 30,000 |- | flag Ukraine || Kyiv || קיִעװ || Kiev|| 175,000 |- | flag Ukraine || Kharkiv || כאַרקעוו || Kharkev || 130,200 |- | flag Ukraine || Khmelnytskyi || פּראָסקערעוו || Praskerev || 13,500 |- | flag Ukraine || L'viv|| לעמבערג || Lemberg || 150,000 |- | flag Ukraine || Odessa || אַדעס || Ades || 180,000 |- | flag Ukraine || Ternopil || טאַרנעפּל || Tarnepl || 18,000 |- | flag Ukraine || Vinnitsa ||וויניצע || Vinitse || 21,812 |- | flag Ukraine || Zhytomyr || זשיטאָמיר || Zhitomir || 30,000 |- |}


shtetl in German: Schtetl
shtetl in French: Shtetl
shtetl in Indonesian: Shtetl
shtetl in Italian: Shtetl
shtetl in Hebrew: שטעטל
shtetl in Dutch: Sjtetl
shtetl in Japanese: シュテットル
shtetl in Norwegian: Shtetl
shtetl in Polish: Sztetl
shtetl in Portuguese: Shtetl
shtetl in Yiddish: שטעטל
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