Function of the shtetl

Living in isolated communities, Eastern European Jews in the shtetl relied heavily on social and financial interdependency. As the “lesser” ethnic group in countries throughout the Pale of Settlement, Jews learned to support each other when they were excluded from resources shared between non-Jews. The seclusion of these shtetls often prompted unique problems for the Jews; poverty, in particular, was an issue because job opportunities and their economy and trade were extremely confined. Though this and other challenges afflicted these Jews, they still managed to find methods for tackling these issues.

Though Jews living in countries like Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine were ostracized by non-Jews, they were fortunate enough to be surrounded by each other. Shtetls sprang up all across Eastern Europe, and though each little town was its own community, communication between shtetls was common. Multiple shtetls might have come together if there was an important holiday that was better celebrated in large number. If a small shtetl had no rabbi, shul, synagogue, or burial ground, they were able to find and utilize these things in the larger shtetls. It was simply courtesy among the Jews for there to be this shared sense of resources.


3 comments for this page

  • Helge Grünewald says:

    No comment, but question:

    Where can I get a scan of this photo for an Exhibition at the Philharmonie Berlin “Violins of hope”

    Dr. Helge Grünewald
    Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker

  • Judith Singer says:

    1.Shtetls were not isolated communities. They were usually not more than a few hours walk from nearby villages with Jewish populations.
    2.Shtetls did not “spring up”. Prior to the Russian take-over of the Polish and Lithuanian lands that became the Pale of Settlement, some Polish and Lithuanian nobles encouraged Jews to come to their manors (which included entire villages and towns) to handle management, tax collection, and commerce. There were no new shtetls founded after the area fell under Imperial Russian rule.
    3.Jews were not ostracized by non-Jews. Jews relied on the largely agricultural non-Jews to supply food and raw materials, while non-Jews relied on the Jews purchasing their produce to provide the money needed for hand-manufactured items such as clothing and shoes, often the product of Jewish artisans.
    Shtetls were generally about 30%-65% Jewish – they were not exclusively Jewish ghettoes. Although Jews tended to live more towards the center of town and non-Jews on the outskirts, Jews and non-Jews lived next to each other and interacted daily.

  • Paula Byrden says:


    I represent the Producers of TV series ‘Ripper Street’ series 4. We wish to include the photo above in the background set dressing of one episode in our show. Please can you grant us permission to do so.

    Many thanks
    Paula Byrden
    Kilternan Film Productions Ltd

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