Two weeks ago I wrote on my blog about a theme I've noticed of "returning to the shtetl" that seems a trend in recent films and novels.
I was referring to the Coen Brother's film "A Serious Man" and to Steve Stern's new novel, Frozen Rabbi (to be published in May) which feature portrayals of life in the shtetl.
I was sensing something in the zeitgeist, a striving amongst Jewish writers and filmmakers (okay, just the Coen Brothers) to find the authentic in imagery of the shtetl. Then on Friday I saw the cover of The Chicago Jewish News, an article titled "The Real 'Fiddler', A Northwestern University Professor says the truth about shtetls is not what we think.'" The piece features an interview with Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, an associate professor of Jewish history, who is working on a book to be called "Shtetl as it Was, 1790-1830" which, according to him, will debunk common wisdom about shtetls. Petrovsky-Shtern says in the article, "Most of us think a shtetl is a small Jewish village in the middle of nowhere that nothing ever happens in but pogroms, a ghettoized habitat of Eastern Europena Jews who speak Yiddish and have no rapport with the surrounding culture--a place that is myopic, depressed, moribund." Instead, he paints a picture of shtetls which "were the most economically advanced urban centers in what was then Eastern Poland," which "brought together Catholics, Russian Orthodox, Armenians, Tartars and Jews in a vibrant market town with a very rapid system of exchange and high revenues, which feeds the local population and capitalizes on the contraband and smuggling."
Then a couple of days ago Tablet Magazine featured on its virtual cover a story by Editor Alana Newhouse on how curator Maya Benton discovered that photographer Roman Vishniac's famous photos of Jews in shtetls were a distortion of reality, expanding upon her piece in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine.
Newhouse argues that Vishniac and others were part of a post-war "nostalgia industry" and that "the victims of the lost world of Eastern European Jewry deserve to be remembered in the fullness of the life they led." She doesn't go into detail about what this fullness looks like, perhaps because there isn't a lot of information out there about the reality of shtetls, research that Professor Petrovsky-Shtern (and others, surely) is working on, and a fuller exhibit of previously unpublished Vishniac photographs will be exhibited in 2012. In a brief description of some images that have not been shown to the public, Benton suggests that these photographs show how some shtetl inhabitants were well-off and fashionable, not poor and backwards. This corresponds with Professor Petrovsky-Shtern's argument as well. Though surely there was a multitude of types of Jews in the shtetls, just as there is variety of Jews in contemporary America.
Newhouse writes that "[b]y misrepresenting our ancestors as backward and unsophisticated, American Jews have managed to create communities that are less Jewishly diverse—and consequently, in some real ways, less sophisticated—than the fabled shtots and dorfs and shtetls of Eastern Europe." This is a interesting, yet charged statement. Vishniac does portray these shtetl subjects as very poor, but not necessarily as unsophisticated.
Indeed, in an interview with Tablet, novelist Steve Stern talks about his own imagining of the shtetl: "a marriage between the exquisite mysticism Jews from Eastern Europe managed to incorporate into their experience, a world that is timeless, defined by Torah, by the text, almost to the extent of being able to live in that text, a Jewish dream time, while simultaneously suffering incursions of a very cruel history-and you can't separate the history and violence from the transcendence."
It seems that what is captivating to writers/filmmakers today is how we do we, assimilated Jews, reach this transcendence, enter into this magical "Jewish dream time," those of us not well-educated in Torah or Kabbalah. Come to think of it, Noah Baumbach's very much-assimilated Greenberg in the film of that name is also grappling with this: how does Greenberg reach transcendence? Is a pseudo-transcendence (not a Jewish one) only possible through drugs, as in the last frames of the film?
The main character, young Bernie, in Stern's new novel Frozen Rabbi does find a meaningful transcendence, a literal and figurative one, as he buries himself in Jewish texts, self-educating himself, and studying Kabbalah, and experiences another literal transcendence at the end of the novel (as the pub. date is a month away I do not want to ruin the ending).
As I wrote two weeks ago, "It's this quintessential theme in Jewish-American literature and drama of the struggle between remembering and forgetting our past. In 'Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination,' Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi writes that the appeal of Isaac Bashevis Singer's writing "came not from his refugee stories but from his reinvention of the shtetl....and what is transpiring in this shtetl of the mind, at its most fundamental level, is a creative resolution of the struggle between remembering and forgetting."
This is a struggle that these new works reflect, as do Vishniac's photographs, as well.
As I wrote, perhaps the pendelum has swung and that now as Jews we have reached a certain point of comfort (arguably, too much comfort) on the continuum of assimilation into American society, now we feel the desire to reach back and find a sense of authenticity, to reach back and connect with our shtetl past, and as curator Maya Benton is doing, trying to figure out what is authentic about our shtetl imagery. It's the same reason that the Coen Brothers start "A Serious Man" with a reanimation of the shtetl, to try to forge a creative resolution to this struggle between remembering and forgetting that Jews in America, the Jews of the midcentury on the midwestern prairie as represented by Larry Gopnik in the Coen's film, and Jews today, are grappling with. It's an attempt, as Ezrahi put it in describing Yiddish writers in America in the 1950s, to "'reclaim a lost Jewish place and an interrupted Jewish story.'"
The Coen Brothers, and Steve Stern in A Frozen Rabbi, are also attempting to reclaim a lost Jewish place, the shtetl, but with the darker tones of irony and satire, looking from the disconnected perspective of the postmodern early twentieth century, grappling with the question of what it means today to be an authentic Jew.
How we re-imagine the shtetl, what we deem important, what we deem authentic, in turn acts like a mirror held up to ourselves, and says a lot about us, and how we see ourselves as American Jews.