The New Shtetls

Tradition, religion and law in American Jewish communities

It is a common inclination: to live amongst one’s cultural peers. Jews have followed this tendency for millennia, settling down in proximity of others whose customs and history resemble their own. But  despite their longevity, those Diaspora communities raise myriad questions about Jewish identity, culture, and what community means.

What is the role of religion, or religiosity, in demarcating a coherent idea of  “peoplehood,” and how does the notion of a cohesive Jewish district contribute to that idea?

“Classically, who the Jews were was defined by Torah,” as a people joined by a “special destiny and a sense of special obligations,” said Professor Jon Levenson of the Harvard Divinity School. But Levenson says that the classical definition of Jews has altered with time.

“In the modern world the concept of peoplehood has become very hard to understand. The problem is one of category and framework. Are [Jews] just a religion? Are they just an ethic? Are they a nation-state? No matter what definition you use, something is going to be left out.”

One thing is for sure: the Jewish world is as vast as it is varied, embedded in the past as much as it is bound to the present. It does not lend itself to straightforward answers about what it means to be Jewish or what a Jewish community should look like, or whether a global Jewish community exists at all.

“[I] find it increasingly difficult to subscribe to the notion of klal Yisrael, the idea that despite the great variety, observance, geography, there is some way of finding it to be a cohesive group,” Rabbi Norman Janis of the Worship and Study Congregation at Harvard Hillel said

To some extent, this is because for thousands of years the Jewish World has been comprised of thousands of microcosmic Jewish worlds. Jewish communities are sprawled out among regions as disparate as Shanghai and Los Angeles. The result? A hybrid Jewish identity, one that combines local custom and historical moment with tradition.

Rabbi Allen Maller, a sociology scholar, noted that it is often local custom that binds Jews to their faith rather than the canon of laws. And while laws may inform those customs, what one Jew regards as acceptable Jewish practice within his own community varies from that of another.

An array of historical customs emerges from this range of present communities. While a Sephardi Jew may contend that rice poses no challenge to the demands of Passover kashrut, a Jew of Lithuanian descent would protest. As our physical communities change, as Sephardi and Ashkenazi live side by side, we persist in our attempt at preserving a strong link to the communities that preceded us in the deserts of Iraq, the ports of Portugal, or the chilly steppe of Eastern Europe.

This is the case, says Janis, because Jews retain strong ideological links to  past communities rather than contemporary ones. The way we experience our own Jewish world is partly shaped by a romanticized vision of how our ancestors’ communities thrived and functioned, the customs and laws they maintained and obeyed.

“This does not mean that there is no sociological truth to our vision of the past, as seen in Shalom Aleichem’s stories for instance,” Janis said. “It’s just that Aleichem’s stories are speaking of only one specific part of the Jewish world…and even then it was a creation, an ideal.”

These imagined communities of the past, says Janis, continue to exert “a terrific influence,” on how we view our own communities today, the traditions we choose to carry on and those we elect to discard.

“That ideal is very powerful to people,” said Levenson. But at a time when “many modern Jews find it hard to relate to the Sabbath,” as he suggests, we are struggling to shape an identity that can come not just from the cultural legacy of communities past but also from the rigor with which they attended to Torah.

Part of that struggle returns to our changing modes of living, and even our new modes of communicating. 50 years ago “[in North America] most Jews lived and died within a small geographic area, were embedded in a very local community and local custom,” Maller said. Now, our physical locations change while the internet has created a sort of virtual community. Now, customs themselves are not necessarily outgrowths of local exchange but virtual exchange.

We may like to think of ourselves as carrying the mantle of our ancestral past, defining ourselves as Jews on the basis of lifestyles, customs, and rituals that thrived generations ago among our Jewish forebears. But as the shtetl has died and the internet has risen, as we focus more on custom and less on law, it has come clear that Jewish culture is changing. Where it will go is anyone’s guess.

2 Older Responses to “The New Shtetls”

  1. Joel Katz
    September 21, 2009 at 11:37 am #

    I took one look at the photo above and recognized the location immediately. My great-grandfather’s small village in The Pale of Settlement? Nope.
    I recognized the location since it’s a photo of Meah Shearim in Jerusalem.
    So perhaps unintentionally, an editorial comment was added to this article. The old shtetls of Eastern Europe are gone – but as the title says “The New Shtetls” have taken their place.
    Joel Katz
    Editor, Religion and State in Israel

  2. Robin Margolis
    September 23, 2009 at 5:36 pm #

    Dear Sephora Matzner: What a great article! It stimulates thought.
    Robin Margolis

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