Looking for Jewish villages in Eurasia
February 28, 2007 3:33 AM   Subscribe

Is there anything remotely like a shtetl still in existence in Eastern Europe?

Or perhaps I should say "a predominately Jewish village," since shtetl evokes a time passed as much as it evokes anything. I know that (at least in popular imagination) shtetls were located mostly in what would now be Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine and that even by the horrific standards of the Holocaust, the Jewish population was really eliminated in these places. But it occurred to me that beyond the far eastern reaches of Germany's WW2 expansion there may still be some small villages where the bulk of the people are Jewish folks who managed to survive genocide at the hand of the Nazis, Communist "pogroms," the deliberate starvation of Ukraine, mass emigrations to Israel and so on. I'd imagine that if there were such a place it would be fairly deep in the former USSR; no such places seem to exist in other countries with pre-war Jewish populations such as Romania and Hungary.

Another way of asking this question: is there a spot in Europe, no matter how small, where Yiddish is still the primary language of daily life?
posted by Dee Xtrovert to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Yup, Antwerp's Jewish community speaks Yiddish. It's the primary language on the diamond exchange!
posted by By The Grace of God at 3:46 AM on February 28, 2007

This is not an answer to your final question, but in the town of Quba in Azerbaijan there is an area, on the far side of the river, called Krasnaya Sloboda, which is entirely Jewish, speaks its own language (Judeo Tat, or just "Jewish"), and seems to me to be analogous to the old Shtetl in Eastern Europe.

The people there are not Ashkenazim though, rather that are Iranian Jews (Tat is an Iranian language). They also live in other parts of Dagestan/Azerbaijan, and probably in fairly similar (compact, separate) arrangements.

Not really sure if this is what you're looking for though...
posted by claudius at 4:08 AM on February 28, 2007

Those are both great answers (and quite helpful), but ideally I'm looking for something that is more rural in nature (not an urban district) and where the population is Ashkenazi.

That said, I'm very happy for the two previous responses and would certainly welcome more of them!

posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:22 AM on February 28, 2007

Oooh, another group of non-Askenazim - the Karaim in Lithuania. They fail on the Ashkenazim count, but they don't really live in a quarter, AFAIK, but in their own town so they satisfy your other conditions. Thinking about it, you might concentrate your search in Lithuania.

Also, the Mountain Jews (in Dagestan/Azerbaijan) I mentioned before do live in rural, self-supporting villages as well as in Krasnaya Sloboda. I'd probably guess that the modes of agriculture and so on were quite different than in the far more fertile European areas.

Finally, there is Birobidjan, near Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, which functioned as an artificial "Jewish homeland", so it recieved an influx of Jews in soviet times. I doubt that the traditional way if life is preserved in any meaningful way, but quite possibly Yiddish is widely understood/spoken.
posted by claudius at 5:18 AM on February 28, 2007

You know, come to think of it, if the aim of your question had been to demostrate the utter destruction of a culture, you'd have succeeded.

How depressing.
posted by claudius at 5:25 AM on February 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think you could reasonably succeed to encounter a variation on what you are looking for, if you were to temper your expectations a bit.

My bit of knowledge about the Ukraine intimates me that if you run into a group of older people hanging out together at say a market or socializing on street corner (say playing cards, sitting on a bench and talking) without the presence of the young ones, you will feel as if you are in a shtetl. Yiddish flows among the elderly as long as they are amongst themselves.

And I don't mean that what you'll find is just 3 Yiddish drowned out by the voices of thousands of other people in town who speak the national language.

I mean you will actually find concentrated areas where Jewish populations live and speak Yiddish amongst themselves all over the area of that particular town. But, I emphasize, only when the older folks are talking among themselves.
posted by gregb1007 at 6:01 AM on February 28, 2007

I work at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and there are dozens of historians, scholars, Yiddish experts, etc., here. I'll ask around if anyone knows of any place like this. I suspect, though, that you won't be able to find any small shtetls that still look and function like they did before the war.
posted by arco at 6:53 AM on February 28, 2007

I know you asked specifically about Euraisa, but there are such in North America- think of Tash in Canada, and Kiryas Joel in Upstate New York.
see KiryasTash.ca

(You also have places like Meah Shearim in Jerusalem.)
posted by Izzmeister at 7:30 AM on February 28, 2007

In Eastern Europe? I'd be genuinely surprised if there were still any genuine shtetl-type towns left; if there were, G-d knows the heritage tourism folks would be all over them already.

However, as previous posters mentioned, there's Mea Sharim in Israel, several neighborhoods in Antwerp and Kiryas Joel in New York.

To that list I would add Israel's various Hasidic-dominated municipalities (can't recall names off-hand) and, of course, the neighborhoods of Boro Park and South Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Yiddish is very much the daily language of South Williamsburg thanks to the tens of thousands of Satmar Jews who reside there; Boro Park is a bit more English speaking but still might be what you're looking for.

One last thought - Maybe Uman, even though the Jewish presence is only part of the year?
posted by huskerdont at 9:21 AM on February 28, 2007

In the continuing-to-not-answer-your-question vein, you might be interested in Fragile Branches: Travels Through the Jewish Diaspora, which explores various geographically isolated Jewish communities (none of which, as I recall, are in Europe). Some of these communities have other Judaic languages, like Ladino.
posted by judith at 9:31 AM on February 28, 2007

Thanks again. It is depressing to learn how little remains, as Claudius pointed out. I appreciate all your answers.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:26 PM on February 28, 2007

« Older Name this juvenile fiction book, please.   |   Light explosives now Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.