Thursday, July 08, 2010

Shtetl myths

A new book by Shaul Stampfer, Families, Rabbis, and Education, shatters some myths about life in 19th century eastern Europe:

To name a few: early marriages were not the norm but took place only among the elite, and then only during a relatively brief period; the traditional family was far less patriarchal than we think, with women exercising real power albeit in the absence of formal authority; women were also far more literate than we think, often more so than men; the Jewish elderly tended to live on their own, not in the midst of family; the Gaon of Vilna was indeed a genius, but not recognized as such in his lifetime.

I find the myths to do with women's status and family structure particularly interesting, as there are similar misunderstandings about women and family in medieval times. Then, too, women were far more powerful - economically, in the family, in terms of Jewish ritual - than we tend to imagine, throwing the idea of "traditional" women's roles completely out the window.

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