Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The lies we tell ourselves about Jewish history

Marc Shapiro has a fascinating reviewover at the Seforim blog of Families, Rabbis and Education: Traditional Jewish Society in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europeby Shaul Stampfer (Littman Library). Looking closely at the social history of the 19th century shtetl, he busts myth after myth.

For example: divorce appears to have been relatively common (though Shapiro disputes that it was quite as common as Stampfer claims). Teenage marriages was relatively rare. Most Jews (especially the lower classes) did not use matchmakers; love was a factor in some marriages. Women generally worked, and were involved in business;
Unlike today, the stay-at-home wife and mother was not necessarily an ideal... East European Jewish society was not what we would regard as a patriarchy. Conservative views on the importance of women staying in the home to raise children might be sound social policy, yet we should not assume that this is how East European Jews ever actually lived."
Some women were even educated Jewishly; there were co-ed cheders and according to Stampfer, the ratio of girls to boys in cheder was 1:8. Moreover, there were fewer men in cheders than we might imagine. While we like to think of the shtetl as a place where yeshivot thrived, by the 1930s there were more men in secular secondary schools than in religious schools.

All fascinating. But even more sos because of a brilliant book about Jewish women in the Middle Ages which I reviewed several years back. Pious and Rebellious by Avraham Grossman also busted several myths, showing, for example, that in Europe in the Middle Ages there was a high divorce rate (at least 20%) and divorce was not stigmatised; sexual licentiousness was rife; most women worked, and were active in business; they gained many religious rights and roles; and as I wrote on this blog at the time, much more. Much of this sounds familiar after reading Shapiro on Stampfer; the same kind of myths are there to be broken.

It's one thing to say we have built up a totally mythical picture of Jewish life in the Middle Ages; another to say we have a completely fictional idea of life in the shtetl. But put them both together and one has to ask whether we, as a collective, really have any idea at all about what life was ever like for the average Jew in Europe for 1,000 years before the Holocaust.

The answer is highly relevant to today. So much of what Orthodox, and particularly ultra Orthodox Jews argue for in their own lives, particularly when it comes to family and working life, is based on what they claim is "tradition". Turns out it's not, and probably never was.

No comments: