Horowitz on Meir, 'Stepchildren of the Shtetl: The Destitute, Disabled, and Mad of Jewish Eastern Europe, 1800-1939'

Natan M. Meir
Brian Horowitz

Natan M. Meir. Stepchildren of the Shtetl: The Destitute, Disabled, and Mad of Jewish Eastern Europe, 1800-1939. Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture Series. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020. Illustrations. xiv + 343 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5036-1305-8; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5036-1183-2. 

Reviewed by Brian Horowitz (Tulane University) Published on H-Judaic (December, 2020) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Jagiellonian University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55457

In contemporary Jewish studies, genre border crossings are becoming ubiquitous. Literary scholars tend nowadays to use statistics, sociologists have become economists, and everyone uses social media. In the book under review, the historian Natan M. Meir turns to folklore and literature to present the marginal figures of Jewish Eastern Europe. What is gained and lost in the jumble?

The gains are real. A book on the treatment of marginals in literature, history, and folklore smacks of brilliance. (The term “marginals” might include the destitute, the disabled, the mentally impaired, etc.) It may also be illuminating. As Meir reminds us, Jewish writers used abnormal figures as the heroes of their stories. This was done by Mendele-Mocher Sforim, Yitzhak Peretz, Sholom Aleichem, Shimon An-sky, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Thanks to these authors, Jewry in the “old country” became associated with physical and spiritual suffering.

It remains so today. Many American Jews are programmed to think of the shtetl as the home of beggars, marriage brokers, and luftmenschen—the stuff of Fiddler on the Roof. Such figures can trigger nostalgia, but in real life, East European Jewish communities were burdened with growing poverty and other social problems. How did these Jewish societies regard their own less fortunate? Meir, using a variety of materials—fiction, newspapers, memoirs, historical studies, and secondary literature in many different languages—investigates this question. However, one should know that the author focuses on the expression of society about these kinds of people rather than on economic data, such as the income levels of various poor people and communal expenditures on charity. With this primarily semiotic treatment, Meir’s research leans toward cultural history. 

Meir uses various methods to explain such phenomena as the Cholera Wedding; weddings performed in cemeteries; the hekdesh, the Jewish almshouse and hospice; and charity for the poor. He makes use of current disability studies, but he also enlists formidable theorists. Channeling Michel Foucault, he explores why Jews engage in certain strange behaviors. Take the Cholera Wedding. In this strikingly bizarre ritual, an undesirable couple—for example, an ugly bride or an infirm groom—are made to absorb the sins of the community, which are thought to be responsible for the plague. According to Foucault, the maltreatment of these unfortunates is a way for “normal” people to punish others and define the borders of the good, the proper, the normal. 

Additionally, Meir uses many different tools. He tells us that Jewish communities also applied various “rational” approaches. Some wealthy citizens saw the destitute as naturally deficient and therefore worthy of treatment. Yet the impulse to reform and improve had to be weighed against a desire to avoid collective burdens, including communal taxes and military service.

Along with the virtues of Meir’s genre-crossing approach, there are drawbacks. The mixing of traditional disciplines leads to a mixing of kinds of evidence. Should literary texts and historical works written early in the twentieth century be considered primary sources, as Meir calls them in his bibliography? This question is important because the reader is torn between interpreting the book as a historical investigation and a study of cultural imagination. Are the images an expression of “reality” or merely a reflection of the imaginary? The uncertainty matters because a book about the imaginary emphasizes the folkloric element, trying to explain the function of stories, songs, and jokes for the sake of social control. In this case, one feels that the author has risked chronological perspective—the central part of any historical research. In its place a central part of the discourse consists of meta-argumentation regarding the topics under investigation. To give one example, I quote Meir: “I embarked upon this project intending to explore the marginal people in Jewish society. I knew from my previous research project on the Jews of imperial Kiev that those people existed, and I had a hunch that this was an important category in East European Jewish society. What I did not yet have was a clear understanding of which categories marginality embraced. Poverty? Then we discussed beggars and paupers. Social status? Servants and yishuvnikes (rural Jews) had to be included. Familial condition? Orphans and widows, naturally. Physical and mental ability? People with physical and intellectual disabilities and the mentally ill. Other definitions might conceivably embrace the religious lax, converts, prostitutes, and criminals” (p. 6).

But criticisms barely detract from the book’s merits. To call this book unconventional is not to discount it. The flood of deviants in Jewish literature over a century—from the second half of the nineteenth century to the first half of the twentieth—reflects an obsession. Whether the marginals involve guilt that leads to communal expiation, as Meir suggests, or something else does not matter. By formulating the question, Meir has spotlighted a central aspect of Jewish life. His method of blending past images with present-day ideological concerns undoubtedly enlivens scholarship and offers a productive example for the profession.

Brian Horowitz is Sizeler Family Professor in the Department of Jewish Studies at Tulane University.

Citation: Brian Horowitz. Review of Meir, Natan M., Stepchildren of the Shtetl: The Destitute, Disabled, and Mad of Jewish Eastern Europe, 1800-1939. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. December, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55457

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.