A small shtetl has a few cabins, and a fair every other Sunday. The Jews deal in liquor, grain, burlap, or tar. Usually, there’s a man striving to be a Hasidic rebbe.
A shtot, on the other hand, contains several hundred wooden homes (that’s what they call a house: a home) and a row of brick shops. There are: a very rich man (a parvenu), several well-to-do shopkeepers, a few dealers in fields, hareskins, wax, honey, some big money-lenders…. Such a town has a Polish landowner (the porets) with his manor. He owns the town and some ten villages, this entire district being known as a shlisl… Such a town also has a Jewish VIP, who is a big shot with the district police chief. Such a town has an intriguer, who is always litigating with the town and the Jewish communal administration…
Such a town has a winehouse keeper, a watchmaker, and a doctor, a past cantor and a present cantor, a broker, a madman, and an abandoned wife (an agunah), community beadles, and a caterer. Such a town has a tailors’ association, a burial association, a Talmud association, and free-loan association. Such a town has various kinds of synagogues: a shul(mainly for the Sabbath and holidays), a bes-medresh (the house of study, for everyday use), and sometimes even a klaizl (a smaller house of worship) or a shtibl (a small Hasidic synagogue). God forbid that anyone should accidentally blurt out the wrong word and call the town a shtetl. He’d instantly be branded as the local smartass or madman.
A town is called a bigtown if there are a couple of thousand householders and a few brick buildings aside from the wooden homes…. Here everyone boasts that he greeted someone from the next street because he mistook him for an out-of-towner. After all: In such a big town as this, how can you tell if a stranger is a local? There are tons of people whom you don’t know from Adam.”[i]
The passage displays a finely-tuned sensitivity to both space and the ways in which language shapes a sense of place. Note for example, the architectural delineations of those various religious institutions which shape the Jewish community’s life, as well as the calibrated manner in which these urban structures fit together to form larger entities, which are themselves subject to both the internal jurisdiction of Jewish leaders as well as non-Jewish figures. The speaker slightly mocks the airs of city dwellers (“that’s what they call a house: a home”) as well as those residents of more cosmopolitan centers who cannot tell a stranger from a local. The catalogue of specific sociological and economic detail accorded to each city-type mediates the generalization of each space.
[i] I. Aksenfeld, “The Headband” in The Shtetl: A Creative Anthology of Jewish Life in Eastern Europe, ed. and trans. J. Neugroschel (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1989), 49-50.