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Itay Zutra

Itay Zutra-The Image of the Shtetl in Anti-Shtetl Yiddish Poems -“Its Good We Left”

by Elaine Bigalow, May 30, 2013

Itay Zutra, who was born and raised in Israel. gave a lecture about the Image of the Shtetl in Anti-Shtetl Yiddish Poems at Limmud 2013.

Zutra received his PhD in modern Yiddish literature from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (2011). Zutra has taught at Yeshiva University and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He is currently the I.L.Peretz Folk School Teaching Fellow at the University of Manitoba.

As Zutra explained, the contemporary image of the 19th Century Eastern-European Shtetl is of a poor yet intimate and warm place. This sentimental image stems from such popular songs as “Meyn Shtetle Belz”, but mostly from the movie “Fiddler on the Roof”. This is how the majority of American Jews still imagine the Shtetl.  

Zutra spoke on the anti-Shtetl alternative, the more complicated and realistic image of the 'Shtetl' presented by Yiddish poets in NY before the Holocaust, that of people who left their home towns never to look back. He emphasized “he was not talking about Israel which has an entirely different concept of Shtetl”.  

Zutra said he “wanted a provocative topic that would create a buzz and get students talking about anti-Shtetl poems”.  

He said the image of the Shtetl is mixed – negative and positive. People are  mostly acquainted with pro-Shtetl literature of which he gave the examples “Meyn Shtetl  Belz”  by the Barry Sisters on You-Tube, and of Tevia, the ultimate Shtetl Jew, in “Fiddler on the Roof”. He said anti-Shtetl literature is not as well known.  

With this in mind, Zutra chose to teach one very famous anti-Shtetl poem from the inter-war period, the Poem “Zlotshev, My Home” by Moyshe-Leyb Halpern , to students at the University of Manitoba, at the Grey Academy and, most fortunate for us, at Limmud.

Zutra described The Shtetl as a historical literary image used in pop culture, modern literature and that contrasts as parody. “Meyn Shtetl Beltz” contradicts the reality of Shtetl life.  “Fiddler on the Roof” is a fallacy. Moyshe Leb Halpern’s poem “Zlotshev, My Home” is a parody on ‘Shtetl’ ‘a community term of endearment’. 

Zutra said “Shtetl comes into being in America as a place we left but have mixed feelings about leaving and which becomes the essence of Jewish European culture regardless of historicity. It is where we left for historical reasons leaving our comfort zones to far remote places in the Americas”.  They came from small places to a metropolis where democracy and freedom  were touted. 

Zutra said “Friday night ,New York Jews go to stage plays where what we see on stage is a nostalgic hamish view of our Shtetl, the most famous is Meyn Shtetl Beltz, known for its Hasidic dynasty in Galicia, Poland, which is a pro Shtetl ‘song of my homeland’”.  “Why do we reminisce on the Shtetl” he asked? “Because life was hard in American sweatshops, and after a long hard day of work people could immerse themselves in nostalgia and Hamish conversation at the Stage”.

The evolution of the Shtetl poetry is characterized by historical events. After the atrocities in WWI, American writers began romanticizing the Shtetl with a nostalgic tint, they wrote longingly of their homes in the old country, in fact missing the loss of all that was Jewish.  Halpern’s writings though are the exact opposite, the Jew in his poem “Zlotchev, My Home” is tinged in negativism, and Jews are parodied as “little hungry desperate dogs”  .  Zlotchev is the last place he wants to be in or return to, he is glad he left, even though his new home in America was also a place of extreme hardship and poverty.  His only consolation is that he will not die in or be buried in Zlotchev “my only comfort, that they won’t bury me in you”.

The difference is he knows what Zlotchev was supposed to represent as a functioning community based on Pirkei Avot, and that America is what it is. There are no rose tinted glasses or destroyed iconic remnants to be emulated.  He uses shocking imagery as an artistic weapon and contradicts popular opinions.  He was a product of pain in the old Shtetl and writes about the abhorrence of pietistic Jews  who threw his mother out with him when he was an infant because she bore a child out of wedlock. He writes in defence of his mother, always retelling her story by mirroring the chaos in his life and of her life as she worked in sweatshops in America to support him. At the same time he must long for Zlotchev because without Zlotchev there is no Yiddish experience that he must draw upon to do his writings.

Zutra said “Halpern asked of Jews in his poetry “what is this Golden Peacock we are bringing from the old country,  when nothing was good about what we left”. He said, “Anti and positive Shtetl are both historically wrong”.  “Halpern wanted to view the Shtetle in a more accurate way because the people who once lived there are still hurt. He wrote in the Yiddish language to remain part of the Tribe.  All this imagery and Halpern’s poetry was written before the Holocaust and World War II.”

“Since the Holocaust, the image of the Shtetl changes because the Shtetls were mostly all destroyed, and people wanted to mourn the disappearance of the culture of ‘Jewish Shtetl’. The images become mothers lighting candles, loving family scenes of Shabbat meals, musicians playing, people dancing, men schmoozing, people studying, a place where all Jews were deeply religious, where goodness and ethical worthiness was the norm, despite the fact that Shtetl life was far from glorious and mostly difficult conditions existed for many Jews in The Pale.”

He said “there are some poets who refuse to see victims as Kedoshim, they want to view them as regular people who faced horrible things”. The tradition of Yiddish poems continued so as not to lose the culture of Yiddishim. 

“The Banya was a place where one could talk subversively surrounded by adversaries outside; the position of the word ‘steeple’ in the poem, the steeple bigger than the shul, this imagery implies the steeple had influence on their lives “With  your steeple, shul, and bathhouse” 

“A mother is supposed to be cherished in her house within her community; here in the poem it is a place of cultural discrimination.  In the  narrative of the poem the writer hates his ‘pious’ grandfather and sees figures like him as evil and corrupt people, indifferent to miseries of individuals”   .

“Leyb Halpern is the “bundle” at the end of the poem that is being thrown out into the street like garbage, with gawkers and onlookers who do not lend a hand to his mother’s desperate situation, she, who may have had an affair with a gentile or have been a rape victim   . He hates his grandmother “smiling sweetly standing with her legs apart as if she were a prostitute waiting for a soldier”; she did not protecting her daughter, but rather held the door ope

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