PROVIDENCE – When you think of the “Old World,” what comes to mind? Cobblestone streets and ornate stone buildings? Castles and grand balls?
Sometimes we forget about a dire situation that existed in the Pale of Settlement: shtetl life. In the Russian Empire, Jews were generally forced to live outside of society, in desperately poor villages. They were financially and physically targeted and harassed by governmental and non-governmental forces. They were peasants who were used as human shields for the Russian Empire, which supported the violence and pogroms.
Temple Beth-El’s teens recently learned about this life through an award-winning program called Edible Shtetl. Written and taught by Jeanette Laser and Rachel Alemany, Edible Shtetl brings this history to students through storytelling, primary-source materials, and discussion, and then ends with the students building a tabletop shtetl from graham crackers, candy and plenty of frosting.
The program began with many students recounting some of what they know regarding their family’s journey to New England. Many came through New York’s Ellis Island, Boston, other East Coast cities, and Canada, from countries in the Russian Empire, Germany and Eastern Europe. Many spent years and all their resources in arranging to make the journey.
The teens then viewed picture books that showed what shtetl life physically looked like, and how, even through hardship, there was joy in the small things and the support of the community.
The teens were then shown historical pictures of shtetls in the Pale of Settlement, specifically parts of what is now modern Poland. They saw town squares, synagogues, homes, market days, the town well, cemeteries and an abundance of mud. Poverty is in evidence in the photos, but pride too; pride in a culture, a people and a place.
Once the students saw what shtetls actually looked like, they mapped out their own, and began to build it out of graham crackers, wafers, marshmallows, other candy, frosting, pretzels, etc. In just one hour, they built a synagogue with an attached cemetery, a town square with a community well surrounded by shops, destroyed buildings, multi-floor homes, and a bridge over a river to fields.
CARL SHULMAN is the assistant director of youth and family engagement at Temple Beth-El, in Providence.