Saturday, April 3, 2010

A New Take on the Shtetl

 The road to the old wooden synagogue, Pakruojis, Lithuania 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Alana Newhouse has written a long article in the New York Times magazine that highlights the way -- possibly the deliberately manipulated way -- that Roman Vishniac's famous photographs molded our imaged and collective memory of the shtetl.

She profiles Maya Benton, a young curator who has uncovered thousands of unpublished photographs by Vishniac and also revealed the extent to which he apparently made up captions and descriptions to give his published pictures a more dramatic narrative -- a narrative that highlighted poverty, fear, persecution and poignancy.
As Benton has discovered, Vishniac released, over the course of a five-decade career, an uncommonly small selection of his work for public consumption — so small, in fact, that it did not include many of his finest images, artistically speaking. Instead the chosen images were, in the main, those that advanced an impression of the shtetl as populated largely by poor, pious, embattled Jews — an impression aided by cropping and fabulist captioning done by his own hand. Vishniac’s curating job was so comprehensive that it would not only limit the appreciation of his talents but also skew the popular conception of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe.
Read the full article

Listen to Alana interview Maya Benton on Tablet Magazine

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is quoted in the article, and the sort of "revivisionist" take triggered by the new discoveries regarding Vishniac's photos sent me back to read Barbara's introduction to a 1995 edition of the classic book Life is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl, by Mark
Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog, originally published in 1952 by Schocken.
Though a great popular success, Life is with People poses several vexing problems, among them the identification of East European Jewish culture with the shtetl. During the fall of 1948, as the researchers struggled over what to call the culture they had been studying, they identified shtetl with the prototypical "enclave community" that carried the "core culture" of East European Jews. Shtetl became, in their thinking, a microcosm of the East European Jewish culture area, visualized as a sea of Christian culture dotted with little Jewish islands. Encapsulated in self-contained shtetlekh, the perfection of this hermetic world was sustained, the team argued, by isolation, hostility, and resistance to change. So palpable was this sense of the shtetl's hermetic seal that Elizabeth Herzog, one of the book's authors, suggested that the researchers ask their informants "Were you ever curious about the world outside the shtetl? Did you ever want to go outside the shtetl and walk around?"
You can read the full introduction at google docs by clicking HERE

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