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Frankel Institute Colloquium - The Shtetl in the Museum: Revisiting the Pale of Settlement in Leningrad en route to Birobidzhan

Thursday, April 3, 2008
12:00 AM
Room 2022, 202 S. Thayer St.

This lecture will be given by Deborah Yalen, Frankel Institute Fellow. Sponsored by the Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies.

Before World War II, Jewish critics across the ideological spectrum identified the East European shtetl (small market town) as a symbol of Jewish backwardness, economic stagnation and political vulnerability. Following the October Revolution of 1917, Jewish Bolsheviks were uniquely positioned to use state resources to implement social engineering in the Jewish milieu. Most of these activists assumed that the shtetl and the traditional Jewish economy associated with it would "wither away" in response to Soviet central planning. When this failed to happen as planned, Soviet Jewish scholars and policy makers undertook a systematic study of the "shtetl problem" and the economic role of Jews in the urban and rural sectors.

Taking the depiction of the shtetl in a 1939 exhibit at the State Museum of Ethnography in Leningrad as a point of departure, Deborah Yalen examines the traditional Jewish market town as a contested space during the Soviet interwar period: why were Soviet Jewish activists and scholars concerned about the shtetl as an ambiguous entity between the city and countryside? How was the shtetl viewed as not only a practical but also a theoretical concern? What can the debate over the "shtetl problem" - and the Marxist-Leninist sociology this discussion was couched in - tell us about the relationship of Jews, the Soviet state, and utopian notions of space during the 1920s and 1930s?