In retrospect it may have been a bit wiser to choose a book slightly farther away from my heart. Note to the wise, reviewing a book written about one’s hometown by a non-local who may have had access to biased information about the said town and its inhibitants, is not a good one. I caught myself at least once outraged because the author mentioned something I patently knew to not be the truth. I ranted and raved about it to my long-suffering boyfriend. Who took it patiently like a lovely man he is and just gave me a bite of leftover pumpkin pie.
But anyway……..I AM DIGRESSING. “The Red Shtetl” is a history of a Ukrainian shtetl and its Jews, from its early days in the late 16th century to Y2K. The town grew from a tiny merchant outpost mostly settled by Jews who were invited to the Polish territories by the magnates themselves. Here the town and its community grew and mattered, much more than I anticipated. Shargorod survived many things in its four hundred plus years: multiple Ottoman invasions (fun fact-it was known as “little Istanbul” between 1670s and 1690s), several Cossack uprisings (most detrimental being the Chmelnitski pogroms of 1648), the switchover in ownership from Poland to Russian Empire, and the advent of the USSR. To my shock, I also found Shargorod to be in the midst of both the Shabbatai Tzvi/Frank heresies (they were both false messiahs from mid 1600s) AND the rise of Hasidism in the 1700s. Baal Shem Tov, the founding prophet of Hasidism himself, was reputed to have visited my humble little town. Jewish life in Shargorod managed to flourish through the Civil War of 1917-1920 despite the pogroms in which many including my great aunt were murdered. It survived in the homes of the Jews even after the Great Synagogue built in 1589 was closed. It survived because Shargorod’s Jewry was spared during the war. Instead of the Einsatzgruppen killing thousands mere miles away, Shargorod survived because it was under Romanian control and the community closed in on itself to survive with the assistance of the local Ukrainian populace with whom the Jews relatively harmoniously. It is only now that Shargorod is at the end of its life as a Jewish town, mostly because we have all left in some shape or another.
I can’t say definitively that I loved the book. I found it immensely educating and written simply enough. It touched my heart to see the photos of the people I grew up knowing and to finally know some of their stories as an adult. I appreciated the care that the author took in finding as many authentic voices as possible. It taught me the history that I needed to know and made me understand where exactly my family came from. I couldn’t quite get passed my annoyance though. I guess some recent history felt too much like gossip that I knew to not be the whole truth. Overall, I would still recommend it because in the end Shargorod truly came alive in my mind as both my hometown and a typical shtetl for those seeking authenticity.