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If you’ve ever watched Fiddler on the Roof or Yentl, you may already have an idea of what the shtetls — small Jewish market towns in pre-WWII central and Eastern Europe — were like.
From 1791 to 1917, Russian Jews were confined to shtetls in an area called the Pale of Settlement. Their communities suffered from antisemitic attacks, pogroms, and rampant poverty. Despite this, spirituality flourished in the shtetls and they became the birthplaces of both the Hasidic and Mussar movements as well as the Volozhin yeshiva, the model for the modern yeshiva.
After the failed first Russian Revolution of 1905, over 50,000 Jews were murdered in pogroms in only four years. Fearing for their safety and looking for new opportunities away from the shtetls, around two and a half million Jews emigrated from Russia signaling the end of an era for Russian Jewry.