Social Status in the Shtetl

Social Status in the Shtetl


Eugen Schoenfeld
Eugen Schoenfeld

Next to parnosseh (livelihood) and gesundheit (health), yichus (social honor) was the third most desired attribute sought by members of the shtetl community.

Yichus reflected a person’s quality of life, determined who your friends were and how you’d be treated at Synagogue. It also determined who you associated with and, especially important, how frequently one would be called to the Torah.

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But most importantly, one’s yichus determined the shiduchim, who would marry whom.

A young man from a high yichus family could expect to marry into his social milieu and receive a high dowry. For instance, a young Mr. Kaplan who sat next to my family in the synagogue at the Eastern wall, displayed the two special gifts he received from his new father-in-law on the Shabbat after he wed.

As a person from a high yichus family, he had received a beautiful talit with a beautiful and intricate silver atarah decoration; he also showed off a platinum Schaffhausen pocket watch which, indeed, was a very special gift.

These symbols reflected not only Mr. Kaplan’s wealth but made it clear where he fell in the community’s pecking order.

Mr. Kaplan belonged to a modern orthodox community, he adhered to the commandments but was also worldly, hence the talit indicating his religiosity and the platinum watch indicating worldliness.

In contrast, when a young high-yichus Chassid married the symbols that he displayed were different. Before marriage, a Chassid wears a traditional black suit and a Beaver Hat. However, after he marries he displays more expensive Chassidic clothes.

Instead of a hat he now wears a shtraymel, a fur hat, and instead of a black suit he wears a bekeshe, a silk caftan. Of course the higher the status the purer and more intricate was the caftan’s silk and more expensive the fur of the shtraymel.

The foundation of one’s yichus was – and still is – the construct of one’s wealth, the family’s achievements, such as the number of noted rabbis in the group or, in the more modern community, the number of professionals like physicians, lawyers, and noted learned men in the family.

In the beginning, the Schoenfeld family was not high on the yichus list. Although my great-grandfather, Rabbi Naftuli Schoenfeld was a scholar, author and publisher of religious books, he was killed early in his life.

My grandfather Layzer Yaakov began his life as a dealer of onions and garlic. But towards the end of the 19th century, times were difficult and he, like so many others, left Munkacs for America to seek his fortune.

Since he didn’t have any special skills he became a cigar roller in New York City. I doubt that a cigar roller earned great sums of money. Still it seems that he made enough because he systematically sent some of it back home.

My grandmother became the custodian of the money. It was held in trust and was designated as the means by which she hoped to enable her family to escape from the Yiddische Gass, essentially the ghetto.

Four years later, after his return from the States, it was decided (a collective decision) that the money would be used to buy a book and stationary store and my grandparents designated my father as the proprietor.

Thus, the firm of Schoenfeld Henryk was established. My father was a hard-working young man, a likable person who already in his 20s achieved some degree of note. At a young age he became politically involved in Munkacs and was elected to the city council.

The book and stationary store, my grandmother hoped, would be the key that unlocked the ghetto gates and lead our family to a higher status and social respectability. The idea not only flourished, but provided enough money to move the family to a more respectable home.

It also enabled my grandfather to send another son, Alexander, to medical school; to open a watch repair facility for his older and handicapped brother and, above all, provide his daughter with a substantial dowry.

Louise, my father’s sister, married a banker and the family was on its way to establish a “yichus”.

Grandmother – there’s no other way to say it – was a social climber.  Having achieved upward mobility, she wanted to make sure that the entire family’s behavior was appropriate and that we accumulated the necessary “status symbols” to maintain our standing in the community.

After my paternal grandmother’s death, her son – my uncle Alexander, the physician – became the guardian of the Schoenfeld family’s status. His task was to be the arbiter of what was appropriate behavior. It was his duty, or so he thought, to make sure that the members of the family behave appropriately and that their behavior didn’t tarnish the family’s name so that our yichus would be maintained.

His concern, like that of his mother, was to insure and enhance the family’s social status. For instance, when his older brother became a widower, Alexander defined whom his brother should marry.

As the arbiter, he lived by the Yiddish phrase: “Wus se past oder wuss es past nisht” – what is or isn’t appropriate.

At the top of the list is whom one should or should not associate, especially whom one is permitted to marry. He and I had our disagreements, most of them revolving around the definition of appropriateness.

My disagreement with my uncle really with began when I was a teen, about 16-years-old. One Friday night he made a special trip to our home What was so urgent that it merited the disturbance of our Shabbat peace?

He disapproved to the girl I was dating – especially her family. He felt she was “flawed” because her father was a cobbler and for this reason alone he declared the relationship “se past nisht”, inappropriate.

He felt our family’s social status – our yichus – was endangered!

Indeed, at this time we had achieved such a lofty status – well, truth to tell not all that high, but high enough – that I was always identified as being Chayim Schoenfeld’s son.

The concern with the family’s social position continued even after many of us survived the Holocaust and resettled in the U.S.

My uncle’s worldview didn’t change.

He continued to view himself as the guardian of the family’s yichus and felt it was his duty to select my future wife, a woman that would fit in and enhance the family’s social position in St. Louis.

I refused his offer and the tension that began in the shtetl between the two of us continued.

I pursued my life to suit me. In 1973, after a long struggle of re-establishing my life, I finally achieved my goal and settled in Atlanta. I invited my Uncle Alexander to my oldest daughter’s wedding. He came.

I was now a full professor and chairman of a department at Georgia State University. My daughter was marrying the son of a doctor and the groom himself was about to enter medical school.

My uncle, sitting in the living room of my new, expansive home and meeting my machatunim, was pleased with my achievement and my social status. He was happy I hadn’t disgraced the family and gave me his stamp of approval.

“Tuli,” he said, “this is truly baal-batish.”

Yes, even after my constant disagreements with him, he was gracious since I enhanced the family’s social status. I had contributed to the family’s yichus.

About the writer

Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a survivor of the Holocaust



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