Ironically, the modern view of shtetl life is predominantly created by Fiddler on the Roof, a secularist play if there ever was one.
For some more colorful stories of rabbis beating up butchers, I recommend this book, The Golden Age Shtetl. All stories are taken from primary documents. It is way more interesting than anything you have ever heard in school.
My grandfather was a New Yorker, but he went to study in the Mir. An eloquent writer, he exchanged copious letters with his highly literate family back in New York. Here is one of his descriptions of Jewish life in the shtetl town of Mir:
“…If you herewith meant to refer back to how much easier one would find the Mir a place in which to pursue one’s studies – as I believe you have – you then did not err so gravely. If, however, you consider the atmosphere in the Mir the novel place in which to bring up a child, you are then gravely mistaken.
True, I will confess that in so far as religion is concerned the Mir has its manifold attractions for child rearing, but nary is it a place for character molding. There is no necessity for one to exert oneself in looking for undesirable filthy and bad companions for a child, the streets are replete with such timber. They are here there and everywhere. Why even the home in Yonkers which – hakol modim — carried in its roster a set of boys of a very low and mean caliber, cannot send across a champion capable of competing with the chutzpah of some of these children.
Not only have I discovered this to be the case with boys, but I have come across a young girl of nine years of age whose haza’ah and chutzpah is inimitable and cannot be vied with. The worst kid I have ever set my eyes upon in my twenty so odd years. You cannot out-rival the Polish stock in vulgarity and nefariousness of character. Such types are a strong and sure menace to the well being of a child. It is with such iniquitous influences that one must cope with in the Mir.
What forces are to be directly held responsible for the raising of such wild life? Whereas many of the boys in the home in Yonkers had no parentage guide through life, these young rascals find their parents a good enough rubber bag from which to rebound. The greater the force that brings them closer to their parents the further becomes the distance to which they rebound. The vaster the knowledge they accumulate as to their parents, their ideas ideals and way of life to the further extreme do they dance. If they desire to know what action to take in a certain course, they inquire of their parents what step they would take and they act accordingly, undoubtedly conversely.
Their hobby is l’hach’s. The gorem is that parent hefkerus reigns supreme in the Jewish ranks. In fact I have a hunch that the parents regret the fact that they are twenty and thirty years older.
They strongly endorse the way of life of their children, for they claim that is the ultra modern way of life while they unfortunately lived the old – fashioned. The youth of today cannot be called upon to live the pure and clean life of their grandparents. They must live a life replete with excitement, hilarity, jollity and impurity. These deplorable and horrible conditions we are called upon to witness in our day. Lost is the purity, wholesomeness, and tznius of the Jewish girl, eichah hayisah l’zonah kirya ne’emana.
There’s plenty more, but this is always the letter I think about when people wax lyrical about the alte heim.