Identification. Lithuanian Jews are one of several subgroups of European Jews known as Ashkenazim. Since the late nineteenth century they have been fleeing eastern Europe and re-creating their communities in western Europe, the United States, South Africa, and Israel, holding on to many of the characteristics that have distinguished them from other Ashkenazim for generations. Differences range from intellectual and religious styles, to personality traits, to the way Litvak women prepare traditional dishes such as gefilte fish.
Location. The Jews of Lite come from a part of eastern Europe located today in northeastern Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and parts of Latvia and Russia. The area (roughly between 20° and 30° E and 50° and 60° N) has dense forests and a moderate continental climate.
Demography. In czarist Russia, Jews were rarely allowed to own land and be farmers. In the Lithuanian provinces, as elsewhere in the empire, Jews tended to live in urban settings. Clustered together in small cities and towns ( shtetls ), by the close of the nineteenth century they numbered about 1,500,000, a little over one-eighth of the total population of the area. In the surrounding countryside lived Lithuanian, Latvian, Belarussian, and Polish peasants, with whom Jews maintained close economic but few cultural ties. The vast majority of the descendants of these Lithuanian Jews were murdered during World War II, the victims of Hitler's campaign to annihilate the Jews of Europe. In Vilna (Vilnius), for example, once a celebrated center of Jewish culture, Jews represented nearly 30 percent of the city's population in the late 1930s. After the war they were reduced to about 1 percent in Vilnius and even lower in other parts of Lithuania.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Jews of Lite spoke a dialect of Yiddish that differed from the Yiddish used by Jews in other parts of Poland and the Ukraine (Volhynia), mainly in the way they pronounced the vowels. The Yiddish of some Litvaks was also distinguishable because of the way they pronounced the consonant shin as sin or samekh. Educated men had a good command of Hebrew and Aramaic, and even the most humble could read these Semitic tongues well enough to take part in communal prayer. Then, by the late nineteenth century, enlightened Jews in Lite, who had broken away from religious orthodoxy, learned, in addition to Yiddish, Hebrew, and Aramaic (or some combination of these), Russian and perhaps also German and French as they eagerly awaited their emancipation and the possibility of becoming full members of modern European states. Their chance finally came, at least briefly, during the interwar years, when the majority of Lite's Jews became citizens of the newly constituted state of Poland, leading many of them to add Polish to their repertoire of languages as well. Others became citizens of Lithuania and Latvia and learned these newly recognized national tongues instead.