Lithuanian Jews - Religion and Expressive Culture



As the Jews of Lite broke away from orthodoxy, many of the traditions associated with Lithuanian Jewry disappeared. Still, certain customs and memories have lingered on, both among those who have remained in Lithuania to the present day and descendants of immigrants living in western Europe, the United States, Israel, and South Africa. Perhaps most important are the culinary traditions, many of which actually reflect the cuisine of the Gentile Lithuanian population (e.g., cold beet borscht, served with potatoes, cucumbers, and sour cream). Although blinis (blintzes) are usually associated with Russian cuisine, Jews and other peoples living in the czarist empire and the former Soviet Union considered the dish part of their tradition as well. The Jews, for example, eat blintzes filled with white cheese on Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments. Shauvuot is a dairy festival throughout much of the Jewish world, and on the second day of the celebration the Jews of Lithuania used to eat a deep-fried regional variation of the blini called shal tenoseh. It is notable in this context that Lithuanian Catholics ate blinis on Pentecost—that is, on the parallel feast day to Shavuot, which occurs forty days after Easter and marks the revelation of Christ to the Apostles.

Perhaps the most famous culinary distinction between Lithuanian and other eastern European Jews is in the preparation of gefilte fish. Jews of Lithuanian origin make this stewed fish with pike and white and "buffalo" fish, whereas Polish Jews make it with carp. The gefilte fish of Lithuanian Jews is not sweet; that of the Poles is. According to the Litvaks, Polish Jews add sugar to cover up the fact that the fish they use is not very fresh, an obvious slur that reflects the ongoing tensions between those raised in the tradition of the gaon of Vilna and those who adhered to the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov.

To this day, Lithuanian Jews are characterized as cold rationalists who lack emotion and spontaneity. They are the intellectuals, the scholars, some of Talmud, others of secular texts. Even those who have virtually no ties to their Jewish heritage proudly pass down this seemingly timeless stereotype of the Litvak.


Current Situation

The following remarks reflect the experiences only of Jews living in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania in the late 1980s and early 1990s, not those living elsewhere in historical Lite. They also reflect a particularly difficult time in Lithuania, during which this Baltic republic broke away from the USSR, which itself was going through radical political and economic change culminating in its dissolution in 1991.

With the introduction of perestroika in the mid-1980s, hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews began leaving the USSR, the Jews of Lithuania among them. Estimates at the time put the number of Jews in the Soviet Union at a little over 2 million (official figures varied between 1.7 and 1.8 million). By 1987 over 500,000 of these had applied to leave the country (Hertzberg 1987) and the numbers have continued to grow. In 1989 the New York Times reported that 50,000 Russian immigrants had recently settled in New York, most of them Jewish, and that the city was expecting another 15,000 (20 May 1989, 29). Although only one-third of those leaving the Soviet Union freely chose to move to Israel, by 1990 the United States had reduced the number of entry visas to Soviet Jews, forcing more of them to fulfill their presumed Zionist dream. According to the New York Times , Israel was anticipating the arrival of over 100,000 Soviet Jews by the end of 1990 (4 February 1990, 4).

As Jews emigrated from the USSR in the 1980s, many passed through Vilnius, swelling the ranks of the remnants of what used to be a great Jewish community. In 1986 there were between 5,000 and 7,000 Jews living in the city. Two years later the number had risen to 12,000. In 1990 there were only 6,000 Jews left, 2,000 of whom had already applied to leave.

Despite the terribly unstable situation, some members of Vilnius's Jewish community accepted the invitation of the Lithuanian government to try to build Jewish cultural institutions in the republic. Among them is Emanuelis Zingeris, who was born in the generation after World War II. Considered a cultural hero by some, Zingeris has been doing research since the early 1980s on the social history of Vilnius, a topic that forced him to go underground periodically in the early years. Then in 1987 Zingeris was invited to help organize a Jewish museum in Vilnius and was subsequently elected, along with other members of the Jewish community, to serve as a people's deputy from the Lithuanian Socialist Republic. Together with a small group of Jewish artists, journalists, and politicians, Zingeris helped found the Jewish Cultural Association (Yidishe Kultur Geselshaft), which has sponsored, among other activities, a Yiddish newspaper called Yerushalayim d'Lite.

Although the association's newspaper publishes optimistic articles about the Jews of Vilnius, other members of the Jewish community expressed little hope for the future, among them the internationally recognized novelist Grigori Kanovich. Born in Kaunas in 1929, he survived World War II by hiding out in the Lithuanian forests with his family. Kanovich writes in Russian, frequently treating Jewish subjects whom he carefully places in the past, in the period before the Revolution of 1905. In his most famous novel I Net Rabam Raia (And There Is No Paradise for Slaves), an assimilated Jewish lawyer who lived at the end of the last century makes a return to Judaism after the death of his Gentile wife. He chooses to throw in his lot with that of the Jewish people, who are vividly described as victims of czarist cruelty. The novel ends with the lawyer's courageous decision to defend a Jew accused of committing a ritual murder.

In the last years of Lithuania's association with the Soviet Union, Kanovich and Zingeris were elected by the Lithuanian SSR to serve as Jewish Deputies of the People in the USSR. Although he accepted the title, Kanovich was less than enthusiastic about the efforts of people who, like Zingeris, were busily creating organizations for Lithuanian Jews. He warned that by collaborating, Jews were facilitating "the Birobijanization [a reference to the eastern section of the USSR that Stalin designated in 1934 as an autonomous region for Soviet Jews] of all of Jewish life in the USSR, its transformation into fakery, into a Potemkin village, into a display window for bleeding-heart foreign visitors, into a kind of national exhibition grounds where instead of pure-bred champion bulls and wonderful space equipment they show happy Soviet Jews" (1989, 66) . The question, Kanovich observed, was no longer whether it was necessary to leave Lithuania but whether it was possible to stay. As nationalist movements gain strength in the former Soviet Union and in other parts of eastern Europe, in Jews again observe a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism throughout the region and fear a repetition of the past.

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