Lithuanian Jews

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Lithuanian Jews

ETHNONYMS: Jews of Lite (pronounced Leetah), Litvaks


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.

History and Cultural Relations

The history of the Jews of Lite is closely tied to that of all Polish Jews. Originally from the Rhineland, they fled Germany for Poland in the late Middle Ages, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, to escape soldiers of the Crusades who were raiding European Jewish communities on their way to the Holy Land. Then, in the fourteenth century, many more Jews ran from attacks of angry peasants who blamed the People of the Book for causing the Black Plague. Most Jews who left Germany during these difficult years settled in Poland, where they came into contact with landholders and peasants who communicated in Slavic tongues. In this new linguistic and cultural environment, Yiddish underwent a radical transformation and developed into what linguists identify as Middle Yiddish. Jews spoke this version of the language from about 1500 to 1750. Finally, beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, modern Yiddish emerged, with several minor dialectical variations, which the Jews of Poland and Lithuania were still speaking at the outbreak of World War II. Throughout all these years, Yiddish remained closely tied to German in vocabulary and grammatical structure, but it also continued to use lexical, morphological, semantic, and syntactic elements from Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic tongues, Old French, and Old Italian.

German Jews came to Poland in the late Middle Ages because this "backward" land offered them the opportunity to enjoy political and cultural autonomy in ways they never dreamed possible in the West. In the thirteenth century the Poles concluded that German entrepreneurs could help modernize their people. Eager to develop Poland's commerce and industry, feudal princes invited Germans to settle their lands. They cared little about whether they were Gentiles or Jews. As far as they were concerned, Germans of any religion would bring civilization to their backward land. Thus, when life grew unbearable in Germany during the late Middle Ages, thousands of Jews left their homeland and moved to Poland, to a more primitive country, perhaps, but one in which they could live freely as Jews in exchange for helping the Poles develop their local economy.

In 1264, despite papal pressures to the contrary, King Boleslav of Kalish, ruler of Greater Poland, received the fleeing Jews with open arms. Offering them social and political autonomy, the king permitted this persecuted people to take charge of their community's internal affairs, with virtually no interference from him. Jews, it is true, still had to live in segregated parts of town and wear special badges, but they gained the freedom to appoint Jewish leaders to look after their people's secular and spiritual affairs. During the reign of Casimir (1346-1370), Poland became even more inviting because that monarch laid the foundations for establishing truly autonomous Jewish communities. Interested in attracting Ruthenians, Armenians, Tatars, and Germans, he promised all foreigners the right to manage their own affairs.

In 1386 Yadwiga, the future queen of Poland, married Grand Duke Yagiello of Lithuania. With this union, the people of Lithuania converted to Catholicism and the two kingdoms became administratively one. Now Jews could move into Lithuania as well, and they found conditions there even more favorable than they had been in Poland. Like Casimir, the grand duke was eager for Jews to settle down in his territories, and he promised them both autonomy and protection. The fate of Lithuania remained tied to that of Poland until the end of the eighteenth century, at which time the kingdom became part of the czarist empire.

During the fifteenth century, the Jews continued to enjoy communal and judicial autonomy, thanks to the support they received from the aristocracy. The years between 1501 and 1648 were particularly peaceful and productive. Taking advantage of their good fortune, the Jews of Poland and Lithuania expanded their economic and cultural activities and transformed the community into one of the most important centers of religious learning in the history of the Jewish people.

Free to run their communities as they wished, rabbis turned Poland into a second Babylonia, organizing the life of their people according to the laws meticulously set out in the Talmud, preserving in this way the traditions of their spiritual ancestors. But these religious leaders did not merely depend on the teachings of the past; they also produced a vast new literature, developing the field of religious scholarship and refining many points of theological debate that had remained unresolved in the medieval texts.

According to the Russian Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, between 1501 and 1648 the Jewish population of Poland grew from about 50,000 to 500,000. Here, in their eastern European home, these descendants of the Rhineland did not have to restrict their financial endeavors to money lending or petty trade as they were forced to do in Germany in the late Middle Ages. On the contrary, they engaged in a wide range of economic activities, serving as financiers, customs officers, and tax collectors. Employed by feudal lords, Jews went to the homes of Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian peasants to collect rent from poor families who tilled the land and taxes from those who produced alcohol. Other Jews went into the business of distilling alcohol themselves, whereas still others worked in salt mines or entered the lumber industry.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Polish/Lithuanian government treated the Jews as a separate estate, an independent social body. As such, Jews had national (i.e., cultural) autonomy and civic freedom as well. Living together in their own parts of town, they existed as distinct Jewish cities within Christian ones, with their own religious, administrative, judicial, and charitable institutions. Every town appointed its own rabbinical council (kehilah ) and levied taxes on all its members to support local programs. Instead of paying an individual tax to the king, each community made a single payment through this council.

Individual town councils belonged to a chief Jewish council composed of rabbis elected by representatives from each community. Within Poland there were four such bodies and in Lithuania there was one more. With this hierarchy of councils Polish/Lithuanian Jews established the necessary structures to oversee their people's cultural and political development, a remarkable achievement for a stateless people, who had no land of their own.

School was compulsory for all boys between the ages of 6 and 13 years of age. Male children learned the Torah in Hebrew and in Yiddish. They also studied the commentaries, the Talmud, Hebrew grammar, and some math. Gifted students went on to yeshivas, schools of higher learning controlled by the community's rabbis and council.

Despite all this activity, Lithuanian Jews remained on the cultural fringe of European Jewry until the seventeenth century, at which time its yeshivas began to produce a number of distinguished rabbis. It took another 150 years before Lithuania became the major center of Talmudic scholarship in the world. This occurred in the second half of the eighteenth century, under the scholarly leadership of Elijah ben Solomon, the gaon ("genius") of Vilna, whose innovations in Talmudic study continue to influence scholars to the present day. The gaon challenged the caustic method in fashion in the eighteenth century and called for students of the Talmud to work closely with the text, reading it along with the many other commentaries compiled over the centuries to help interpret the law. He also believed that in order to understand the Five Books of Moses, it was necessary to study grammar intensively, and also the sciences.

The gaon of Vilna lived during a tumultuous period in the history of eastern European Jewry, when Jewish communities in the Ukraine were rising up in rebellion against the authority of the Talmudic, or rabbinic, tradition and were following the more spontaneous and less learned teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of a movement of Jewish mystics known as Hasidism. Defending the rabbinic tradition, the gaon of Vilna and his disciples launched a vigorous campaign against Hasidism and successfully prevented the popular movement from ever gaining much of a stronghold in Lite. They accomplished this in part by establishing yeshivas to carry on the gaon's scholarly approach to religious study. From this time on, the Jews of Lithuania earned the reputation for being cool intellectuals, gifted scholars with sharp wits, who based their religious convictions on the written and oral law. Litvaks, it was said, had little patience for sentimental outbursts and personalized relationships with God. This reputation even followed those who subsequently left Jewish orthodoxy and joined cultural and political movements inspired by the western European Enlightenment.

During the mid-nineteenth century, Lithuania became one of the most important centers of the eastern European Jewish Enlightenment. For representatives of rabbinic Judaism, the Enlightenment, or Haskalah, presented a threat even more dangerous than Hasidism. To combat this new wave of modernity, the Lithuanian rabbi Israel (Salanter) Lipkin founded the Mussar movement, which called for the study of ethics.

Despite dire predictions by the rabbinic community, the Lithuanian Haskalah did not encourage assimilation the way the Enlightenment had done in western Europe, Poland, and southern Russia. It promoted cultural nationalism instead and the possibility of living as a secular Jew. In the process, the Haskalah paved the way for the development of a modern Jewish literature in Hebrew and Yiddish and Jewish nationalist movements that were profoundly influenced by the ideals of the French Enlightenment, German humanism, and western European romanticism. Enlightened Jews in Lithuania embraced the dream of participating in the common European project of creating a secular and universal culture in their own national tongues. Some even envisioned the establishment of an ethnically unified Jewish nation-state modeled on the western European ideal. As early as the 1870s, nearly thirty years before Theordor Herzl held the first international Zionist meeting in Switzerland, the Lithuanian Hibbat Zion group was publishing articles about Jewish nationalism and the need for creating settlements in Israel. Unlike Herzl, who assumed that the national tongue of Jews would be German, Lithuanian Zionists called for the revival of Hebrew and for the building of modern Hebrew schools throughout the Pale of Settlement.

Lite also became the cradle of Jewish socialist movements, the most important of which was the Bund (the General Jewish Workers Union in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia), which was founded in 1897 in Vilna and promoted cultural autonomy for European Jews in multinational states. Through the efforts of the Bund and other political and cultural movements, and the encouragement they gave to the development of a Yiddish literary tradition, by the end of World War I Yiddish had gained the League of Nations' recognition as the official language of Jewish national minorities throughout eastern Europe. This accomplishment, however, was short-lived, for Yiddish, together with other expressions of Jewish culture in Europe, was virtually wiped out with the destruction of European Jewry during World War II.


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the vast majority of Lite's Jews were artisans and shopkeepers. Those who accumulated some capital went into lumber, one of the only big industries in the area. Despite czarist restrictions on education, a few middle-class Jews managed to enter the liberal professions, too, and with their degrees gained permission to work in cities outside the Pale of Settlement, beyond the restricted region in western Russia where Jews had been forced to live since the end of the eighteenth century. After World War I and the Russian Revolution, Lithuanian Jews found themselves living in the newly established Baltic states and in Poland. For a variety of reasons, including the rise of Polish anti-Semitism in the interwar years, many young Jews decided to study abroad and went to Germany and other countries in western Europe to take university degrees. Many never returned. Those who stayed behind engaged in a large number of businesses and professional enterprises, but by the early 1930s Jews living in Poland found it increasingly difficult to go to university and to take part freely in the economic life of the nation. Anti-Semitism did not enjoy political favor in independent Lithuania during the interwar years, but when the Germans invaded the country in 1941, "liberating" the republic from two years of Soviet occupation, thousands of Lithuanians joined the Nazis in their murderous campaign to rid Europe of Jews, a betrayal Lithuanian Jews still speak of with continuing surprise and bitterness.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. The Jews of Lite followed the same traditions as other practicing Jews. In biblical times, kinship was traced patrilineally, but, since the days of the Roman Empire, custom dictated that one is Jewish if she or he has a Jewish mother, giving great importance to the female side of the family without diminishing that of the male. Thus, by the time Jews reached Poland and Lithuania, Jews had been following a bilateral kinship system for hundreds of years.

Marriage. In Orthodox Jewish homes in Lithuania and Poland, parents traditionally found companions for their children with the help of a marriage broker (shadkhen ), whose job it was to negotiate the specific terms of the dowry and the signing of the marriage contract (ketubah ), a document that protected (and still protects) wives who were divorced or widowed. The language of the contract dates back to the last century before the Common Era, before the destruction of the Second Temple. Practicing Jews never married (and still do not marry) on the Sabbath or on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Nor did they hold weddings during the forty days that separate Passover from Shavuot, except on the first day (Rosh khodesh) of the two intervening months of Nisan and Iyar.

According to the Talmud, a marriage has two main purposes: to rear a family and to sanctify the companionship of a man and a woman. The ceremony itself sets out the terms and expectations of this union within the faith, explaining explicitly the obligations and responsibilities of both the husband and wife. With a rabbi officiating, the wedding takes place under a canopy (khupah), which symbolizes the fact that the couple will be living together under the same roof. Beginning with the benediction over a cup of wine, a symbol of joy, the service ends with the groom crushing the wine glass with his foot, in memory of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e. The custom also serves traditionally as a warning to the couple, to remind them that just as one step can crush a beautiful glass, so can one act of infidelity destroy the happiness of the home.

Once married, the couple is expected to fulfill the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply." Even though the law forbids a man to sleep with his wife while she is menstruating and for the week following her period, Judaism recognizes openly the pleasures of sex and encourages the couple to take joy in matrimonial union. It is, in fact, a man's responsibility to have relations with his wife and to satisfy her (as it was hers to satisfy him).

The birth of a girl is a happy event in Jewish families, but one that is marked by little ritual activity. In contrast, eight days after the birth of a boy, parents invite friends and relatives to witness the circumcision of their son, renewing in this way the convenant God had made with Abraham (Gen. 17:12) to make the patriarch's descendants a great and holy nation. Since European Christians did not circumcise their sons, European Jews had great difficulty hiding the religion of their men during the years of the Nazi terror.

According to custom, a man is supposed to fulfill as many of the 613 commandments as possible, whereas a woman is expected to fulfill only three: (1) lighting the Sabbath candles; (2) baking the challah (braided white bread, eaten on holidays); (3) bathing in the mikveh, the ritual bath, the week after she has finished menstruating.

Many of the commandments involve the obligation of men to pray and study, an obligation the Jews of Lite took very seriously. As a result, the division of labor in Lithuanian Jewish families placed a far greater material burden on their women than was necessarily the case elsewhere in Europe. The Jews of Lite came to value study so highly that the fathers of gifted sons tried to marry their young scholars off to the daughters of rich people who would be able to support a son-in-law who did not earn a living. If this were impossible, they sought unions with women who were willing to assume the financial responsibility of the family so that their sons could devote themselves entirely to study. As a result, Jewish women in Lite frequently maintained the home and the store while their husbands, ideally, spent the day in the synagogue pouring over the Talmud and commentaries.

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 Pentecostthat 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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