When I realized I would be in Vilna Friday night I decided to make my way back to Chabad House. Ironically it turned out to be right around the corner from the hosteI I stayed in. Jimmy Jumps (www.JimmyJumps.com) has a reputation for being homey and it was a great place to talk and hang out at the end of the day. One afternoon I was chatting with Pete the host and soul of the hostel about Jewish life in Vilna. He told me about an old Lithuanian folk song children used to sing it in the putting it in the context of ‘Ring around the rosie’ being about the bubonic plague. I’m going to write out the song and if this was NPR there would be a warning about having your children hear this.
Imkit vaikai pagalivka ir uemuskit ta zyduka
Translated: Take a little stick kids and whack that little Jew
Scary how easy it is to indoctrinate little kids isn’t it? Pete’s girlfriend who is Lithuanian assured me that kids no longer sing this and that it will take another generation to wipe out this mindset.
Wishful thinking. Back to Chabad. After a very short service, we sat down to dinner. There were about 30 of us including about 10 kids who board there. I don’t know much about Chabad, but I will say the Rabbi and his wife at the Vilna house are so welcoming and really make an effort to meet the needs of the community. The whiskey I talked about in the last post being a small part of it. They also allow men and women to sit together which is how I came to talk with a newly wed couple from Odessa visiting his parents for Sukkot. Having spent ten years in England his English was good and his stories were better. During our conversation I learned this song is far from extinct.
Which also means that discrimination is alive and healthy in this tiny Baltic country.
One thing of course is that any Jew with any intelligence got out in the 90’s when the Soviet’s left and Jews were once again encouraged to leave, as the son was happy to share. As an aside, the irony is before the Holocaust many Jews survived by moving deep into the Soviet Union as I”ve heard numerous times. But his parents remained because the Grandmother was ill and then the father started a business. The rest is history and not a fairytale, especially in this part of the world. They shared that Lithuanians hate Jews as evidenced by being called ‘Jew’ in a store that afternoon. Now how would anyone know they were Jews? Granted the women had on long skirts and hats, but it was so cold they weren’t the only ones. The mother answered this question by running her finger down the bridge of her nose. As the son pointed out, there may not have been Jews here for 60 years but they could still remember what a Jew looked like.
Of course I still want to know why and where this hatred and anti-Semitism comes from. The son’s view: the Lithuanians were farmers and planted their crops while the Jews were not allowed to own land so became peddlers and craftsmen. As peddlers they would sell goods to the farmers for a good price but then they were the ones with the ones with the money. Economics, the haves and have-nots. This ties back to something I heard in Poland where the Poles were farmers and taught their sons to farm. The Jews taught their sons to read and write. (Hmmm…. notice no mention of the daughters….) When it comes to haves and have-nots people recognized the power of education.
And then I have to wonder if to distinguish discrimination do you have to first acknowledge that it exists. Although 200,000 Jews were killed here during the Holocaust there are no major visible signs of its occurence. There was a sign pointing to the Choral synagogue, the only remaining synagogue
and I already told you how hard it was to find the Jewish Museum with its one little sign . An Israeli woman at the hostel attributed this ‘silence’ to Lithuania’s history of bearing the brunt of its bully neighbors Poland, Germany, and Russia over hundreds of years. So to them the Holocaust and the death of their Jews was not a big deal. Seems to me then a wounded
nation is a closed nation and that makes it even sadder and harder to move past.
I stopped in a museum about Lithuanian cultural history on Thursday because I was desperate for a bathroom. Yes, I paid admission (about $2) to a museum to use the loo (I know some of you while not surprised are laughing). So while I was there I decided to walk through since I love cultural artifacts especially the colorful clothing and textiles. In the whole museum there was one acknowledgement that Jews (and Muslims) had ever lived here. A tiny picture of the Gaon, a Rabbi from the 1700’s and a tiny Koran.
(A little about the Gaon, this famous Rabbi felt strongly about preserving traditional Orthodox Judaism and was against Hasidism to put it mildly. I also learned that in the 1600’s Jews were advised against wearing furs and jewels and urged to dress in subtle clothes and colors leading to black and white.)
Where was I? Back to Chabad. There were Friday night services at both Chabad and the Choral Synagogue. But I was told, Chabad served dinner so was the place to go and the Rabbi spoke Lithuanian (not just Yiddish). I certainly felt a nice sense of community. After dinner the Rabbi’s son got up and spoke. Then I was asked to say a few words about who I was and why I was there. Now that I’m writing this I think it was pretty cool they let a woman speak. The Rabbi of course translated since my Lithuanian was limited to please, thank you, have a nice day and where. Lilly was also there since we had met earlier that day and told me that she usually gets to translate. (I also got a lot more of Lilly’s story recorded so I’ll be sharing that in the future).
After I shared my spiel, others got up to tell stories and jokes. One man (who later walked me to where I was going after dinner) told the story about his father working on a cooperative farm in Russia. When being paid, each worker was introduced, for example, the milk maid. When his father was announced as a farmer, a communist, and… there was a pause. His father finished with ‘a Jew’. ‘Yes, but a good man’ was the finish to the introduction.
One thing I shared at dinner was in my conversations with other Jews, and at the Vilna hostel there were five of us around the table one afternoon, none seemed particularly focused on Jews or should I say the Jewish community. You might say it is not their conversational journey, only mine. Though I have to repeat what I said in my first post: when I traveled through here 30 years ago I wasn’t focused on Jewish history at the time, it wasn’t the identity I was exploring. I can’t fault or judge others for their interests and focus. That would make me guilty and discriminating and I don’t want to go down that rocky road.
My dinner partners shared that Jewish populations are decreasing because of intermarriage and assimilation. After hearing about slurs and discrimination it’s a wonder that any Jews exist in this part of the world at all. While I”m gathering stories and snippets and beliefs, the idea of holding on to identity in challenging times is still a big question mark. I can see it takes strong belief and courage and confidence. But where does all that come from and how do we mass market that strength of identity?