OPINION | LITVAK AFFAIRS | MUSEUMS
by Dovid Katz (Vilnius)
VILNIUS—The Litvak world, internationally fragmented and weak, yet so vibrant and creative, has been cheered by news reports of the new shtetl museum to rise in the near future in Shádev, a Lithuanian town of many centuries of Jewish heritage where a great rabbinic personality, Reb Móyshe Ha-Góyle (“Moses the Exile”, Méyshe Ha-Géyle in deep Litvish pronunciation, Moshé Ha-Golé in Israeli Hebrew) thrived in the fifteenth century.
A good shtetl museum here will be a blessing to the Litvak, European Jewish, Yiddish and shtetl heritage internationally. It will be a blessing to modern, democratic Lithuania. To this day, the basket of idols of the contemporary Jewish market downplays the magnitude of Yiddish language, literature, and culture, shtetl culture and heritage, and the magnificent East European Jewish legacy more generally. News media have gone with reports by AFP and by JTA, and there is more on the project’s website.
The first order of the day is to congratulate all those involved on this terrific news, starting with its founder, the fine essayist Sergei Kanovich (known to his Lithuanian readers as Sergejus Kanovičius). Seasoned observers have been heartened by the news of two announced appointments in particular (with no disrespect to others): Milda Jakulytė, a widely respected veteran of Vilnius’s Green House (a component of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum) and editor of the Holocaust Atlas of Lithuania, as curator; and Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a major force behind the stunning success of the new Jewish museum in Warsaw, as a senior advisor.
As ever, news of new projects evokes concerns and true friends will put those out there with dignity instead of just posting to the relevant internet gossip circuits. These must not be blown out of proportion to cast aspersions on the project. But neither should they be hidden under the proverbial rug. They are part of the public discourse in the Western democratic tradition. In that spirit, here are some of our own concerns.
First, the Yiddish legitimacy, the Litvak integrity and the Jewish authenticity of such a museum depends symbolically on pride in using the Jewish name of the town it is named for, not the modern Lithuanian (or Polish, or Russian, etc.) name alone. As ever with older places that enjoy a rich cultural history, there are several options to choose from. In the case at hand, the oldest Jewish name of the town is Shádov, which Yiddish philologists know would have often been pronounced Shádev. In more recent generations, the town was known to Litvaks as Shádeve. Whatever choice is made for the primary title, it should not be just Šeduva, anymore than Pónevezh can be just Panevėžys, or Svintsyán just Švenčionys in a Jewish cultural context. This is not some obscure philological point, it is one of primary cultural and symbological significance. Does the Jewish culture and history of the place really have its own legitimate identity? Pride in the old Yiddish name is the first litmus test of cultural courage in commemorating any shtetl. Our list of shtetl names for Lithuania is here.
Next, transparency. Some panic has been caused by one sentence in a number of the press releases: “A group of businessmen with ancestors from the town, and who wish to remain anonymous, are funding the project.” This won’t do. Already the antisemitic establishment here is reveling in conspiracy theories of “Russian Jewish investment for ulterior motives.” If you are funding an honest shtetl museum in a Lithuanian shtetl, please be proud of what you are doing and let the world know who you are. There should be no secrets about such things.
Third, the town’s own honesty about its Jewish heritage. We have elsewhere recently critiqued the current expensive and lavish Jewish commemorations in this town which seem to still be lacking in the elementary sign of readiness for historical truthfulness: a modest information board in the town center with a summary of the Jewish history and achievements of the town and a frank statement of that population’s annihilation that does not omit to mention the major factor of local participation in the massacre of the town’s entire Jewish population (this is not some tangential detail). This is related to the need for ascertaining that none of the perpetrators or their collaborators and enablers are honored by street names or museum or textbook glorification in the region.
It is excellent that the museum will be focused on the centuries of vibrant Jewish life over the centuries. To truly do justice to the magnificent heritage of Shádev in Litvak history and lore, the museum will have to have experts in all three Jewish languages of written creativity of Shádev over the centuries, Yiddish, (Ashkenazic) Hebrew, and (rabbinic) Aramaic, to bring about in-depth appreciation of just what it is that Shádever have created and given the world over hundreds of years.
Last but not least, let us keep in mind the primary source for any shtetl on the territory of the interwar Lithuanian republic (i.e. minus the Vilna area): Berl Kagan’s magnificent one-volume condensed encyclopedia, Jewish Cities and Villages in Lithuania. Historical-Biographical Sketches (New York 1991). The Yiddish original is available for free online. The section for Shádeve / Shádev is on pp. 559-565 of the two-columned folio pages of the book. It is a book that has been plagiarized repeatedly in English by some in the “Jewish Heritage” industry who know how to “cannibalize the goodies” for profit from quickie root seekers.
It is a source of pride for Jewish studies in Lithuania that a fine young scholar of Yiddish literature, Goda Volbikaitė, has translated the entire volume into Lithuanian under the auspices of Vilnius’s beloved Jewish Culture and Information Center (JCIC), at the initiative of its director Algis Gurevičius (he’s affectionately known as “Al Gore” to the international community here). Hopefully it will appear in print soon! In the meantime, it would augur well for the new Shádev museum to obtain permission from the late author’s family for putting up these splendid pages about this historically splendid shtetl on the project’s website, in Yiddish, Lithuanian, and English, at least.
May the inspiring new project be blessed with wisdom, courage and rapid success.