by Dovid Katz
VILNIUS—The lovely idea to name a square in modern Vilnius for the State of Israel is a fine gesture of friendship between the two countries and their foreign ministries. Today’s LRT report informs readers that Israel Square will adorn the neighborhood known as Naujamiestis (the New Town, or the New City).
There is a problem.
While having zero connection to prewar Zionism or settlement of the Land of Israel in any period, this neighborhood has remained the internationally symbolic heart and soul of modern Yiddish scholarship, because it is right here that this new field of academic endeavor, centering European Jewish culture, was born. It is where Yiddish academic study was launched in one of the most dramatic achievements of a stateless language ever, in the context of the unique energy of Vilna in all its incarnations: Vílne, Wilno, Vilnius, as we all together celebrate the city’s 700th anniversary this year.
The neighborhood is forever known in Yiddish as Náyshot or Di náye shtót, or speaking from afar, Vílner náyshtot. It refers to the streets build up primarily in the nineteenth century “from Zaválne (Pylimo St.) upward” (in older Vilner parlance: “up the hill”). This contrasts with all that is before Pylimo, as you walk from the oldest parts of the city, which counts as the Old Town (or Old City).
For many years, the authorities in Vilnius have shown deep respect for the Náyshot heritage as the place where modern Yiddish scholarship rose in the early twentieth century, and thrived up until the Holocaust. There are handsome bilingual Lithuanian and Yiddish plaques (in other words with the full text in Yiddish and Lithuanian, not just “Jewish toys on the street”) on the buildings where Zalmen Reyzen lived (Greys-Pohulanka 17 / Basanavičiaus 17), where Max Weinreich lived (Greys-Pohulanke 14 / Basanavičiaus 16), where Yivo stood (Vivulski 18 / Vivulskio), and where Avrom Sutzkever once read his poems (Greys-Pohulánke 20 / Basanavičiaus 22). The Yiddish character of the area is its hallmark, and continues to attract Yiddishists from around the world, because it is the only such place in all of Eastern Europe. In all of the world.
Other key historic buildings still stand intact in the neighborhood and await future historic plaques for the delight of residents and visitors alike.
They include the Sofia Gurevich Yiddish school and gymnasium (on Makóve / Aguonų), which the brilliant Yiddish woman educator built into one of interwar Wilno’s (indeed interwar Poland’s!) best schools. Such luminaries as New York artist Yonia Fain and master Yale scholar Benjamin Harshav (Hrushovski) were educated there (hear Harshav’s late-in-life reminiscences of these very Vilna streets). There is the Boris Kletskin publishing house (Kleyn Stefn-gas 23 / Raugyklos) which played a seminal part in the rise of high-grade Yiddish scholarship. There is the Yiddish theatre that now houses the Tolerance Center headquarters of the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish history. And more and more.
The achievements would easily fill a book. To cite a very few of them, it was here that Sh. Niger edited the first ever Yiddish academic anthology, the Pínkes (1913), in which Ber Borokhov created the field of Yiddish Studies with his brilliant essay, The Aims of Yiddish Philology and his bibliography of 400 years of Yiddish linguistic studies. That was all made possible by history’s first high-brow Yiddish literary, intellectual and academic-level publishing house — Boris Kletskin’s. It is where the Yivo was founded in 1925, and produced the series Filológishe shríftn and the first ever graduate-level academic program taught in Yiddish; where Dr. Tsemakh Shabad (Greys-Pohulánke 15 / Basanavičiaus 15) edited his Yiddish volumes on the new Yiddish educational system he helped to build, as well as the first modern Yiddish health journal. In terms of the powerful personalities who built this remarkable field of humanistic endeavor, it is where Boris Kletskin, Zelig Kalmanovitsh, Zalmen Reyzen, Tsemakh Shabad and Max Weinreich all decided to resettle to build their compact secular Yiddishist academic-oriented community that made Vilna the world center of Yiddish scholarship. Nowadays, it is no disrespect to Zionism, nor to non-Zionism, to accurately report that their phenomenal cultural, literary and academic output went hand in hand with a diasporist, non-Zionist philosophy often called “here-ism” synthesized with unbridled love for the folk language of over ten million East European Jews, and its rapid rise to academic capacity at Western levels.
“It is one of the magnificent tales of Vilna history, one to be celebrated, not one to fall victim to Winner Replacement Culture Syndrome.”
We appeal to the authorities to consider naming this Yiddish Scholarship Square, or just: Yiddish Square. That is the actual heritage of this neighborhood that has played a permanent historic role in the scholarly development and academic establishment of Yiddish, indeed with its Vílne and and its Litvak character. It has nothing to do with the State of Israel and the culture of modern Ivrít.
And, we appeal to the Israeli Embassy in Vilnius, and the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, to join in that.
What a sad irony it would be that so many decades after the end of the “Hebrew-Yiddish language wars” the Israeli Foreign Ministry, prominently cited in today’s report in connection with the “decision” to name the square “Israel Square” should show such heartless insensitivity to the heritage, language and culture of the murdered Jewish population of Vilna. Alas, this is not the first time we confront the phenomenon in the years since Israel opened its embassy in Vilnius in 2015 (another painful example, from 2016.). Does the Israeli Foreign Ministry really want the opening of its separate embassy here in Vilnius (previously, the Riga based embassy covered Lithuania as well as Latvia) do go down in history as the catalyst for destroying the one symbolic Yiddish holdout on the planet where the historic plaques are in Yiddish and for the builders of modern Yiddish culture?
Really now — Does it hurt Israel that modern Vilnius has had the imagination and humanism to respect the city’s Yiddish cultural heritage? Does this have to be undermined?
But not all Israeli diplomats in Eastern Europe have an anti-Yiddish agenda. Our community here will never forget the inspirational Israeli ambassador Chen Ivri Apter (1958-2012) who tragically died way before his time. Stationed in Riga, he would make a point to visit the Vilna Yiddish Reading Circle and show deep respect to attempts to rebuild modern Yiddish culture in the city, howsoever modestly. No coincidence that he was also a hero of the Jewish community for standing up so bravely for Jewish partisan veteran Rachel Margolis when she was accused of “war crimes” by antisemitic prosecutors working with an ultranationalist elite to rewrite history. In 2009 he made a special trip to Tel Aviv to address an evening for Margolis at Tel Aviv’s major Yiddish institution, Leyvik House, where most of the addresses were in Yiddish under the masterly chairmanship of Leyvik House director Daniel Galay.
A far cry from the first Vilnius-stationed Israeli ambassador years later who sought some brownie points here with the ultranationalist history-revising elites, in the lowpoint of modern Israeli diplomacy, by posing with a photograph of a Holocaust collaborator locally honored as a “hero” (attempts to erect a monument to the same personage in New Britain, Connecticut, were roundly defeated), and visiting a military college named for another Holocaust collaborator (and see from which country this Israeli diplomat got all his medals). Sadly, when that Israeli ambassador to Lithuania visited the Vilna Yiddish Reading Circle for a few minutes, he was only able to deeply offend the Holocaust survivors in the group with his “joke about the shmuck that I know from the army.” The very idea that Yiddish gave the world thousands of creative writers and a permanent literary and academic legacy can be for some, even today, hard to swallow.
“For today’s Israeli tourists in Vilnius, the Yiddish plaques and inscriptions are a source of fascination and an introduction to the lost world of their forebears. They come here to reconnect and learn more about the precious legacy of East European Jewry.”
In fact, respect for Yiddish language, literature and culture is closely tied to respect for the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, and loyalty to the historic truth of the tragic fate of East European Jewry, including Lithuanian Jewry. This was a Yiddish speaking civilization. And, as Kletskin, Reyzen, Weinreich and all the others were fond of saying, where Yiddish disappears in Jewish communities around the world, it is never replaced by Hebrew as the spoken language, but by assimilation to the national language with no Jewish language in the home and on the street; this, very different from the miraculous success of Ivrít as language of a major great country in the Middle East.
There are plenty of other places in town to name for the State of Israel.
Vilnius has a successfully evolving Israel Square in a place that is historically meaningful and in current city life already bustling.
In fact, there is already a successfully evolving Israel Square in Vilnius. It would be near the magnificent interwar Tarbut school at Pylimo 4 (that today houses the official Lithuanian Jewish Community). The Tarbut school was a major contributor to the revival of modern Hebrew and the intellectual hub of Vilna’s Zionist movement. The accompanying plaque would enumerate some of the leading Israeli icons whose love for (and deep knowledge of) Hebrew and Zion came from this school.
And it is already happening by way of those near-mystical forces that drive cultural pluralism in great cities. The square (cum corner of the park) right opposite has already been named Tzvi Park (Cvi parkas), replacing Petras Cvirka Square, and already featuring an outstanding, and internationally noted Israeli themed outdoor café (“Israeli Street Food and Cultural Oasis“). There’s your Israel Square, guys!
By contrast, there is nothing to gain by an ill-considered plan that would serve only to undermine Europe’s only Yiddish themed neighborhood that has brought multilayered meaning, honor and culturally sophisticated tourism to town. Time to get over the hatred, dismissal — and irrational fear — of Lithuania’s grand Yiddish heritage. What a beautiful gesture for Vilnius and Lithuania for the stomping grounds of Sofia Gurevich, Zelik-Hirsh Kalmanovitsh, Boris Kletskin, Zalmen Reyzen, Tsemakh Shabad and Max Weinreich to be named for the modernist academic culture they successfully created in their beloved Vílne. Their creation continues to resonate with an indomitable will to survive, a will rooted in unique and non-replaceable culture of pre-Holocaust Jewish Eastern Europe.
After letters from Yiddish cultural organizations and educational institutions around the world reached the council, the decision, scheduled for today’s 7 June meeting, was postponed to a future meeting. The next City Council meeting is scheduled for 28 June.