OPINION | HUMOR (OF SORTS) | VILNIUS JEWISH LIFE | CHABAD IN VILNIUS
by Motke Chabad (Vilnius) (Russian version here)
Midsummer greetings to all my readers! Of course you have not forgotten Motke. Sure, Motke may speak like Motke, with an allegory or a little twist here and there, to enable you, dear reader, to enjoy life and the wonders of the incredible world we live in. But there is something else you know about Motke. When I, Motke, who knows everything about what is happening in my old hometown Vilne give you a document, you better believe that the document is real. No sir, Motke does not deal in Fake News!
The document is of course the document that everyone in town is talking about. Just go around town and ask. What is the sensation this week?
But before I go a step further I have to clarify something. My family name happens to be Chabad which is of course the Hebrew abbreviation for Chókhmo, Bíno, and Dáas (Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge), even if our cousins in the Holy Land have changed it to Chokhmá, Biná and Dáat. In any case, let them change what they like! But that wasn’t my point. my point is that I happen to come from an old Vilna Litvak Misnagdic family (vodén?!), and the family name (at least I hope so) has nothing to do with the Chabad Lubavitch sect of Chasidim. I say it comes from the Kabbalah’s ten sefiroth from which those Chasidim went ahead and took it. A Litvak is a Litvak and a Chosid is a Chosid. Nothing to do with the name. A Chosid from New York in full regalia once came to see me. He was called Mr. Lutwak so what are you going to do. Let’s just hope that there is enough Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge to go around for everybody. And never judge anyone by their name.
So, knowing how busy you are, dear reader, let me share with you the document. It is a letter that many people who believe in God and our Jewish religion and its sacred and devout prayers received over the last week. You don’t need to wonder about it anymore. But what is it all about? It is about bakn beygl, baking bagels. But we’ll come back to the bagels soon.
Well, my friends, you may not believe it, but it’s true: For over twenty-five years there has been an American-born Chabad rabbi in Vilnius who has been here through thick and thin, while we Litvak Misnagdim have had to import rabbis who used to come two weeks a month, one week a month, one and a half weeks in two months, and so forth, as chief rabbi. That wasn’t convenient for those of us who wanted to have a Litvak funeral. You had to be careful to die during the time of the month when the rabbi is in town, or else you would be up the creek.
But now, back to the story. You might remember what I wrote to you back then, maybe five years ago, when the official chief rabbi forbade the construction of a national convention center in the old Vilna Jewish cemetery. Well, he got fired for saying that (this is true!), and then the Official Community began to look far and wide for a rabbi who would cherish the idea of people jumping up and down, clapping, singing and dancing in a convention center, with a big new red annex, surrounded by my ancestors’ graves. Fuya. Or maybe the two green buildings in the cemetery are worse, I don’t know. It depends on whether you prefer red or green choleryes to be built in a cemetery. If not in the cemetery, where?
Then came the period of the Grand Dual Rabbinate, or, as some mockers and scoffers had it, of Batman and Robin, or, as some others formulated it in the golden path of the middle that Maimonides preached — Senior and Junior (Junior was very young and Rabbi Pepper, more about him later, gave him the nickname der malish).
In those selfsame days, it so happens, the period when Madame Chairwoman of the Jewish Community repeatedly called the police to forcibly evict the Chabad rabbi and his family and all his followers, from the oldest to the youngest, the men the women and the children, from synagogue premises. Oy was that a story. Once, and twice, and again. It was actually many stories, Motke will God willing be back to tell you more.
That is not to say there were no other rabbis around. For more than twenty-five years, a true Litvak rabbi has been in town parts of the year, let’s call him Rabbi Pepper, we already cited his name-giving talents. He who could never be persuaded to support a convention center in the Jewish cemetery. In fact it was he who understood how those two buildings back then were just the start of the destruction of der Alter Feld (the old Jewish cemetery at Piramont). But Rabbi Pepper has himself been banned from the one Jewish synagogue in town for nine years now. That was after a physical punch-up between two rabbis that came almost seven years after the more famous punch-up between three rabbis of sixteen years ago over the Book of Ruth on Shvuyes. And that’s a whole other story. Not for today. Motke tries not to go too far off from the story.
If you think all this is hard to believe, you ain’t heard nothing yet.
Around three years ago, Madame Chairwoman of the Official Jewish Community suddenly fired both Batman and Robin, whom she had hired in the first place not God forbid as the joint antichrist but as the joint anticrinskis.
Anyhow, the point is, she made peace with the Chabadnik! Can you imagine, a lady calls the police multiple times on a gentleman telling him to cease and desist. The gentleman didn’t remain silent for his part, vos tut a yid, he wrote a blog, shoyn eynmol a blog, exposing what all the money in the Best Will Foundation was going for. Believe you me, when you make a blog, you can’t erase it. Someone somewhere has copied it. Listen to Motke, he gives good advice. But it hurts me to see that the rabbi did a much better job of dissecting the budgets of the Best Will Foundation than I could ever do myself.
I would need to consult the Book of the Chronicles of the Kingdom of Vilne, but I think all that happened around the same time as Madame Chairwoman was up for reelection, and when it didn’t look like it was going so ay-ay-ay, she changed the rules (nu, what’s a couple of rules?), so her own committee members, most of whom live a not too bad life thanks to the Best Will Foundation (and some of whom have one, two or three votes) would be the gantse electorate instead of those difficult, stubborn, stiff-nekced Jews who live here. Can you imagine? But this was only to help us date the whole story. More or less.
Where were we? Yes, Madame Chairwoman not only stopped calling the police, she offered the Chabad rabbi the brand new position of “The [only] Rabbi of the [only] Synagogue” and you know how young they are, the guy was not yet fifty after all his decades here in Vilna, could be that’s because Chabad rabbis have a trick to stay young forever. She offered him the position of official rabbi with a salary. It’s written in black and white. You can win a prize from Motke by finding it in the Best Will Foundation’s newest list of allocations. Well, the moral of the story is simple: If you write a blog demolishing the Best Will Foundation’s allocations, they’ll end up giving you a job so you can go home, calm down and shut up.
But does that mean that the Chasidim finally managed to conquer what is left of our Vilne 238 years after the Gaon of Vilna signed the cheirem against them!?
Never. Heaven forbid. To the contrary, what happened was the biggest victory for Litvaks and Misnagdim in the whole of our history! Boy did we show those Chasidism who is balebos in Vilne. In order to become the official community rabbi who runs the services in synagogue every day of the year, to the exclusion of all others, the Chabadnik had to promise to give up any trace of Chabad Lubavitch prayer conventions and become, in the synagogue services, a total Litvak! Er hotsakh geshmat far a Litvak! Go and guess what can only happen.
So remember, if you want to see the authentic and true Litvish way of praying, come to the synagogue in Vilne. Where else? There you will never find lying around copies of the T.T.T. (that’s the Torah, Tehilim, Tanya, that Chabad trinity of three most sacred texts). The cantor, a professional opera master and ventriliquist, recites every Kaddish slowly and with each word explicitly and carefully enunciated, so you can be sure he’s not saying those Four Words that the Chasidim stick into Kaddish (“Yatzmach” or whatever it is, something about Messiah coming, oh, and there’s a fifth word there, “Omein!” to the other four). You will find out the precise Haftorah reading in the tradition of Vilne, and, needless to say, the blessings after the Haftorah are without the added word of the Chabadniks (may they also nevertheless be healthy and live until 120 years). The Vilne shul is not one of those places where someone hands out the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s selection of Chapters of Psalms to be read at the end of Shabbos morning services (not even the previous Rebbe’s). Surely they start every morning from the list of blessings, not from Hodu. as sure as I am a Jew. So, if you want to hear the specific Lithuanian traditions of Psukei d’Zimro, Adoin Oilom (Adon Olam, our rich foreign cousins say), and V’shomru B’nei Yisroel es Ha-Shabbos, just come to the one shul in town, and of course there will be all of that plus the real Litvak Kaddish, the one also taught to mourners from the paid minyan of the elderly most pious and religious people in all the land. Not to mention that on the second day of Shvuyes, the traditional Litvak commemoration of the Ger Tsedek’s yortzait is right there, prominent as ever. As for the brief words of Torah at the blessed Sabbath meal after morning prayers, when all are enjoying kosher bagels with lox and cream cheese, it is invariably about the wondrous moral and intellectual miracles performed by Litvak rabbis over the centuries, usually focused on the scholarship of the Be’er Hagola, the Vilna Gaon, the Chayei Odom, Chaim of Valozhin, Reb Yisroel Salanter, the histories of the Valozhin yeshiva and of those in the Mir, Slutsk, Ponevezh, Slabodke and Telz. It’s Vilne, after all.
Thanks to the Best Will Foundation, Litvak religious culture has finally won out in Vilne after 250 years. That’s only poetic justice when you remember that the millions in the Best Will Foundation come from the religious properties of the old time Lithuanian Jews here. After all, justice prevails in the end, so says Motke.
So, with the synagogue so thoroughly and securely Litvish, and the Chabad rabbi completely free to follow Chabadishe prayers at his own Chabad House at the other end of the Old Town, everyone is happy. Moshiach’s times are getting closer and closer, I tell you. If anyone wants an example how to make peace between the countries of the world, just come to us Jews in Vilne and you’ll learn from us the deepest secrets about rapid and amicable conflict resolution.
As ever, our dearest Jews in Vilne are not dispositionally inclined toward accepting that all is solved. Some say the Chabadnik is really converting the last Vilne shul to a Chabad shul surreptitiously, with one Chabadishe shtik introduced into the prayers and readings after another, sometimes doing a tactical retreat if there’s a bigwig Litvak visiting town. This side of this new discussion holds that Madame Chairwoman has been tricked from the start and has given over the shul to become a symbol of Chabad removal of Litvishe prayers from the last Litvishe shul in Vilne, by taking advantage of some ignorant secular Jews. But there is, as always, the opposing point of view. Its adherents feel certain that Madame Chairwoman is the shrewdest in the land, and would never let herself be deceived or made a monkey of in this way, and you just have to attend a service to see that the Chabadnik, holy cantor and holy minyan in tow, is meticulously sticking to his word of honor and doing everything the Litvish way, pure, to the hilt, and simple. Except maybe last week, when one of the Chabadishe youngsters, who can smell a Litvak a mile away saw some Israeli Litvish-haredi type looking for the shul, and ran to the rabbi and cantor with the usual two-word military-grade warning: “Misnaged Alert!” and by the time the Litvak made it in, he would notice nothing wrong. Well, almost.
But that debate too has been overtaken by events at this point in time. What happened? The rabbi’s office suddenly sent a circular far and wide warning the Jews of our town, and the whole world for that matter, not to come and get a bagel at the official Jewish community’s Bagel Shop, because the place is no longer kosher. Heaven knows what they are putting in those bagels. Motke doesn’t mention such words in public. The rabbi wouldn’t be writing this about his employer just like that. Oy, I forgot to give you the circular email. Yes, Motke can read an email if you print it out like a real piece of paper. Motke can even read Hebrew too. The Hebrew text has the added words: “And the place is not kosher!”Rabbi Krinsky's edict