Julius Norwilla (standing end of table) with his class of Elementary/Intermediate Yiddish at Vilnius’s Jewish Cultural and Information Center (JCIC) in the Old Town, under auspices of the Vilnius Jewish Community in March 2020. On 24 March, with a pandemic upending life in the Lithuanian capital (as everywhere), the students and teacher decided to continue online via skype and have not missed a week. Standing at left is Rima Kazlauskaite, administrator at JCIC.
VILNIUS—While much of Jewish cultural life has gone on hold here in the Lithuanian capital, the 6 PM Tuesday evening elementary/intermediate Yiddish course taught by Julius Norwilla (Norvila) stands as a marked exception to the rule. The course, which got underway on 10 December 2019, had completed eleven sessions at Vilnius’s beloved Jewish Cultural and Information Center at Mesiniu 3 in the heart of the Old Town, when the city went into lockdown (known locally as quarantine) in mid-March.
But for the first time in Yiddish language studies within Lithuania, the teacher and his students decided together to continue online, via skype at the same time each Tuesday evening. This evening they completed the course’s twentieth session and are gearing up to continue next week with the twenty-first.
Mr. Norwilla, best known in Jewish circles as chair of the Vilnius Committee for the Preservation of the Old Piramónt Jewish Cemetery, and a prominent commentator on that subject, and on antisemitism and other forms of prejudice and racism, was once a Protestant minister here in Vilnius (after studying theology at Oxford). He is one of the city’s leading voices for multicultural studies and intercultural respect and dialogue. He was an active dissident in Soviet times. In Israel, he is perhaps best known for his 2017 speech at the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv. In recent years, he had studied Yiddish in Vilnius and New York, and participated in an Oxford summer seminar on global antisemitism.
Among his Yiddish students who have never missed a class are Regina Kopilevich, the legendary Jewish guide of Old Jewish Vilna, and genealogist who has uncovered the roots of thousands of Litvak Jewish families from around the world, and Arkady Kurliandchik, a board member of the elected Vilnius Jewish Community.
In addition to specially constructed dialogues and excerpts from such classicists as Y.L. Peretz and Sholem Aleichem, the class has made extensive use of Yiddish teaching books by Annick Margules and Nadia Déhan-Rotshild (2010), and of prewar works by B. Smoliar and by Ben-Zion Raskin.
The class started as a spin-off of Dovid Katz’s Wednesday evening advanced sessions (where Mr. Norwilla has been a regular for close to a decade). That project, known as the Vilna Yiddish Reading Circle, recently celebrated conclusion of its twenty-first academic year with plans to re-start in the autumn for year no. 22.