Yiddish Loses Last Global Position as Symbolic “First Jewish Language” in Vilnius


by Dovid Katz

VILNIUS—For close to three decades, Vilnius has been the only city in the world with municipally sponsored public plaques and signs that regularly include Yiddish. Symbologically for a small, weak, stateless, threatened and “threat-to-nobody” language in this part of the world, it was an equally important statement of respect for the language, literature and culture of the murdered Jewish people of the city that Yiddish sometimes came first, “on top,” and always so when it was a question between Yiddish and modern Israeli Hebrew.

For the first time in thirty years, Yiddish has been denied primacy of place among the Jewish languages of the city. The new sign starts with an Israeli Hebrew version used by nobody in pre-Holocaust Vilna.

While doing no damage to the official language of the State of Israel, the unique-on-the-planet policy of “Yiddish first” has been a pride to Vilnius, to its people and particularly its remaining Jewish community. It has also been a point noted with pleasure by visitors from around the world throughout these three decades. It is not a secret that this journal has disagreed on Holocaust history issues (particularly concerning the Prague Declaration of 2008 and the Red-Brown Commission) with the country’s long-serving Jewish MP, Emanuelis Zingeris, with whom we have always maintained the most cordial of relations. But on the issue of Yiddish, there is not only no disagreement. We rise to applaud his singular-in-Europe, dauntless, courageous dedication to Yiddish culture and its specificity for Lithuania. His accomplishments have included books, translations, conferences, expeditions and remarkably, his own serious study of the language in New York City in the late 1980s. His tireless work to ensure that Yiddish signs and plaques would grace the erstwhile Jerusalem of Lithuania ever more have resulted in multiple successes that have brought the city much love.

This has been a win-win situation where Vilnius and Lithuania benefit politically and touristically from this unique status for the city of Weinreich, Kulbak and Reyzen, where the Yiddish language has its last-in-the-world symbolic official corner. This was a policy that extended also to the signs in the Jewish community building and the Green House (Holocaust Museum), thanks to the principled founders and first leaders of those institutions. For decades, our dearest mentors here, including Shimon Alperovich, Jenny Biber, Roza Bieliauskiene, Fira Bramson, Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky, Chaim Burshtein, Milan Chersonski, S.J. Feffer, Pinchos Fridberg, Blumke Katz, Rokhl Kostanian, Sholom-Ber Krinsky, Chatskel Lemchenas, Joseph Levinson, Rokhl Margolis, Yisroel Lempert, Josif Parasonis, Sheine Sideraite, Meilach Stalevich, Chasia Langbord Shpanerflig, and Meir Shub, among many others, have been — each in his or her own way — spiritual Guardians of Jerusalem of Lithuania. But in recent years, the one young Yiddish speaking official (and educator) at the Jewish Community, the beloved Simon Gurevich, was purged in the midst of a misguided campaign of Lithuanization of some of the last active Jewish assets in the city.

It was therefore a subject of some note this morning, when the mayor, the titular lay leader of the official Jewish community (cum nation’s top citizenship lawyer for foreigners) and the Israeli ambassador unveiled a new Jewish street sign on the street known for centuries to Vilna Jews as Di yídishe gas (The Jewish Street), and so named formally by the then Polish authorities (in its Polish form) in the spring of 1920. Instead of a brand new street sign with Lithuanian and Yiddish (the natural sequence of national language and local/historic language for a street name), the old Lithuanian-only sign was left, and supplemented by a new “Jewish sign” with a stock-in-trade star-of-david (“not quite right” and tacky for a street name sign), and the street’s name in Israeli and then below, lowest of the three in the larger frame of sight, Yiddish. (For the traditional Vilna Hebrew name of the street, see Leyzer Ran’s Jerusalem of Lithuania, N.Y. 1974, vol. 1, p. 64.)

The scant Yiddish at the bottom is a bit faulty. That the Yiddish word גאַס (gas ‘street’) is missing the “small” but essential diacritic that makes the vowel an (instead of an o) is of no consequence to its being understood. But it is important symbolically. You better believe, if it were French, Lithuanian or Polish, the required diacritics would be there, on a plaque where respect for the language (ergo for the people who spoke and speak it), or lack thereof, is on display. Incidentally, the spelling without the diacritic was, in this case, characteristic of Soviet Yiddish orthography mandated by Soviet law, and that is the last thing today’s leaders would want to be showcasing.

But Yiddish was the language of 100% of this street’s Jews. They were not Israelis. The majority were not Zionists. The Hebrew-Yiddish dispute has been over now for many decades, and Israelis in town are fascinated to learn more about this city’s Yiddish culture, often surprised that Vilna produced so many high quality Yiddish books, and in the interwar period gave rise to a sophisticated array of educational institutions ranging from kindergartens to the university-level courses and studies at the Yiddish Teachers’ Seminary and the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research.

There were other strange aspects of this morning’s elite event, attended also by some foreign guests here for the annual September 23rd related series of events. For one thing, the announcement to people who live in town (to just some of those interested in such things) went out only on this morning’s email, giving people no notice to rearrange their day to attend. Nor was the event listed on any of the “Litvak events” of the week. It was almost as if the organizers did not want city residents to turn up (some folks who did were from a coincidentally passing foreign tour group). Perhaps it was just meant to be yet another Mt. Rushmore photo-op for the PR gurus?

Second, it seems that MP Zingeris, cofounder of the country’s Jewish state museum, who was in attendance, was not invited to say a few words even though he has for three decades committed to the project of “Yiddish in the streets of Vilnius.” For decades he has often been the only speaker to say a few words in Yiddish.

Third, the Yiddish singer on hand turned one of the saddest Yiddish songs related to the Holocaust into a jazz number, deeply offensive to any who take the Holocaust seriously. She meant no harm, of course, but it seemed to imply that the city’s qualified Yiddish singers have, like Mr. Gurevich, been somehow disenfranchised. The name of the new game is ersatz.

Fourth, the event ended with a mature Jewish woman used (misused?) to hand out bagels, in the spirit of the “Bagel Shop” project that has come to epitomize the takeover by non-Jews exclusively from the majority ethnicity, of essential parts of the Jewish community (not just “Judaic Studies” and “Jewish libraries”) and the concomitant bagelization and vaudevillization of bona fide Litvak culture. To fathom the point, do a little thought experiment: An official African-American Community organization in a town in Alabama where all the fun (and lucrative) jobs go to lilywhites, with the African-Americans increasingly sidelined. To make matters worse, this is often explained to naive visitors by the handsomely paid identity-theft Fake Litvaks along the lines of “Well, there are no longer any Jews here who can do any of this, so we are representing their community and keeping their heritage alive with our expertise.”

Lastly, and in some little way redeemingly, the official Jewish community’s website’s report today went with “Jewish Street Gets New Sign in Yiddish, Hebrew” and follows that order in its report, as if its website-meisters too were a tad uncomfortable with something.

It is hoped that the opening of an Israeli embassy in Vilnius last year is not behind the sudden downgrade of Yiddish in its last public-space corner on the planet (for the first time in thirty years, there have been over the past year Jewish signs around the country totally excluding Yiddish, but each case needs to be, and no doubt will be, researched). During his one two-minute visit to the city’s weekly Yiddish Literary Circle, the ambassador, HE Amir Maimon, related to the entire (shocked and more than a little saddened) class (which included three Holocaust survivors) a “joke about a shmuck that I heard in the army,” perhaps not yet aware that Yiddish is the language of a great European literature and culture, one cherished as a most precious keepsake by the remnants of Lithuanian Jewry.


This entry was posted in Commemorations for Destroyed Communities, Dovid Katz, Events, Identity Theft of Litvak Heritage, Israel, Lithuania, Lithuania's Jewish Community Issues, Litvak Affairs, News & Views, Opinion, Politics of Memory, Symbology, Yiddish Affairs and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
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