Lithuanian Jews

Lithuanian Jews

Lithuanian Jews (known in Yiddish and Yeshivish as "Litvish" (adjective) or "Litvaks" (noun)) are Ashkenazi Jews with roots in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (present-day Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and the northeastern Suwałki region of Poland).

Lithuania was historically home to a large and influential Jewish community that was almost entirely eliminated during the Holocaust: see Holocaust in Lithuania. Before World War II there were over 110 synagogues and 10 yeshivas in Vilnius. [ [ Vilnius, Jerusalem of Lithuania] ] About 4,000 Jews were counted in Lithuania during the 2005 census. [ [ Lithuanian population by ethnicity] ] There are still strong communities of Jews of Lithuanian descent around the world, especially in Israel, the United States and South Africa.


The word "Litvish" means "Lithuanian" in Yiddish. (Latvian Jews were known as Lettishe). Of main Yiddish dialects in Europe, the Litvishe Yiddish (Lithuanian Yiddish) dialect was spoken by Jews in Lithuania, Latvia, and Belarus, and in the northeastern Suwałki region of Poland.

Ethnicity, religious customs and heritage

The characteristically "Lithuanian" approach to Judaism was marked by a concentration on highly intellectual Talmud study. Lithuania became the heartland of the traditionalist opposition to Hasidism, to the extent that in popular perception "Lithuanian" and "mitnagged" became virtually interchangeable terms. In fact, however, a sizable minority of Lithuanian Jews belong(ed) to Hasidic groups, including Chabad, Slonim, Karlin (Pinsk) and Koidanov. With the spread of the Enlightenment, many Lithuanian Jews became devotees of the "Haskala" movement in Eastern Europe, and today many leading academics, scientists and philosophers are of Lithuanian Jewish descent.

The most famous Lithuanian institution of Jewish learning was Volozhin yeshiva, which was the model for most later yeshivas. "Lithuanian" yeshivas in existence today include Ponevezh, Telshe, Mir, Kelm, and Slabodka. In theoretical Talmud study, the leading Lithuanian authorities were Chaim Soloveitchik and the Brisker school; rival approaches were those of the Mir and Telshe yeshivas. In practical halakha the Lithuanians traditionally followed the Aruch HaShulchan, though today the "Lithuanian" yeshivas prefer the Mishnah Berurah, which is regarded as both more analytic and more accessible.

In the nineteenth century, the Orthodox Ashkenazi residents of the Holy Land was broadly speaking divided into Hasidim and Perushim, who were Lithuanian Jews influenced by the Vilna Gaon. For this reason, in modern day Israeli Haredi parlance the terms "Litvak" (noun) or "Litvisher" (adjective), or in Hebrew "Litaim", are often used loosely to include any non-Hasidic Ashkenazi Haredi individual or institution. Another reason for this broadening of the term is the fact that many of the leading Israeli Haredi yeshivas (outside the Hasidic camp) are successor bodies to the famous yeshivot of Lithuania, though their present-day members may or may not be descended from Lithuanian Jewry. In reality, both the ethnic makeup and the religious traditions of the mitnagged communities are much more diverse.

The Vilna Gaon

Elijah ben Solomon, known as the Vilna Gaon.] HaRav Hagaon Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman of Vilna ZT"L was one of the most influential Rabbinic authorities of all time and is the most widely recognized Jewish spiritual leader associated with Lithuania. "The Vilna Gaon" was born in Vilnius and his place of burial is there as well. He led the fight against Hasidism at its inception, believing it to be a pseudo-Messianic personality cult which threatened traditional Torah learning. Though he did not succeed in crushing the movement, his influence greatly tempered its more extreme forms, so that he is ironically described by many as the real founder of the Hasidic movement.


Litvaks have an identifiable mode of pronouncing Hebrew and Yiddish which is often used to determine the boundaries of Lita. Its most characteristic feature is the pronunciation of the vowel holam as [ey] (as against Sephardic /ō/, Germanic [au] and Polish [oy] ).

In the popular preception, Litvaks were considered to be more intellectual and stoic than their rivals, the Galitzianers, who thought of them as cold fish. They, in turn, disdained Galitzianers as irrational and uneducated. Ira Steingroot's "Yiddish Knowledge Cards" devote a card to this "Ashkenazi version of the Hatfields and McCoys." [ [ "Yiddish Knowledge Cards"] ] This difference is of course connected with the Hasidic/mitnagged debate, Hasidism being considered the more emotional and spontaneous form of religious expression.

The two groups differed not only in their attitudes and their pronunciation, but also in their cuisine. The Galitzianers were known for rich, heavily sweetened dishes in contrast to the plainer, more savory Litvisher versions, with the boundary known as the "Gefilte Fish Line." [ [ This is no fish tale: Gefilte tastes tell story of ancestry] ]

Jews in Lithuania today

Interest among descendants of Lithuanian Jews has spurred tourism and a renewal in research and preservation of the community's historic resources and possessions. Increasing numbers of Lithuanian Jews are interested in learning and practising the use of Yiddish. [ [ Lithuanian Jews revive Yiddish] ]

The beginning of the 21st century was marked by conflicts between members of Chabad-Lubavitch and secular leaders. In 2005, Chief Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky was physically removed from the Synagogue by two men hired by the community's secular leader Mr. Alperovich, who then declared a new Chief Rabbi. [ [ International Religious Freedom Report] ] For more detail, see .

Among notable contemporary Lithuanian Jews are the brothers Emanuelis Zingeris (a member of the Lithuanian Seimas) and Markas Zingeris (writer), Arkadijus Vinokuras (actor, publicist), Gercas Žakas (football referee), Bilas (Gidonas Šapiro) (pop-singer from ŽAS), Dovydas Bluvšteinas (music producer), Leonidas Donskis (philosopher, essayist), Icchokas Meras (writer), Grigorijus Kanovičius (writer), Aleksas Lemanas (singer), Rafailas Karpis (opera singer, tenor).

Current leaders of the Haredi "Lithuanian" community

The following rabbinical leaders are of Lithuanian ancestry or are associated with Lithuanian-style yeshivas:
* Rabbi Yosef Sholom Eliashiv
* Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman
* Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky
* Rabbi Nissim Karelitz
* Rabbi Aharon Schechter
* Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg
* Rabbi Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz
* Rabbi Malkiel Kotler

Famous Jews with Lithuanian origin or parentage

* Roman Abramovich, Oligarch and owner of Chelsea F.C.
* Moshe Arens, former Israeli defence minister and foreign minister.
* Ehud Barak, Israeli Chief of Staff, foreign minister, prime minister, defence minister and Labour leader
* Erran Baron Cohen, English-born trumpeter and composer (great grandfather born in Kaunas)
* Sacha Baron Cohen, English-born entertainer (great grandfather born in Kaunas)
* Isidore Barron, South African businessman.
* Menachem Begin, Israeli Prime Minister from Brest-Litovsk
* Dan Bern, American folk singer, poet, painter
* Sydney Brenner, biochemist, Nobel laureate 2002.
* Marc Chagall, Russian-born French painter.
* Leonard Cohen, Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist.
* Aaron Copland, US composer, original family name was Kaplan.
* Bob Dylan, US singer-songwriter, author, musician and poet.
* Romain Gary, French writer.
* Philip Glass, US minimalist composer.
* Leopold Godowsky, composer and pianist.
* Emma Goldman, anarchist.
* Nadine Gordimer, 1991 Nobel Prize for literature.
* Aron Gurwitsch, philosopher in the field of phenomenology.
* Laurence Harvey, British actor.
* Jascha Heifetz, acclaimed 20th century violinist born in Vilnius.
* Moe Howard (born Harry Moses Horwitz), Shemp Howard (born Samuel Horwitz) and Curly Howard (born Jerome Lester Horwitz) of the Three Stooges, a US comedy trio.
* Al Jolson, singer-songwriter, dancer, entertainer
* Ronnie Kasrils, South African communist leader, minister of Intelligence Services
* Aaron Klug, biophysicist, Nobel laureate 1982.
* Tony Leon, South African former opposition leader
* Emmanuel Levinas, philosopher.
* Peggy Lipton, US actress.
* Jacques Lipchitz, sculptor.
* Emmanuel Lubezki, 3 time Academy Award nominee, cinematographer.
* Sergio Lubezky, Latin American photographer.
* George Marcus, anthropologist.
* Gideon Mer, Israeli scientist who worked on malaria research.
* Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister, original family name was Milikowsky.
* Fanny Mikey, Colombian theatre impresario, daughter of a Lithuanian immigrant to Argentina.
* P!nk, (Alecia Moore), US musician, mother is of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry.
* Maury Povich, US talk-show host.
* Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, author and Jewish folklorist who under the pseudonym, S. Ansky wrote the play, The Dybbuk.
* Willy Ronis, photographer.
* Joe Slovo, South African Communist and MK leader, minister of construction in Mandela's government
* Chaïm Soutine, painter.
* Moshe/Michael Tchaban Lithuanian born singer-songwriter.
* Vilna Gaon, preeminent religious leader and Talmudist.
* Meir Vilner, Israeli communist leader, the last of the signatories of Israel's declaration of independence to pass away
* Mary Louise Weller, US actress and model.
* L.L. Zamenhof, founder of the Esperanto language.
* Paul Zukofsky, violinist and conductor from New YorkThe following have roots in Latvia:
* Isaiah Berlin, philosopher.
* Chaim Bermant, novelist and journalist.
* Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet film director
* Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, musicologist.
* Abraham Isaac Kook, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine
* Bernard Levin, journalist
* Max Weinreich, Yiddishist
* Ruth Vinn Hendler Lack, Holocaust survivor, community activist, Fmr Dir of Houston Holocaust Museum


See also

* History of the Jews in Lithuania
* List of Lithuanian Jews

External links

* [ Official website of Jewish Community of Lithuania] en icon
* [ Website of Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch Community] en icon
* [ Website about Jews in Vilnius]
* [ Collection of photos of Litvaks made in first half of 20th century]

Further reading

* Dov Levin, Adam Teller, "The Litvaks: A Short History of the Jews of Lithuania", Berghahn Books, 2001, ISBN 9653080849
* Alvydas Nikžentaitis, Stefan Schreiner, Darius Staliūnas, Leonidas Donskis, "The Vanished World of Lithuanian Jews", Rodopi, 2004, ISBN 9042008504

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