by Saul Issroff

The following was in reply to a question posed by one of the members of
the JGS of Great Britain:- " My father was born in Libau (Courland) but
called himself a Litvak  - what is a Litvak?":

Libau was part of Courland and is now part of Latvia.[1] Courlanders
(Kurlanders) were considered Litvaks (at least culturally). Hertz[2]
defines Litwaks (sic) as Jews from the Pale of settlement, especially
from the Vilna and Minsk Gubernias, who settled in Congress Poland at
the end of the 19th century. Many were under the influence of Russian
culture and language.

The Schoenbergs[3]  define a Litvak as a Lithuanian Jew but qualify this
by stating that Jews from outside Lithuania may also be considered
Litvaks..."sources identify a number of mundane characteristics
contrasting Litvaks from other Ashkenazi Jews including Yiddish dialect
differences, culinary tastes and varying methods of food preparation".
They cite the practice of Litvaks in reciting Friday night Kiddush
sitting, and point out that when a Litvak prays he stands rock still and
only moves his lips. "However, these are outward manifestations of a
divergence of customs within the larger Ashkenazi Jewish community. In a
more general sense Litvaks are characterised as being more rational,
dogmatic and authoritarian than other branches of Ashkenazi Jewry".

They describe the origins of the Jews in the Baltic States and the
conflict that developed between the followers of the Vilna Gaon , the
Mitnagdim, (later known as the orthodox), meaning the opposers (of the
new emotional, anti-rational Hassidim). In 1784 the Gaon ruled that the
Hassidim were heretical, prohibited ritual slaughter performed by them
and marriage with them. The animosity between the groups was intense. It
was during this period of severe conflict that the term Litvak came into
being to differentiate the Lithuanian Jews from the remaining,
predominately Hassidic Jewish world of Eastern Europe.

The antipathy lessened in the 19th century as the Hassidic movement
began to establish Yeshivot  of their own and to stress Torah education.
The traditional way of Jewish communities was to turn inwards, immersed
in their studies and being closer to God, but still part of the economic
world of the surrounding gentile town. This practice was challenged by
the Haskalah, the movement of enlightenment, which came to Lithuania
from the West, initially in Italy and Holland, moving through Germany
and took hold especially in Vilna (Vilnius) and Minsk.

These emancipated Jews looked upon themselves as a mediator between the
old rigid orthodoxy and the radical assimilationists. In Lithuania (with
traditions of reason and study) it centred on language and the people
rather than manifestations of assimilation and disavowal. Poets,
artists, scholars and politicians rapidly developed their interests. The
Haskalah movement opened up Lithuanian Jewry to the other new movements,
Zionism and Jewish Socialism. The Jewish Bundists played a major part in
the Russian Revolution.

After the third partition of Poland in December 23, 1791 the decree
limiting Jewish habitation to White Russia (Byelorus) and the Ukraine
was extended to include the newly acquired territories along the Baltic

Thus began the Pale of Settlement that stretched from the Baltic Sea to
the Black Sea. Of the areas then inhabited by Lithuanian Jewry , ethnic
Lithuania and Byelorussia became an integral part of Russia. The
southern part, around Grodno and Suwalk became part of the Duchy of
Warshaw (Poland). So, although Lithuania may have become divided, the
Jewish Litvak community remained integrated until World War 1. At the
time of partition about a quarter of all Jews in eastern Europe were
Litvak. By 1923 153,000 Jews lived in Lithuania and about 90,000 in
Latvia, mainly of Litvak origin.

As is well known, many Litvaks emigrated to North and South America,
Great Britain, Australia and South Africa. The majority of those left
were killed in the Shoah. There are now under 4,000 Jews left in
Lithuania and about 15,000 in Latvia.

For a more  detailed description refer to these recently published
books:- Greenbaum [4] and Levin [5]


[1] Jacobson, Shelley.  SHEMOT:Vol 1,4 p28-30
[2] Hertz,Alexander.  THE JEWS IN POLISH CULTURE 1987 Northwestern
    University Press Evanston Illinois
[3] Schoenberg, Stuart and Nancy.  LITHUANIAN JEWISH COMMUNITIES 1991
    Garland Publishing  Company  NY& London
[4] Greenbaum, Masha.  THE JEWS OF LITHUANIA 1316-1945. Gefen Publishing
    Jerusalem and New York 1995
[5] Levin, Dov.  BALTIC JEWS UNDER THE SOVIETS 1940-1946. The Hebrew
    University, Jerusalem 1994

Dec 13, 1995
Source: Originally appeared in SHEMOT VOL3  NO 3.
Provider: Saul Issroff <Saul@Swico.demon.co.uk>

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