Visiting Vilnius, the home of the Vilna Gaon

2018 marks an auspicious time to visit Vilnius.

Vilnius, Lithuania (photo credit: JEFF BARAK)
Vilnius, Lithuania
(photo credit: JEFF BARAK)
Many Israelis visit Eastern Europe in search of their roots, seeking what’s left of places once teeming with Jewish life which were destroyed by the Nazis and the Soviets.
While Jewish culture in Eastern Europe will never return to its glory before the Russian Revolution and the Holocaust, Jewish communities across the continent are engaged in a revival. This is obvious in Vilnius – known in Yiddish as Vilna – the legendary city of Yiddishkeit once called the Jerusalem of Lithuania.
2018 marks an auspicious time to visit Vilnius. Lithuania’s history-soaked capital is marking both the 100th year of independence from Czarist rule, which for Jews also meant freedom from Russian restrictions, and the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Vilna Ghetto.
There were actually two ghettoes – divided by what was called German Street, and is today a fashionable boulevard.
In June 1941 the Germans established the ghetto in a poor part of town. Affluent Jews living elsewhere in the city were herded into the ghetto. An estimated 60,000 to 80,000 Jews were crowded into cramped area. The city’s Jewish population swelled with refugees who had fled there following the Nazi invasion of western Poland in 1939.
Anglo visitors to Lithuania quickly grasp that Lithuanian names are difficult to pronounce. Thus many things have an easy-to-pronounce English version of their name. For example, my tour guide Viljamas Zitkauska calls himself William Zhitkauskas, while his agency is known as Jerulita.
According to legend, the sobriquet Jerusalem of Lithuania was bestowed by Napoleon when he passed through Vilna en route to Moscow. The French emperor was greatly impressed by the richness of the city’s Jewish life.
Viljamas, make that William, is well acquainted with that history. It is an experience to hear him recite in Hebrew the famous poem by Abba Kovner, who led  the ghetto’s partisans: “Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter Jewish youth… Resist, resist to our last breath.”
Surviving the war, Kovner settled in Israel where he founded the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. William, who guides in Hebrew, English and Lithuanian, and can throw in a little Mamaloshn, imbues the epic poem with a sense of drama.
Like many members of Vilnius’s Jewish community, he comes from a mixed marriage. The son of a Jewish mother and a gentile father, his wife is the opposite, the daughter of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father. The two immigrated to Israel when they were 16.
Both served in the IDF and speak Hebrew with Sabra accents. But that didn’t matter to Israel’s rabbinate. When they wanted to marry, they returned to Lithuania, where both feel very Israeli.
Of the scores of synagogues and houses of study that existed in Vilna before the Holocaust, only the beautifully-restored Choral Synagogue remains in use. While there are daily services, there was barely a minyan when I attended morning prayers there.  Rabbi Sholem Ber Krinsky said more than 100 congregants show up on Shabbat.
A second synagogue is now being restored, and William, along with Faina Kukliansky, the chair of the Lithuanian Jewish community, hopes it will become a Reform synagogue where his wife and children will be accepted. Asked why his wife did not convert, he replied that in Israel she would have been required to observe the Sabbath – and so would he. Neither of them were prepared for that.
The University of Vilnius, which was founded in 1579 and is one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in Europe, has a Yiddish Department headed by Ruta Puisyte. The professor, who is not Jewish, said many of the scholars who come from all over the world to study Yiddish texts in Vilnius are, likewise, not Jewish.
There is also a Judaica department in the National Library. Also noteworthy is the Vilna Gaon Museum, dedicated to the famous Talmudist Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720–1797), who led to opposition to the hassidic movement and whose influence is still very much felt today in Israel.
Vilnius today houses two Jewish schools in Vilnius – one run by the Jewish community and the other by the Chabad hassidic movement. The Jewish Community Center in located in the Old Town, where all the buildings are stately and evocative of a bygone era.
The old and new cities are divided by the Neris River. Modern Vilnius contains many modern high-rises faced with glass curtain walls enabling passers-by to see what is happening on every floor. During the Soviet era, windows were small, explains Diana Zarembiene of the Information and Public Relations Department of Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Today’s construction boom began after Lithuania regained its independence in 1991. Zarembiene can remember when the area was almost completely barren.
Jews who observe the dietary laws have three options for kosher meals in Vilnius. The Rishon restaurant, which enjoys a good reputation, is only open during the summer. Chabad supply hot meals if they are ordered in advance. I had two such meals which were tasty, plentiful and more than satisfying. The Beigel dairy restaurant makes the best bagels I’ve ever tasted (including New York bagels), and is open till 7 p.m. Amongst its on-the-spot and take-away delights are imberlach – a savory carrot candy.
The aforementioned Beigel is part of the spacious Jewish community building, which also publishes a magazine called The Beigel, which is produced in several languages including English.
Because the Soviet Union clamped down on religious practice, and since today’s Jewish community in Lithuania numbers somewhere between 2,000 to 3,000 people many of whom are not halachic or non-practicing Jews, until some quarter century ago most Lithuanians had never met a Jew. Indeed the country is still grappling with its history of collaboration with the Nazis that resulted in the murder of the bulk of Lithuania’s Jews.
Part of Lithuania’s coming to terms with its painful and shameful history is its restoration of Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and other Jewish communal buildings.
When asked why restore property when Jews no longer live in these places, the reply is inevitably “Because it’s part of our heritage.”
Less clear but still part of Lithuania’s heritage is the legacy of Soviet oppression. While many Lithuanians speak Russian, they prefer not to. I made the mistake of saying spasiba when thanking someone, and was promptly corrected.
Lithuanian bears no resemblance to any Slavic languages. The word for thank you is like a sneeze – aciu.