being a jew in vilnius

leave a comment »

(N.B. The following was written by Jake Levine, the other bageler and fellow fulbrighter. Also available at picklebus.comClick here for the impetus.)

You can’t just be a Jew in Vilnius. You are a political thread in a tangled ball of the collective memory— the remembrance of what is and what was Lithuania. You just want to make bagels and write some poems, but writing poems in Vilnius is asking the bricks in the Jewish ghetto if you have ever had a reason to take a stand against anything, realizing you were never trained to do this— inhabit the disaster, where trial and error is a practice where the inevitable outcome has always been error. Making bagels has implications you never imagined as you are on the radar, as a scholar, and apparently are due harsh criticism from the leaders of your people and your own community. That’s what it is to live inside Eastern Europe, inside the eternal return, as a Jew, you are always on trial, always returning, and you hope to be the first non-error. This condition is the entire country, more, the whole of Eastern Europe— Lithuania, my current country, which, for the first time, is a democratic European country with a Lithuanian majority that speaks Lithuania. It is a liminal space where my identity inhabits this borderless and timeless space, a place where you can’t help feeling, not being of here, like a fragmented version of yourself.

As for the country— was Lithuania, the idea of Lithuania, swallowed up by Poles, Byelorussians, Jews, Gypsies? I think this is the primary question for nationalists and historical revisionists who pointedly portray Lithuania in a homogenized fashion. This ideologically shaped scope of history is not unbeknownst to myself or any other individual of intelligent merit. But what is left of an earlier,  Lithuania, the Lithuania of my Litvak family, when a city like Vilnius is only more or less inhabited only by Lithuanians? It is a new Lithuania. Vilnius, a capital without a Lithuanian majority in the scope of history, that history belonging to the various national and ethnic groups that inhabited it— my family, and their deaths, the death of their history ground into the dirt of Ponary, pummeled into pavement in the ghetto, and compressed into an abstract version of what life was like on the sorry and various plaques that line the old city’s winding streets. It is a deadened history, being resuscitated slowly by some here, of a fallen time. Making bagels was, although a minor aspect of that culture, also a part of that legacy. Not an attempt to preserve, but a minor step to re-inherit a lost culture, a lost people.

There are few of us here who are left to keep Jewish Vilnius, but Jewish Vilnius is everywhere. A half eroded star of David like a scar in the bricks of a nearby building, a scar in the consciousness of “new” Lithuania. The “new” Lithuania, or at least what I perceive to be the government’s idea of it, is fueled on nationalism and the ideological blotting of history before 1991. The country is very much still proud of its independence, visible in most major Lithuanian spots of interest. Talking to most educated young people here, they are frustrated with the government’s propulsion of politics still stuck in moorings of the fight and victory of independence. Russia is still very much the enemy and Jews, I believe, are still very much associated with Russia in the social conscience. American Jews who seek nothing more than cultural understanding, to integrate our way of life in this society, to mediate a safe place for us to engage in discourse, find a sustainable relationship on an individual basis, is not a wrong or stab at what Efraim Zuroff or Dovid Katz are trying to accomplish.

When you walk with your Lithuanian friends past the building with the star, few of them know it is here, this ghetto. You can’t blame them. You can only blame their education, their government, which does not consider Jewish Lithuania, the Jewish history of Lithuania, or the Jews who lived in Lithuania. It is something governmental then, but I am no politician. Or is it a focal point, that the “new” Lithuania builds its citizenry in the vein of denying its Jews— a history with purified blood.  I am a poet. In my mind, in my work, it is more ethical to write of and about, not directly at those responsible for the further smearing of past blood, the obfuscation and inconsideration of the loss of an entire people and their culture. Whether it is still my culture or my place to be of is an everyday struggle. I certainly am more American than I am representative of the culture and traditions of my Litvak ancestry. Highly secularized— agnostic even, I am after all, what I am. I do not consider myself an innocent, completely unaware, as Efraim Zuroff has taken me (although I can’t understand how he came to these conclusions). I do think.

The idea and debate about “double genocide” or genocide relativism is the most frightening and horrific display of moral ignorance in regard to the remembrance of the suffering of human beings that I’ve ever personally come across. The intellectual squabbling that goes on concerning the politics of the history of atrocity in Lithuania in the 20th century drives at the heart of the cultural and political insensitivity that paved the way for the disasters committed in this region in the first place. The whole episode is being conducted in an Us versus Them paradigm that is hinged on the power of division. A unified and peaceful future requires sensitivity and a lack of prejudice in regards to singular atrocities conducted by different and very separate oppressive regimes and their cohorts.  The argument concerning history in this country has devolved into a game of who is the bigger victim; Jews or the victims of Stalinism (never mind gypsies, Polish, Byelorussian, homosexual, etc..). Jewish advocates have now begun participating in the same act of genocide equivocation (obfuscation) which they are trying to oppose, that is, they are engaging in discourse that uses the rhetoric of genocide equivocation, the rhetoric of our “loss” is bigger or “equal” to “your” loss. This is anathema to progressive and educated discourse, one which can imagine and invent solutions to the biggest problems concerning historical and present insensitivities concerning Jewish issues in Lithuania. This has nothing, if little to do with the conversation regarding remembering Lithuanian suffering during the U.S.S.R or during WWII. They should be discussed as complete and separate issues. I see no place for myself to engage in an argument whose language I don’t comprehend or agree with.

The old dogma concerning, and I quote Efraim Zuroff, of “which side of the fence you are on” requires a fence. I’m from Arizona. We have a big fence there. I can tell you, it doesn’t work.

The new ideology of a progressive world, as I see it, requires the deterritorialization of national and ethnic boundaries in regards to how we interpret individual and collective human suffering. The deconstruction of fencing, artificial boundaries that limit movement between peoples requires positive cultural projects made to bridge the gap of what are, in my mind, invisible borders that divide us as human beings. The largest difference, and why I think Efraim has a problem with me (although I see no reason for him personally attacking me, particularly as I have not written anything) is because of my posture. It is my greatest interest and inherent in my work, that I am interested in the future of remembering the history of the polyglossic and diverse city of Vilnius, the city which made life for my family possible for centuries. The bagel project, to me, in no way obscures, deters, or prohibits the political initiatives set out by Jewish leaders in regard to the government’s disreputable history in concordance with Jewish issues. Lithuania is my home, at least for a year. To Efraim, Dovid, and others, at least in the media, Lithuania is a battleground. Although I consider myself to be in their corner, ideologically, I can’t inhabit that same consciousness, can’t undermine my prejudice for hope; the possibility that there are those here that are unaware of the situation who have the capacity to sympathize and understand the plight of Litvaks. I have faith that reform takes place first in a culture, secondly in politics. I took an oath to my vocation that the power of culture and art can save people. This precludes me from engaging in this battle or any war. For this, I do not apologize.

The biggest challenge is that I don’t get the impression, politically or socially, that Lithuania wants me to be Lithuanian on account that I am a Jewish American of Litvak heritage. But I can only have hope that this will change.

Written by Jake Levine

25 October at 21:49

Posted in bagel, rants

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s