Sunday, April 5, 2015


Another of the many countries of the former Soviet Union which demonstrated their love and loyalty to the spirit of Communism by declining an invitation to join the post-Soviet Russian Federation, becoming instead a member of NATO in March 2004, and of the European Union just two months later. Russia, it will not surprise you to learn, is unhappy about this, and Lithuania is probably fourth, or at most fifth, on the list of countries that Comrade Putin intends to destabilise as a prelude to annexation as he plans the reincarnation of the empire of the Romanovs. In fact Lithuania has closer historical links with Poland than it does with Russia, but Poland is about ninth on Comrade Putin’s list, so this may prove to be irrelevant in the long run. Led by a woman President (Dalia Grybauskeite by name), and a Prime Minister, Algirdas Butkevicius, who is a Social Democrat, and planning entry into the Euro in 2015, Lithuania is fighting a civil war against inflation, and appears to be winning.

Before World War II, which is to say "before the Holocaust", there were a hundred and ten synagogues and ten yeshivot, just in Vilnius, or Vilna as it was then known, and forty-five per cent of that city's population was Jewish - the one hundred and sixty thousand Jews across the country made up about seven per cent of the total population. By the end of World War Two both numbers, synagogues and people, in Vilna and outside it, were reduced to zero, though sixty years later it has risen again, to around four thousand. Jews had lived in Lithuania since 1388, when they signed a Charter, much like the ones signed with monarchs and feudal lords across Europe at that time, by which they became Freemen under the protection of the feudal lord, and he had the right to demand all their money from them, officially as a loan, and then expel them when they had no more to lend and he no inclination to pay them back. The expulsion from Lithuania took place in 1495 and, as was mostly but not always the case, they were allowed back shortly afterwards - in 1503 to be precise - provided that they now agreed to live in ghettos, wear anti-Semitic clothing (yellow caps for men, yellow scarves for women) and continued to perform the duties of a Shylock even though they were now broke and had accepted the cancellation of all previous debts. Most of them were then wiped out in the Czmielnicki massacres, between 1648 and1657, and what regrouped afterwards included the Vilna Ga'on, Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, whose story I shall now tell.

Judaism does not generally admire hermits, regarding engagement with the community as so essential that Jews are not even supposed to pray alone, but only when ten adults, ten male adults in the orthodox world, are present. Rebbe Menachem-Mendl of Kocke, my paternal ancestor, was one who took his solitude intensely seriously, remaining virtually alone for the last twenty-five years of his life. The Vilna Ga'on was another, though he married at eighteen and fathered a small family. Legends holds that he knew the entire Talmud by heart before he was twenty; certainly by that age he was sufficiently versed in it that ordained Rabbis, of which he was never one, came to him for wisdom. What made him stand out however, besides the scale of his knowledge and his refusal to be ordained, was his commitment to secular studies in a world that mostly regarded secular studies as unnecessary, even dangerous. His included botany, mathematics, astrology and zoology, all of which he regarded as essential for the understanding of Torah and Talmud, let alone the daily world. He also engaged in the mystical science of Cabbala, including the attempt to create a white golem. 18th century western Europe was deeply engaged in the Haskalah or Enlightenment, from which Reform Judaism and cultural Judaism and secular Zionism would emerge; eastern Europe, by contrast, was mesmerised by the Ba'al Shem Tov and his pious followers, the so-called Hasidim. Had the Vilna Ga'on been the Paris Ga'on or the Vienna Ga'on (ga'on is the Hebrew-Yiddish word for "genius", though there is also "ilu'i", which is merely "gifted" - the definition of a "gifted" child is "any child with at least one Jewish grandparent"), he would no doubt have become a key figure in Haskalah; but he was the Ga'on of Vilna, an obscure town in where did you say, Lithuania, where Enlightenment had not reached, but Hasidism had. The Vilna Ga'on rejected Hasidism, refuted Hasidism, persecuted Hasidism, regarding it as a cult of panentheism and not properly Jewish at all - but then he was also highly critical of Maimonides, for his rejection of those superstitions (the power of incantations, of amulets, of spirits and demons) in which the Vilna Ga'on continued to believe. He died in 1797, aged 77, and is regarded by the orthodox as one of the greatest rabbinic scholars in Jewish history.

Why am I telling his story? Because, on October 20th 1997, which also happened to be the fifth day of Sukkot that year, the two hundredth anniversary of his death was commemorated in Lithuania with the issuing of a first-day cover with his portrait, the erection of a bust at the site of his former home, and ceremonies attended by the President of Lithuania as well as members of the Lithuanian Parliament, at which the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra provided a most un-Jewish musical accompaniment, and where the Ga'on was praised for "his intellectual openness, his humanistic values, and his tolerance" - none of which did he actually have. Apparently the Vilna Ga'on is a Lithuanian national hero; the only other national hero they could find was Frank Zappa, who also has a bust on a street in Vilnius, and so Elijah Kremer had to do, even if they had to mis-remember him to do it, and his life, his work, his memory are now the fulcrum and the catalyst for a concerted effort at building positive Jewish-Christian relations, something which will certainly have Bogdan Czmielnicki turning in his grave, and might well have done the same for the Vilna Ga'on, only his grave was amongst those other Jewish graves at Šnipiškės which the Russian authorities closed and built over in 1831, and where the Soviets later erected a stadium and concert hall, theoretically permitting the removal of the Ga'on's bones before they did so, though in fact those were probably not the Ga'on's bones which were removed. I wonder if Frank Zappa ever performed at that concert hall?

Marks For: lots for trying

Marks Against: all the above removed as reparations for history

Copyright © 2015 David Prashker
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The Argaman Press

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