JEWISH SHTETL 

A group of Jonavah Jews

 In the course of time the majority of Jews inhabited small towns (in Yiddish - shtetl). Here they often constituted a large portion, sometimes even the majority of town's dwellers. In the inter-war period 3600 out of 8000 Vilkavishkis' inhabitants were Jews, in Ukmerge - 5000 out of 10000, in Jonava - more than a half of 5500 inhabitants, in Jurbarkas almost 80%. These little towns were like a unique universe where the Jewish way of life reproduced itself, thus enriching the culture. A "shtetl" was a cradle of Jewish culture, just like a village was a temple of Lithuanian spirit. In each town usually functioned a synagogue (often several), a kheder (later - a school), a graveyard, a ritual bathing place (mikva). Adjacent to the synagogue often stood rabbi's house. Rabbi was community's spiritual leader. Jews associated mostly with each other. They spoke Yiddish. Relations with Lithuanians were also intense. All Jews could speak Lithuanian more or less fluently. Often Lithuanians, especially in small towns, understood and could communicate in Yiddish. Even today there are several of them. The intense relations, however, did not mean assimilation for Jews. They maintained their national identity, culture. They lived next to Lithuanians, but still separately. Religion was the strongest separating factor. On the one hand, a lot of Christians supported Church's propaganda that Jews murdered Jesus and often this collective historical guilt was attributed to them. Sometimes this even influenced the relations with an acquaintance or a neighbor. On the other hand, Judaism developed in Jews a sense of alienation and separated them from people of other confessions. Marriages were tolerable only among people of the same faith; the laws of kashrut forbade sitting at the same table with a Catholic; on Sabbath when Christians worked, Jews were not allowed to even make a fire. Many of Jewish traditions seemed odd, strange, unacceptable to Lithuanians, often provoked mockery, and sometimes even stronger negative feelings. This was also reflected in folklore.

Ponevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel

Religion played crucial part in Jewish life. In the past the whole educational system was religious. GDL was very famous for its yeshivas - Volozhin, Telzh, Mir, Slabodke (Vilijampole), Ponevezh, Kelm, Eishishkes and others. Young men from various European countries studied in many of them. Even nowadays in Israel, USA and elsewhere function yeshivas, named after Lithuanian ones. The prestige of science was very high, it was valued more than riches. Wealthy Jews went to yeshivas to look for a groom for their daughters. There were cases when after the wedding they maintained their son-in-law up to five years so that he could entirely devote himself to the study of the Talmud. An intellectually equipped son-in-law was family's pride.

Differently from boys, learning was not compulsory to girls, however they were encouraged to study. And although not all of them could write, all could read the prayer book. Very widespread was the popular translation of the Torah into Yiddish, so called Tsena-u-rena. This book was published 450 times. Women did not attend yeshivas, since religious law prohibited them to study the Talmud.

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Jews in Lithuania, Vilnius, 1999-2000