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The Vilnius Yiddish Institute Newsletter, No. 17
In this issue:
We 30, some of the 60 students and professors from 16 countries in the VYI Summer Yiddish Program of 2008, circled around Fania Brantsovsky. Her waving arms encompassed the vast courtyard as she explained, “Before the war, this was the Shulhoyf, on which fronted over 20 synagogues and prayer houses of every type and stripe. On this very spot once stood the house of the great Gaon of Vilna. As Fania—the spry 86 year old VYI librarian and our guide to history—spoke, three passers-by edged toward our group. “They’re speaking Yiddish,” called one to another in Hebrew. “Who are you?” We explained. “I haven’t spoken Yiddish since I lost my bobe. It’s a shame my friends won’t understand, otherwise we’d tag along.” We suggested they wait a few minutes to meet up with the beginner’s group conducted in English. “Better yet, sign up for the Summer Program in Yiddish Language and Culture!”
Our many walking tours brought to life for us the centuries of Jewish history in this city known as Yerushalayim d’Lite, the Jerusalem of Lithuania: the seat of traditional rabbinic scholarship and publishing, the birthplace of the Jewish Labor Bund and the YIVO, the home of such literary giants as Chaim Grade and Avrom Sutzkever, and the site of Jewish heroism and martyrdom during the Holocaust. Wherever we went we attracted interest and made friends. The active Jewish Community, headed by Dr. Shimen Alperovich, welcomed us warmly during informal meetings and planned seminars. In addition to the outstanding facilities of the beautiful, four centuries-old Vilnius University, the modern Jewish Community Center in midtown, became a second home. Many in the community expressed the feeling that, by our presence, we Summer Program participants supported the efforts of the Vilna Jewish community to uphold its extraordinary cultural legacy.
The student group included Jews and non-Jews of all ages, undergraduates and professors, historians, writers, musicologists, journalists, social workers, a diplomat, singers, a khazanit, and people just hoping to connect with their own rich cultural heritage. Among them, people from Shanghai, Israel, Norway, France, Belgium, the US, UK, Russia, Canada, Ireland, Lithuania, Germany, Japan- a veritable United Nations. One young woman, a dedicated Yiddish scholar, had bicycled all the way from Hamburg. Much of the richness of the Summer Program experience was thanks to the bonding and sharing within this group of bright, talented, and engaging personalities. A lasting community was formed, sustained now by contact on travels and on the web.
The faculty consisted of: Professors Miriam Issacs, Baltimore; Dov-Ber Kerler, Bloomington; Natalia Krynicka, Paris; Elye Palevsky, St. Augustine, and Anna Verschik, Tallinn. College credit courses on four levels, from beginners Yiddish to advanced Yiddish literature, were taught from 9:30 AM -1:15PM, with a mid-morning coffee break in the beautiful Mickevicius Courtyard during which animated debates resounded, student romances blossomed, and students and faculty enjoyed each other’s company.
After lunch, each group had twice weekly Culture and Conversation sessions to activate use of language and integrate the many elements of the rich program. Mid- afternoon was devoted to tours and guest lecturers from: Dr. Shimen Alperovich, President, Lithuanian Jewish Community; Roza Bielauskiene, Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum; Fira Bramson, Chief Judaica Librarian, Lithuanian National Library; Dr. Vilma Gradinskaite, Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum; Simonas Gurevicius, Exec. Dir. and Prof. Israel Lempertas, Lithuanian Jewish Community; Prof. Dov-Ber Kerler, Indiana University; Rokhl Kostanian, Deputy Director, Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, Prof. Nancy Sinkoff, Rutgers University.
Some early evenings there were films on the Jewish life, history, and personalities of the region. There was a series of memorable concerts, also open to the general public. The performers included: Dr Marija Krupoves, ethnomusicologist and concert performer; VYI, Ruth Levin, renowned singer and actress; Michal Shiff Matter, Summer Program student and accomplished khazanit from Israel, and Efim Ciornii with Susana Ghergus, who also conducted a week long music workshop resulting in a glorious student concert of soloists and chorus with special focus on the Bessarabian Yiddish tradition. Most evenings were free for adventure and exploration of vibrant Vilnius.
A “Shabes Tish” was celebrated Friday evenings at the Jewish Community Center, with shared reflections, lively discussion, food, drink, and marathon singing. In keeping with the custom of an “oyrekh af shabes,” welcoming a Sabbath guest to your home, members of the Vilna Jewish community were invited, as well as visitors to this beautiful city.
Sundays were reserved for outings. We visited the picturesque resort town of Trakai, surrounded by lakes and with a medieval castle reached by footbridge or rowboat. In Trakai, Lithuania’s Karaite community once had a great presence and still maintains its Kenesa (prayer/gathering house), a small museum, and a fascinating cemetery. Many students took boats to picnic on the lake. The trip to beautiful Kaunas (Yiddish: Kovne) included a visit to the notorious Ninth Fort. We stopped in Valkininkai (Yiddish: Olkenik), which retains its traditional shtetl layout. After a reverent visit to the killing pits of Paneriai (Yiddish: Ponar), Fania directed our bus deep into the Rudnicki woods to what looked like the remains of a bunkered village where she had lived as a partisan. The sylvan setting contrasted with the emotions evoked by Fania’s recounting of her life in armed struggle against the Nazis. After a quiet time of walking about, crawling into bunkers, eating wild berries, imagining —we regrouped. Moved by the moment and setting, we sang out the anthem of the partisans: zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letstn veg/ (Never say this will be your last road to walk). A moment now etched in our group memory.
The festive graduation ceremony took place in the Mickevicius Courtyard. After the month of immersion even the beginners were speaking in Yiddish. Diplomas were awarded, flowers presented, and professors thanked and hugged their students. After a delightful student concert, each class chose a representative to say a few words, in Yiddish, of course. A seasoned diplomat, who grew up in Moscow, shared his joy at being able to speak in the language of a heritage he thought he had lost. An advanced student and proficient Yiddish speaker humorously shared how he learned to become a more effective teacher. Intermediate students sang a song they composed poking fun at each other and satirizing life in the dorms. Greetings were given by Dr. Sarunas Liekis, Director, and Ruta Puisyte, Assistant Director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, and by Dr. Shimen Alperovich on behalf of the Jewish Community, many of whose members came to the celebration. Members of the international community were also present. The Honorable Donal Denham, Ambassador of Ireland and noted human rights activist, extended congratulations to all involved and highlighted the real and symbolic importance of the work of the VYI to foster the Yiddish cultural tradition, which was murderously diminished in the Holocaust, but whose embers still glow in Vilna.
Student evaluations effusively thanked not only their teachers but also the dedicated Institute staff, Program Coordinator Indre Joffyte, the Program Assistants Vita Balsyte, Mindaugas Gilaitis, Zhivile Savickaite, and Program Director Ruta Puisyte. They took care of needs and problems large and small, from meeting and greeting students on airport or train arrival and arranging housing to teaching a novice how to use the cell phone card, find the right shop, restaurant, or club. Their generous hospitality made all feel at home and comfortable in Vilnius.
The four-week Summer Program in Yiddish was founded by Professor Dovid Katz at Oxford in 1982. Professor Katz (now the VYI’s director of research), and a group of colleagues relocated it to Vilnius University in 1998. Since then, Vilnius has been home to this highly praised university-accredited course in Yiddish language, literature and culture. In 2001, the course became an integral component of the new Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University. Yearly, it has drawn participants from as many as two dozen countries across the globe. A large number are university students; overall, however, the most varied backgrounds, pursuits, and professions are represented. Further, the group regularly includes members of diverse religious faiths and all age brackets — from college undergraduates (and the very occasional high-schooler) to senior citizens. What unites them all is their wish to steep themselves, for a learning-packed month, in Yiddish language and culture. For this, Vilnius — once renowned as Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania (Vílne, Yerusholáyim d’Líte in Yiddish) — offers a setting that is unrivaled in its historical significance for the history of modern Yiddish culture. While today’s Jewish community is sadly diminished, it proudly and vigorously strives to uphold its venerable heritage. With its core of native Yiddish speakers, it warmly hosts program events during the supplementary programs of lectures, seminars and performances held in the afternoons and evenings. Our lecturers and tour guides are often native-born witnesses to pre-war Vilna, authentic bearers of the unique Litvak culture to which they introduce our students by literally just being themselves. And today’s modern Vilnius, the delightful capital of a democratic state that is a member of the European Union and NATO (designated as Capital of European Culture in 2009), still preserves its magical Baroque vistas, as well as the nooks and corners of the old Eastern Europe that lives on in Yiddish literature and in the imagination of its readers and students.
The Vilnius Summer Program in Yiddish is dedicated to the memory of Maier Cahan (1923-1997)
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|2005 VILNIUS YIDDISH INSTITUTE. Solution: Neosymmetria|