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This article is about literally Lithuanian Jews. For non-Hasidic haredi Jews, see Misnagdim.

Lithuanian Jews (known in Yeshivish as Litvish (adjective) or Litvaks (noun)) are Ashkenazi Jews with roots in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (present-day Belarusmarker, Lithuaniamarker and the northeastern Suwałkimarker region of Polandmarker).

Lithuania was historically home to a large and influential Jewish community that was almost entirely eliminated during the Holocaust: see Holocaust in Lithuania. Before World War II there were over 110 synagogues and 10 yeshivas in Vilniusmarker. Before World War II, the Lithuanian Jewish population was some 160,000, about 7% of the total population. Vilnius (then Wilno in Second Polish Republicmarker) had a Jewish community of nearly 100,000, about 45% of the city's total. About 4,000 Jews were counted in Lithuania during the 2005 census. There are still strong communities of Jews of Lithuanian descent around the world, especially in Israelmarker, the United Statesmarker, South Africa, Zimbabwemarker, and Australia.

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania


The word Litvish means "(Latvian Jews were known as Lettishe). Of main Yiddish dialects in Europe, the Litvishe Yiddish (Lithuanian Yiddish) dialect was spoken by Jews in Lithuania, Belarus, and in the northeastern Suwałki region of Poland.

Ethnicity, religious customs and heritage

The characteristically "Lithuanian" approach to Judaism was marked by a concentration on highly intellectual Talmud study. Lithuania became the heartland of the traditionalist opposition to Hasidism, to the extent that in popular perception "Lithuanian" and "mitnagged" became virtually interchangeable terms. In fact, however, a sizable minority of Lithuanian Jews belong(ed) to Hasidic groups, including Chabad, Slonimmarker, Karlin (Pinskmarker) and Koidanovmarker. With the spread of the Enlightenment, many Lithuanian Jews became devotees of the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment) movement in Eastern Europe pressing for better integration into European society, and today many leading academics, scientists and philosophers are of Lithuanian Jewish descent.

The most famous Lithuanian institution of Jewish learning was Volozhin yeshiva, which was the model for most later yeshivas. "Lithuanian" yeshivas in existence today include Ponevezh, Telshemarker, Mir, Kelm, and Slabodka. In theoretical Talmud study, the leading Lithuanian authorities were Chaim Soloveitchik and the Brisker school; rival approaches were those of the Mir and Telshe yeshivas. In practical halakha the Lithuanians traditionally followed the Aruch HaShulchan, though today the "Lithuanian" yeshivas prefer the Mishnah Berurah, which is regarded as both more analytic and more accessible.

In the nineteenth century, the Orthodox Ashkenazi residents of the Holy Land was broadly speaking divided into Hasidim and Perushim, who were Lithuanian Jews influenced by the Vilna Gaon. For this reason, in modern day Israeli Haredi parlance the terms Litvak (noun) or Litvisher (adjective), or in Hebrew Litaim, are often used loosely to include any non-Hasidic Ashkenazi Haredi individual or institution. Another reason for this broadening of the term is the fact that many of the leading Israeli Haredi yeshivas (outside the Hasidic camp) are successor bodies to the famous yeshivot of Lithuania, though their present-day members may or may not be descended from Lithuanian Jewry. In reality, both the ethnic makeup and the religious traditions of the mitnagged communities are much more diverse.

The Vilna Gaon

Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman of Vilnamarker ZT"L was one of the most influential Rabbinic authorities of all time and is the most widely recognized Jewish spiritual leader associated with Lithuania. "The Vilna Gaon" was born in Vilnius and his place of burial is there as well. He led the fight against Hasidism at its inception, believing it to be a pseudo-Messianic personality cult which threatened traditional Torah learning. Though he did not succeed in crushing the movement, his influence greatly tempered its more extreme forms, so that he is ironically described by many as the real founder of the Hasidic movement.


Litvaks have an identifiable mode of pronouncing Hebrew and Yiddish which is often used to determine the boundaries of Lita. Its most characteristic feature is the pronunciation of the vowel holam as (as against Sephardic , Germanic and Polish ).

In the popular perception, Litvaks were considered to be more intellectual and stoic than their rivals, the Galitzianers, who thought of them as cold fish. They, in turn, disdained Galitzianers as irrational and uneducated. Ira Steingroot's "Yiddish Knowledge Cards" devote a card to this "Ashkenazi version of the Hatfields and McCoys." This difference is of course connected with the Hasidic/mitnagged debate, Hasidism being considered the more emotional and spontaneous form of religious expression.

The two groups differed not only in their attitudes and their pronunciation, but also in their cuisine. The Galitzianers were known for rich, heavily sweetened dishes in contrast to the plainer, more savory Litvisher versions, with the boundary known as the "Gefilte Fish Line."

Jews in Lithuania today

Interest among descendants of Lithuanian Jews has spurred tourism and a renewal in research and preservation of the community's historic resources and possessions. Increasing numbers of Lithuanian Jews are interested in learning and practising the use of Yiddish.

The beginning of the 21st century was marked by conflicts between members of Chabad-Lubavitch and secular leaders. In 2005, Chief Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky was physically removed from the Synagogue by two men hired by the community's secular leader Mr. Alperovich, who then declared a new Chief Rabbi. For more detail, see Chabad-Lubavitch related controversies: Lithuania.

Among notable contemporary Lithuanian Jews are the brothers Emanuelis Zingeris (a member of the Lithuanian Seimas) and Markas Zingeris (writer), Arkadijus Vinokuras (actor, publicist), Gercas Žakas (football referee), Bilas (Gidonas Šapiro) (pop-singer from ŽAS), Dovydas Bluvšteinas (music producer), Leonidas Donskis (philosopher, essayist), Icchokas Meras (writer), Grigorijus Kanovičius (writer), Aleksas Lemanas (singer), Rafailas Karpis (opera singer, tenor), Sabtajus Kalmanovicius (businessman and alleged criminal mastermind), Boris Dekanidze (former head of the Vilnius Brigade criminal network, executed).

Current leaders of the Haredi "Lithuanian" community

The following rabbinical leaders are of Lithuanian ancestry or are associated with Lithuanian-style yeshivas:

Famous Jews with Lithuanian origin or parentage

The following people have roots in Latviamarker:


See also

External links

Further reading

  • Dov Levin, Adam Teller, The Litvaks: A Short History of the Jews of Lithuania, Berghahn Books, 2001, ISBN 9653080849
  • Alvydas Nikžentaitis, Stefan Schreiner, Darius Staliūnas, Leonidas Donskis, The Vanished World of Lithuanian Jews, Rodopi, 2004, ISBN 9042008504

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