Lithuanian Jews

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Lithuanian Jews (known in Yiddish and Haredi Judaism English as Litvish (adjective) or Litvaks (noun)) are Ashkenazi Jews with roots in Lita, a region including not only present-day Lithuania but also Latvia, much of Belarus and the northeastern Suwałki region of Poland. "Lita", also known as "Litvakia",[1] is roughly coterminous with the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.[2][3]

Lita was historically home to a large and influential Jewish community that was almost entirely eliminated during the Holocaust: see History of the Jews in Lithuania. Before World War II there were over 110 synagogues and 10 yeshivas in Vilnius.[4] About 4,000 Jews were counted in Lithuania during the 2005 census.[5]. There are still strong communities of Jews of Lithuanian descent around the world, especially in Israel, the United States and South Africa.


The word Litvish means "Lithuanian" in Yiddish language. (History of the Jews in Latvia were known as Lettishe). Of main Yiddish dialects in Europe, the Litvisher Yiddish (Lithuanian Yiddish) dialect was spoken by Jews in Lithuania, Latvia, and Belarus (Russia), and in the northeastern Suwałki region of Poland. Official institutions such as YIVO regard it as the standard form of Yiddish.

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 Hasidic Judaism, to the extent that in popular perception "Lithuanian" and "Misnagdim" became virtually interchangeable terms. In fact, however, a sizable minority of Lithuanian Jews belong(ed) to Hasidic groups, including Chabad-Lubavitch, Slonim, Karlin (Hasidic dynasty) (Pinsk) and Koidanov. With the spread of the Age of Enlightenment, many Lithuanian Jews became devotees of the Haskala movement in Eastern Europe, and today many leading academics, scientists and philosophers are of Lithuanian Jewish descent.

Lithuanian Jews are known in Yiddish as Litvak (noun) or Litvisher (adjective), or in Hebrew language as Litaim. These terms are often used loosely to include those who follow the Lithuanian approach to Judaism (for example because they have attended Lithuanian-style yeshivas), whether or not their ancestors actually came from Lithuania: it seems that "Lithuanian-ness" can be transmitted spiritually as well as genetically.

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 yeshiva, Telshe yeshiva, Mir yeshiva (Poland), Kelm Talmud Torah, and Slabodka yeshiva. In theoretical Talmud study, the leading Lithuanian authorities were Chaim Soloveitchik and the Brisk yeshivas and methods school; rival approaches were those of the Mir yeshiva (Poland) and Telshe yeshivas. In practical halakha the Lithuanians traditionally followed the Aruch HaShulchan, though today many prefer the more popular Mishnah Berurah.


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 niqqud as [ey] (as against Sephardic /ō/, Germanic [au] and Polish [oy]).

In the popular preception, Litvaks were considered to be more intellectual and stoic than their rivals, the Galician Jews, 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."[6] 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 Jewish cuisine. The Galitzianers were known for rich, heavily sweetened dishes vs. the plainer, more savory Litvisher versions, with the boundary known as the "Gefilte Fish Line." [7]

Current leaders

Some famous leaders alive in 2007 include:

  • Rabbi Yosef Sholom Eliashiv
  • Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman
  • Rabbi Nissim Karelitz
  • Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg
  • Rabbi Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz

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 interesting in learning and practising the use of Yiddish. [8]

The beginning of the 21st century was marked by conflicts between members of Chabad-Lubavitch and followers of traditional Judaism. In 2005, violence between those factions broke out at Vilnius synagogue.[9]

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), Benjaminas Zelkevičius (football coach), Bilas (Gidonas Šapiro) (pop-singer from ŽAS), Dovydas Bluvšteinas (music producer), Leonidas Donskis (philosopher, essayist), Icchokas Meras (writer), Aleksas Lemanas (singer).

Famous Jews with Lithuanian origin or parentage

  • Roman Abramovich, Russian oligarch.
  • Menachem Begin, Israeli Prime Minister from Brest-Litovsk.
  • Marc Chagall, Russian-born French painter
  • Aaron Copland, US composer, original family name was Kaplan.
  • Bob Dylan, US singer-songwriter, author, musician and poet.
  • Philip Glass, US minimalist composer.
  • Nadine Gordimer, 1991 Nobel Prize for literature.
  • Jascha Heifetz, acclaimed 20th century violinist born in Vilnius.
  • Harry Moses Horwitz, Samuel Horwitz and Curly Howard of the Three Stooges, a US comedy trio.
  • Emmanuel Levinas philosopher
  • Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Prime Minister, original family name was Milikowsky.
  • Maury Povich, US talk-show host.
  • P!nk, (Alecia Moore), US musician, mother is of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry.
  • L.L. Zamenhof, founder of the Esperanto language

The following have roots in Latvia:

  • Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, musicologist
  • Isaiah Berlin, philosopher
  • Bernard Levin, journalist
  • Chaim Bermant, novelist and journalist


  1. Review of Lituanie Juive
  2. Lituanie Juive
  3. Litvaks
  4. Vilnius, Jerusalem of Lithuania
  5. Lithuanian population by ethnicity
  6. "Yiddish Knowledge Cards"
  7. This is no fish tale: Gefilte tastes tell story of ancestry
  8. Lithuanian Jews revive Yiddish
  9. International Religious Freedom Report

See also

  • History of the Jews in Lithuania
  • List of North European Jews#Lithuania
  • Litwa (onomastics)

External links