Opinion | The legacy of my Lithuanian heritage

Joyce Wolpert
Joyce Wolpert (Courtesy of Wolpert)

By Joyce Wolpert

As Black Lives Matter upended whatever myths we may have placated ourselves with regarding the racial realities in this country, I felt impelled to search out truths for my own ethnic and cultural origins.

My family does not have a Holocaust history, and in general, we reaped the educational and social benefits of American society.

I knew my forbearers came from cold, impoverished Lithuanian shtetls, so I really did not see a connection between their suffering over there and my relative abundance here. I just thought that my personality and proclivities had evolved independently, reflecting better life options and yes, as we’ve now been made acutely aware, some level of white privilege, though as a Jew that felt inadequate to describe my true status.

Then I delved into the history of Jews in Lithuania, courtesy of both online lectures and reading books. I am now finding pieces of my own personality and extended family’s way of being that make perfect sense given the lives we lived for hundreds of years in that part of the Diaspora.

Within the shifting borders of Poland, Russia, Estonia and Lithuania, there came to be a unique history of Lithuanian Jews. With heads of state constantly coming into and out of power, Jewish identity and safety was constantly in flux. In good times for Jews, they were allowed to conduct their own business, legal and religious affairs, yet they sometimes needed to pay excessive taxes for the right to do so and were careful not to overstep boundaries set by rulers. Bad times were when some of these “privileges” were withdrawn, the push to live more in the mainstream was coerced and mandates prescribed what subjects could be taught in Jewish schools.

When Jews originally settled in Lithuania in the 15th and 16th centuries, their countrymen were mostly involved in pagan religion and left the Jews alone. The Catholic church entered Lithuania as a result of a ruler’s marriage. Thus began several hundred years of managing Jewish life, which included sometimes charging excessive taxes and incurring poverty, forcing the wearing of the yellow star well before the Nazis and coercing conversions. The ruse of the blood libel was roused again and again. The threat of church power to make life miserable for the Jews was always in the air.

Today, I bristle when I hear the term “Judeo-Christian.” While our current goals for peace and harmony may align, our histories are quite conflictual.

One of the most twisted responses was when the nobles levied a burdensome tax on the serfs and forced Jews to collect this, setting up a perfect storm of anti-Semitism from the serfs and protecting upper-class oppressors. When Russian control became dominant, yeshivas were told they had to lessen Jewish subjects and increase teaching of Russian history and language.

The overall message was that Jews would be allowed to exist as “the other” but without full autonomy. We were wanted but feared, allowed and expelled, all at the whim of the current ruler.

As deeply as Jews were immersed in their own culture, they always needed to have a watchful eye on those seeking to redefine their role and importance in the country. Taking care of their own and expecting little from the government was one way to do this, but this singled them out for being different and, therefore, threatening. Many of us may walk around in this country “not looking Jewish,” but I’m not sure that any of us are able to completely let go of our antennae picking up nonverbal responses to our names or identifying mannerisms. I’ve always thought we Jews come by our pervasive anxiety “religiously.”

Jews needed to develop legal and accounting skills, not to portray themselves on a higher level, but as an imperative for survival from what was always nipping at their heels. Law, teaching, business, the careers of so many of our people today were forged of necessity in Lithuania. My father, of blessed memory, was a CPA who truly liked his work and was acutely aware of the need for accuracy in reporting numbers as a basis for civil relationships.

Both from government policy and various military invasions, bad economic times befell the Jews. They labored hard and got little. This led to an effort for workers’ rights, and the Bund appeared. The top priority was for economic justice more than uplifting the level of religious observance, a struggle we still see in our fold today.

The other long-term rift that developed in Lithuania was the distinction between Chasidim and Mitnaggedim, particularly those practicing the discipline of Mussar. The Chasidim of Poland, followers of the Baal Shem Tov, were able to transform an existence of poverty and illiteracy by finding joy in nature and everyday encounters and fervently expressing that through song and dance. This strongly contrasted with Lithuanian rabbis and students pouring over texts to extract for every pilpul of meaning and engage with the discipline of Mussar, ceaselessly improving one’s character.

This forms a direct line to the practice of myself (and countless thousands of other Jews) becoming psychotherapists because we strongly believe in the possibility of behavior and personality change. Yet after being a verbal therapist for many years and experiencing its limitations, I felt impelled at an advanced age to return to graduate school for a degree in dance therapy.

And there has been the rub. Lithuanian Jews were depicted as hardworking, not showy, not particularly demonstrative at least in comparison to the general lot of Polish Jews. My family members, honest and hardworking to the core, have not always known what to make of someone ready and willing to get up to speak and move in front of a crowd and without humility, relishing the attention. Our comfort levels with self-expression sit wide on the continuum.

Perhaps I am a hybrid, and they are more purely Lithuanian in character than me?

However it may be, I know that we were bred from the same stock, and my lungs swell with full breath as I call myself a “Litvak.”

Joyce Wolpert is a licensed counselor, dance therapist and writer.

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