Sunday, July 26, 2009

Program Beginning

This morning we went to Vilnius University to register for our Yiddish program. The registration process began in the library filled floor to ceiling with Yiddish books. We then met with two staff people whose job it was to decide what level we should be at in the program. Each person went in individually behind closed doors and was queried about their knowledge of Yiddish. Fran likened the experience to auditioning for American Idol.

Deciding to short circuit the experience, I noted, “This should be easy. I don’t know any Yiddish so I am clearly in Level 1.” The gentleman looked a little concerned as he noted that he didn’t speak English. After a brief exchange between them they circled level 1 and said “Zye Gesunt”. “I know that one!”, I exclaimed.

The group that is in the program is quite international. While there are many Americans, people were also there from Germany, France, England, Poland, Israel, Belarus and Austria. We believe there are about 60 people in total in the program. Fran found two “lansman” from the same shtetl of Washington, DC. The attendees range from college age to mid-60s. About half are staying in the dorms, while the balance have gotten apartments or other living arrangements. Even though the dorm offers congeniality and opportunities for socializing, it is not a convenient location as it requires 30 minutes of walking and riding a bus. We were especially grateful that we found the living arrangement that we did.

When we exited the University we heard drums and realized that we had come upon the Sunday ritual of the changing of the flags at the President’s Palace. We observed soldiers and sailors changing the colorful flag of Lithuania.

Behind them several men attired in Monty Python garb stood at attention.



After the ceremony ended we went in search of a flea market where I secretly hoped I might find some relics of the ghosts of Vilnius, old Kiddush cups, Hebrew books or photographs. Unfortunately the only treasure I noted was an old Rolling Stone album. The city is beginning to feel smaller as we explore different segments and realize how they connect.

We later joined the scheduled tour of Vilnius. We learned that many of the buildings were constructed in the 16th century by Italian architects accounting for the prevalence of baroque architecture. We also had a brief discussion of the politics of modern day Lithuania where the current president is a 53 year old woman. The prior president, who was quite popular, grew up in Chicago. Its recent history also included Europe’s first presidential impeachment which became a gripping reality TV show for the Lithuanian public.

Our guide noted that Jews settled in Lithuania in the 14th century. She talked about how it was an open society where Poles, Russians and Jews could comfortably live side by side. A discussion ensued among our group as to the incongruity of referring to a people who lived here for six centuries by its religion, when talking about them in the context of nationality. Carving Jews out of the nationality within which they live contributes to the isolation and subsequent targeting which occurred in WWII and occurs with many other groups today. We are realizing that coming to another country which was deeply affected by the Holocaust, heightens our awareness of these lingering and painful issues.

In the evening we attended a welcoming event with the introduction of the key instructors. We had an opportunity to socialize with some of the attendees and had a particularly interesting conversation with a young Austrian man. We asked him what brought him to the program and he replied that he was working at the Jewish Museum as part of his Austrian national service. All Austrian males are required to enlist in the army, perform civil service or serve in the Gedenkdienst program. Gedenkdienst means Remembrance and involves working in a Holocaust memorial institution. The program was started by a political scientist who adopted the idea from the German Action for Reconciliation. The young man noted that it was in working at the museum that he became interested in learning Yiddish and has been studying with a private tutor.

On the way back to our apartment we stopped to listen to a concert in the plaza of a Lithuanian folk tale modernized into a rock opera complete with strobes and smoke.

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