Stateless cultures have a place at academic table

  • 2000-03-30
  • By Darius James Ross
One-of-a-kind university research center focuses on the 'losers of history,' Darius James Ross reports.

The world's first Center for Stateless Cultures has recently been established at Vilnius University. The center is the brainchild of Professor of Yiddish, Dovid Katz, liberal philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Foundation and the university. Right now the center offers students elective courses in Yiddish, Roma (i.e. gypsy), Old Believer, Tatar and Karaimic studies.

In 1998, Professor Katz was in Vilnius leading the annual VU Yiddish language summer course.

"That was one of our most successful courses. Yiddish and non-Yiddish students came from around the world to learn the language from the mouths of native speakers located in the heart of the historical native-speaking territory," said Katz. "The center grew out of discussions held between the three parties that summer."

The bulk of the financing for the first year came from the OSF. VU contributed office space, local salaries and its facilities. Katz provided his expertise and academic reputation.

"Though, we understand that if we are to survive, we must raise outside funding," said Katz. "We are a center for weak cultures that have no army or navy, that are the losers of history, that have no territory with their own language, schools and police. Our center is dedicated to the idea that stateless cultures can and should have a place at the academic table. It's wonderful for Lithuania to be host to a center conceived in the notion of magnanimity, liberalism and intercultural respect. Vilnius is the ideal place in the world for this center. The area is rich in stateless cultures."

In order to fully comprehend what Katz is speaking about, one has to suspend one's mental image of the current map of Lithuania.

"For anybody studying culture, history, ethnography, anthropology or linguistics, Stalin's borders of 1940 are totally irrelevant. I have ignored present borders completely," said Katz.

The historical Grand Duchy of Lithuania, founded in the thirteenth century, grew into a large military empire that stretched east and south, encompassing parts of modern-day Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. It was not, however, a linguistic or cultural empire. For a multitude of strategic and economic reasons, Lithuania's rulers encouraged immigration, allowing newcomers freedom of religion while never seeking to assimilate them.

Over the centuries, this made the Duchy a popular destination for Jews, Tatars and religious schismatics such as Jewish Karaims, Russian Old Believers and Calvinists. Lithuanians themselves officially accepted Catholicism for political reasons but many continued practicing primeval pagan rituals for hundreds of years. The result was a tolerant, multi-ethnic state with Vilnius at its center.

This began to change in the late 18th century as East Central Europe started increasingly to fall under Russian domination. The Russian Empire began an aggressive russification program in Lithuania in the 1800s. When that century's wave of romantic nationalism finally arrived, an essentialist notion of a Lithuanian ethnic identity predominated and the minorities were quietly forgotten.

This culminated in the virtual liquidation of the indigenous Jewish population by the German SS Einsatzgruppen assisted by local henchmen in the early 1940s. Lithuania was a testing ground for Hitler's Final Solution. Jews, including children and the elderly, were taken into forests and shot en masse. No question of gas chambers or concentration camps. Over 90 percent were killed.

"Our dream, and it sounds high falutin', is that people from each of these minority groups will be studying together in harmony with people not from these groups, leading to a better society on that simple level of working together and studying together. If a culture is interesting enough, that already creates a culture of respect," said Katz.

"We want people from all groups to be working together in each of these culture areas. We would be very unhappy if, as in some American universities, Judaic studies became the Jewish country club and Black studies became the Black country club. You know, where your parents think you'll meet someone nice. At our Yiddish summer course, I never ask people where they're from, who they are or why they're here," Katz said. "It is important that we have diversity. Our Roma gypsy specialist is Lithuanian whereas our Old Believer specialist happens to be an Old Believer. We're aiming for academic quality, for making these serious subjects where students have to work hard."

The founder

Dovid Katz was born in New York in 1956. He is the son of a well-known Yiddish writer, Menke Katz, who brought his son up entirely in Yiddish which no other writer managed to do, so great were the pressures of assimilation in the United States.

Katz has fond memories of the imaginary childhood world that his father created for him. It was populated by characters and vivid stories of the pre-WWII Lithuanian villages his father knew before emigrating to America.

"It was so much more interesting than the boring, dull, gray streets of Brooklyn," said Professor Katz.

At the precocious age of 15 he organized a protest against the exclusion of Yiddish at his Hebrew day school. "It was then I realized how weak cultures tend to be marginalized and seen as a threat to established cultures," said Katz. He even started a dissident Yiddish-English magazine at the school.

At 18 he went to Columbia University in New York to study linguistics and was the first student there to major in Yiddish within the department. In 1978 he went to Oxford University in the United Kingdom to found the Department of Yiddish. By 1984 it had its own doctoral program. "In the late 80s, I began to feel that it was important to retain the Vilna [Vilnius] tradition in Yiddish scholarship - not about Yiddish, but in Yiddish," Katz said. To this end he started to revive publishing in the Yiddish language at Oxford.

One last chance

The serendipitous breakdown of the Iron Curtain opened up vast new areas for Yiddish studies. Katz first visited Lithuania and Belarus in 1990. He went to his father's childhood villages, Michalecshki and Svencionys, and also began forging academic ties with VU.

Under Prof. Maieris Subas, Judaic studies had begun to revive at the university thanks to the Gorbachev thaw. Katz remembers Subas saying: "Dovid, I've taught things I didn't believe in all of my life and now that I have this opportunity, I'm not going to lose it."

Subas wrote to academic institutions around the world begging for books in Yiddish and English. Katz even helped negotiate a deal to bring students of Judaic studies from Lithuania to Oxford.

In 1992, Katz was combing the graveyard in the village of Svir, in Belarus, looking for his great grandmother's grave. He found her grave the first day and was thus left with a month's time on his hands. He started traveling from town to town and stumbling across isolated pockets of elderly Yiddish speakers, or Litvaks, as they call themselves.

"As a Yiddish dialectologist, I realized that there still are small numbers of elderly Jews alive whose Yiddish had never been contaminated by other dialects, by the West, and I realized that history is giving us this one last chance to record the Yiddish of the 'Last of the Mohicans' of the villages," said Katz. He decided to step up his expeditions and started coming to Lithuania as often as three times a year.

Traveling to neighboring Belarus has been an adventure at times - the country continues to hang on to its communist past and border officials can be quite punctilious. Katz was even briefly arrested there in 1997. "Nevertheless, the people in Belarus are warm, welcoming and helpful. Thinking about it, I stand in amazement at the wondrous transformation in Vilnius over the last decade. We are in situ to the native homeland of the cultures we are studying but also in the last bastion of Western democracy before the new Eastern bloc," he said.

Katz decided to leave Oxford in 1997 to pursue various Eastern European projects and settled in Vilnius in September 1999 to open the Center for Stateless Cultures.

What is Yiddish?

The Yiddish language arose between the ninth and twelfth centuries in southwestern Germany and is an adaptation of Middle High German. As Jews moved eastward, the language also incorporated local Slavic words and expressions.

It is estimated there were 11 million speakers at the beginning of the 20th century. Use of the language has declined drastically due to the Holocaust and the emigration of Jews to Israel and the United States. The remaining speakers are elderly Jews and members of the Hassidim. Hebrew is the official language of Israel and until very recently, use of Yiddish was frowned upon there.

Yiddish grammar is somewhat streamlined in comparison to German but the language is semantically intricate as it has Germanic, Semitic, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic layers and uses the traditional Hebrew alphabet. Yiddish culture was largely urban and centered around the shtetl (or village). Its vocabulary doesn't have many words to describe the natural world but is very rich when it comes to human emotion and relationships.

"A word like kal-vekheymern translates to a fortiori in English. Yet this is a word that anyone would use when purchasing tomatoes at the market. Because of the millennia of Talmudic learning in the Jewish Diaspora community, many Talmudic concepts were inherited into everyday simple Yiddish," said Katz.