Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
On Thursday, June 4, kugel, kreplach, blintzes, and Napoleon cakes were amongst the topics discussed at a meeting of rabbis, Jewish leaders, and the Consul General of Lithuania in New York.
Hon. Julius Pranevicius, the consul general, invited the group to discuss preservation of Jewish cemeteries and mass graves in Lithuania.
On April 30, representatives of the London-based Committee of the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries met Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius to discuss the future of the old Shnipishok Cemetery in Vilnius. The Vilna Gaon, zt’l (1720—1797), one of the greatest Talmudic scholars, was buried there until the Soviets built over the site after World War II and the remains of the Gaon were reinterred in the Saltonishku Cemetery in Vilnius.
An unused sports hall now stands over part of the Shnipishok Cemetery. Plans had been made to convert the sports center into a classical musical auditorium. The plan included the construction of an annex which would have been on an area where graves possibly exist. Rabbi Herschel Gluck, from the committee, said: “Where they want to place the annex should not be a problem, because there are no graves there. Nevertheless, the area will be checked by ground-penetrating radar to make sure this is the case.” Rabbi Gluck said that the government’s willingness to reach out and to consult marked “a tremendous change for the better. It is a positive attitude, which is clearly different from the past.”
In 1997, thousands of tourists gathered at the grave of the Vilna Gaon to celebrate the 200th yahrzeit. Preparations are presently under way for the government of Lithuania to erect a monument at the original site of the Vilna Gaon’s burial.
Rabbi Shmuel Schlesinger, representing his father, Rabbi Elyakim Schlesinger, president of Admas Kodesh Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, expressed deep appreciation to the consul general for the personal outreach of Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius of Lithuania regarding the proposed construction adjacent to the old Snipishok Jewish cemetery in Vilnius. The senior Rabbi Schlesinger is the roshyeshiva Haramah in London and is devoted to protecting and preserving Jewish holy sites in Europe.
Rabbi Schlesinger was joined by Rabbi Shulim Teitelbaum, 15th Avenue Satmar Rav in Boro Park; Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice-president of Agudath Israel; Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum, director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America; Hon. Rabbi Yitzchok Fleischer, member of the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad; Chaim Z. Appel, Esq., community activist; and Gary Schlesinger, executive board chairman of UJCare of Brooklyn.
The focus of concern at the old Vilnius Cemetery is the sports center in its midst. At present, after a number of developments, the cemetery is the property of the government of Lithuania. Certain proposals to expand the sports center, even minor redevelopment work, would be in violation of the boundaries specified in the formal agreement between the government of Lithuania and relevant Jewish organizations. The transfer of the cemetery property to the government was to ensure its protection.
The consul general shared the enthusiasm of Lithuanians today, especially their youth, of learning of the Jewish heritage that existed before the cursed Nazis destroyed Eastern European Jewry, which was followed by the Soviet regime’s repression of historical education and religious expression. Born in Kamerge, 40 miles from Vilnius, the consul general did not have the opportunity to personally know any Jewish people while growing up. Before World War II, Jews represented almost half of the population of Kamerge. They were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Indications of Jewish existence in Kamerge were painted over by the Soviets; however, the original signs on stores were revealed as the paint faded. Many of those stores had bold Jewish names. With the Jewish history revealed, a great interest developed in the city’s youth.
The Jewish population of Vilnius (Vilna in Yiddish) was nearly 100,000 before World War II, representing 45% of the city’s total. Lithuania had almost 200 Jewish communities sustaining the lives and livelihoods of more than 240,000 people. Vilnius had more than 100 synagogues and 10 yeshivas. There were six daily Jewish newspapers. Less than 24,000 Jews survived the Holocaust. Vilnius’s Jewish population today is less than 5,000. Only one synagogue remains.
History records Jews living in Lithuania in the 800s. In 1388, they were granted a charter by Vytautas the Great (1350—1430), giving them the same rights as other free citizens. The community prospered. In 1495, they were expelled by Alexander Jagiellon (1461—1506), but invited to return in 1503.
In 2005, Chabad Chief Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky was physically removed from the synagogue by security guards hired by the community’s secular leaders, who then declared Rabbi Chaim Burstein as the new chief rabbi. At times, the synagogue was closed because of the controversy. Lithuania today has two chief rabbis. Rabbi Krinsky continues to lead the yeshiva in Vilna.
The consul general was somewhat surprised to learn that everyone at the table eats kugel regularly, as well as blintzes and kreplach. In addition, Napoleon cakes were prepared by Lithuanian and Jewish bakers in honor of Napoleon as he marched through Lithuania during the Franco-Russian War of 1812. The Napoleon cake became a delicacy in Lithuanian and Jewish homes throughout history and throughout the world. The consul general was proud to note that The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook, first published in Yiddish in 1938, was reprinted in English and now generates considerable attention.
The meeting with the consul general was warm and positive. The consul general indicated his predisposition for his government to be vigilant in its protection of Jewish cities and to make them hospitable for increased Jewish tourism. The members of the visiting delegation received a gracious thank-you note from the consul general.Â v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.