Lithuania’s capital was once known throughout the world as the Jerusalem of the North. During the interwar period, almost a third of its population was made up of Jewish families. It was a real golden age for Yiddish culture: Jewish scholars and rabbis lived in the city, and it was home to over 100 synagogues and prayer houses.
2020s – Vilna Gaon and Lithuanian Jewish Year
The year 2020 marks the 300th anniversary of the great Lithuanian Rabbi, the Litvak religious leader and the most prominent Litvak cultural representative – Vilna Gaon Elijah ben Solomon Zalman. Considering the fact that Lithuanian Jews were an integral part of Lithuanian society from the time of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and their society contributed significantly to the development of Lithuanian statehood, history, culture and science, the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania has announced that 2020 will be known as the year of Vilna Gaon and Lithuanian Jews.
Yiddish is 1,000 years old. Having evolved in the German Jewish community, it later spread to other parts of Europe. In Eastern Europe, ordinary people and elites alike spoke Yiddish, and the language was used until World War II. At the beginning of the 20th century, Yiddish was first introduced as a means of expressing national identity and was a bearer of legitimate Jewish culture. “Lithuanian Yiddish” was formed at that time; it is a literary Yiddish variant based on the Northeast Yiddish dialect, spoken by Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews).
The linguist, language historian and dialectologist from Lithuania, and one of the founders of the Jewish Scientific Institute in Vilnius, Max Weinreich, played a significant role in the development of the Yiddish language. In 1936, the institute developed the first Yiddish orthographic standard, something many scholars from around the world had attempted since 1912.
The first general census of Jews in the history of Lithuania, which took place three centuries ago in 1764, illustrated how widely the community of Jews was spread throughout the cities of Lithuania. The largest number of Jews (5,000) lived in Vilnius and its suburbs. A slightly smaller number of Jews was recorded in Brest (over 3,000), Grodno (about 2,500), Jurbarkas and Kėdainiai (over 2,000). The total number of Jews in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was about 169,000.
In the middle of the 19th century, almost 250,000 Jews lived in Lithuanian provinces. The number of Jews grew until the end of the 19th century. During this period, the large spread of the Jewish community in the territory of modern Lithuania significantly changed the demographic composition of Lithuanian cities: in some cities and towns, the number of Jews began to exceed that of the local Christian population. A similar direction persisted in the interwar period in the Republic of Lithuania. Jews made up the majority of the population in Kalvarija (about 70%), Kupiškis (about 53%) and Ukmergė (more than 50%).
The Lithuanian Jewish community gradually began to retreat in 1922; when Lithuania lost Vilnius it also lost 7% of its Jewish population. However, a 1923 census of the country’s inhabitants revealed that about 154,000 Jews lived in Lithuania at the time.
Jewish emigration to Palestine, South Africa and the United States in 1923-1939 also contributed significantly to the reduction of the Jewish community; about 25,000 Jews left Lithuania in this period.
Undoubtedly, Lithuania lost most of the Jewish population living in the country during the Second World War. As a result of the Holocaust, Lithuania lost more than 90% of its Jewish community. The community of Jews in Lithuania grew again in the 1980s and 1990s, when Jews from Russia moved to Lithuania to work and live.
The current Jewish community of Lithuania is not big. According to the Lithuanian population census in 2011, 3,050 inhabitants identified as Jewish. The largest Jewish communities live in Vilnius, Kaunas and Klaipėda.
Today, about 3,000 Jews live in Lithuania, which is only 5% of the Jewish population that lived here before the Second World War. The Lithuanian Jewish community was restored in 1989. It organises cultural, educational and religious events, and oversees Jewish cultural and historical heritage objects. Life in the Jewish Community Centre is full of celebrations of events, exhibitions, concerts and traditional Jewish festivals.
The Holocaust Exhibition at the VJGM briefly represents the life of Jews in Lithuania and presents the Holocaust during the Second World War: the ghetto creation and liquidation circumstances, the importance of armed and spiritual resistance in the ghetto, forced labour in concentration camps, saving Jews, and the destruction of cultural heritage in the USSR. The exhibition presents an installation of a shelter in the ghetto where people can hear fragments of the Yitskhok Rudashevski’s diary, which was written in the Vilnius ghetto.
Near the museum, there is a monument to the Righteous Among the Nations, the Dutch consultant Jan Zwartendijk, who gave some 2,200 Jews visas to Curaçao Island in 1940, which ultimately saved their lives. Near it stands a monument to the Righteous Among the Nations of the World, Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul in Lithuania (1939–1940), who helped save the lives of 6,000 Jews in 1940.
The Supreme Rabbi board of the Great Vilnius Synagogue was considered one of the most important institutions of the Jewish community and was located in this building. In 1903, representatives of the community met here with Theodor Herzl, the patriarch of the national movement of Jews (Zionism); this event is immortalised on a memorial plaque.
The Centre for Cultural Communities of Vilnius University is aimed at preserving Jewish heritage and spreading information about it. The university also hosts the Yiddish Institute, where the language is taught and Yiddish culture is fostered. The university’s Yiddish Language and Literature Institute was founded in 1940, but it only operated until the start of the Second World War in Lithuania. Even within such a short time, the department head, Noah Prylucki, was able to publish a book about the history of Jewish theatre. He also prepared and conducted several lecture cycles on Yiddish language and culture. During the war, many university professors and employees helped save Jewish lives. One of the most prominent of these personalities is Ona Šimaitė, a librarian and publisher. A memorial plaque dedicated to her acts can be found in the courtyard of the university library, and a street in Vilnius’ Old Town bears her name. In 1866-1915, I.P. Trutnev’s renowned art school operated in the university. It developed many artists and sculptors who later became internationally recognised, including Jacques Lipchitz, Naoum Aronson, and Chaim Soutine.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the intersection of Stiklių, Gaono and Žydų Streets was home to a glass market. At the time, it was possible to find several Jewish merchants and a wide variety of goods. During the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, the Jewish Quarter turned into the Small Ghetto that about 11,000 Jews were transferred to. The Small Ghetto was liquidated on 21 October 1941. The vast majority of Jews living in it were murdered.
The Great Synagogue of Vilnius – the Spiritual and Cultural Life Centre of Lithuanian Jews – existed from the end of the 16th century until the Holocaust. At the end of the 16th century (about 1572), the Vilnius Jewish community were granted the right to attend their houses of prayer. The first house of prayer was wooden. In 1633, King Wladyslaw IV Vasa allowed a brick synagogue to be built in the Jewish Quarter. Given its size and grandeur, this synagogue was well ahead of all other similar structures of the time and could host several thousand people. War and fires later damaged the synagogue. The architectural monument, which was also severely damaged, survived the Second World War, but it was later destroyed under Soviet rule.
The territory of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, known as an important spiritual and educational centre for Jews, was recently excavated three times. In 2011, a team of archaeologists from the USA, Israel and Lithuania discovered fragments and details of a rather well-preserved building. In 2016–2017, fragments and the place of the Mikveh (ritual pool) of a public bathhouse belonging to the Jews were found. Scientific archaeological studies of the synagogue complex were also conducted in July 2018. During recent excavations, archaeologists found the Bimah, the main chapel, as well as the floor slabs, which girdled the platform. Archaeologists are still looking for the exterior building walls and want to find the original floor.
Vilna Gaon Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797) was one of the most prominent Jewish wise men and a world-renowned Torah and Talmud researcher. Thanks to him, Vilnius became known as the Jerusalem of the North. Vilna Goan’s house was destroyed during the Second World War; a memorial plaque is mounted on the neighbouring house, and a monument by Kazimieras Valaitis stands nearby.
Zemach Shabad was a legendary man. The doctor worked in various fields, including charity (he was one of the leaders of the organisations that sponsored refugees), health care (an active member of the central educational organisation of Jews and one of the YIVO initiators), social activities and journalism.
The Great Vilnius Ghetto existed from 6 September 1941, to 19 September 1943, within the boundaries of Lida, Rūdninkai, Mėsiniai, Ashmyany, Žemaitija, Dysna, Šiauliai and Ligoninė Streets. There were about 29,000 Jews living in it; most of them were murdered in Paneriai. The house located on Rūdnininkų Street 18 marks the place where the main entrance to the ghetto was – this place is marked with a memorial plaque with the ghetto’s layout. The quarter of Ašmenos, Dysnos and Mėsinių Streets was the first reconstructed site of Old Vilnius. Currently, the Jewish Cultural and Information Centre is located here. In 1921-1951, Žemaitija Street was called Mattityahu Strashun Street. Books from the M. Strašunas collection laid the foundation for the greatest library of Judaism in Europe, created in Vilnius in 1892. The library was destroyed along with the Great Synagogue. After the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, the Vilnius ghetto liquidation day, September 23, became the day of the Jewish Genocide in Lithuania.
The Choral Synagogue is the only synagogue in Vilnius that survived the Second World War without significant damage. The prayer house was designed by architect Dovydas Rozenhauzas and was opened during the 1903 Jewish New Year. There is an area on the second floor of the Mauritanian-style synagogue dedicated to women and the choir. Worshipping takes place every day; people pray in accordance to longstanding religious traditions.
At the end of the 19th century, this building had a dining room for the poor run by the Jewish community; it even functioned during the First World War. A professional Jewish theatre was established here in 1918; after 1930, a cinema was added to the building. In 1989, the building was transferred to the Museum of Vilnius Gaon, and in 2001 a division of this museum known as the Tolerance Center was opened here. It houses a permanent exhibition entitled ‘A rescued child of Lithuanian Jews talks about Shoah’; art, cultural, historical and Jewish events, conferences, film screenings, and discussions on topics relevant to society take place here.
Housed in the Vilnius Jewish Gaon Museum, this is the first museum in the world dedicated exclusively to the work of this famous Litvak artist. Samuel Bak was born in Vilnius in 1933 and his first exhibition was held in the Vilnius ghetto when he was just nine. The artist survived the Nazi occupation of Lithuania and found himself in a displaced people camp in Germany before living in Israel and Western Europe. In 1993, Samuel Bak settled in the United States where he still lives and works. According to the artist, Vilnius occupies a special place in his life and in his work; he has visited Lithuania many times since moving to the US.
In 1925, Max Weinreich founded the YIVO (Institute for Jewish Research) headquarters in one of the premises of this building. YIVO soon became the largest Jewish scientific institution in the world. The world’s leading scientists and public figures became members of the institute’s honorary presidium: A. Einstein, S. Freud, E. Bernstein etc. YIVO played an important role in fostering Yiddish philology and taking care of Jewish heritage in Eastern Europe.
Up to 70,000 people were killed in Paneriai during the massacres of the Second World War; most of them were Jews. It represents Europe’s largest location of mass killings where the victims were shot. There are authentic pits on the territory of the memorial intended for the exhumation and burning of the Burning Brigade victims. In the Memorial Information Centre, you can learn more information about the tragic events that took place in Paneriai, the latest research into the memorial area, and can book a guided tour.
As you walk along the streets of Vilnius’ Old Town pay attention to the copper memorial plates mounted in the pavement. They commemorate the eight honourable Vilnius citizens who died during the Holocaust. It’s no coincidence that these plates appear on Rūdninkų, Vokiečių, Vilniaus, Islandijos and Vasario 16 Streets – many prominent personalities serving the community lived and worked here: famous doctors, a chronicler of the Vilnius Ghetto, and the creators of the first town’s vegetarian restaurant.
Perhaps the most prominent person buried here is the Vilna Gaon. In total, there are more than 70,000 people buried in the cemetery, which consists of a territory of 11 hectares. A Jewish cemetery was located until 1946, but in 1961-1963 the Soviet government destroyed it.
Jewish public and religious figures rest in the cemetery.
The Vilnius City Council unveiled street signs in different languages, named after cities or countries. Hebrew and Yiddish plates appeared on Jewish Street of the former Jewish Quarter.
From 1906 to 1909, the violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz studied at the Vilnius Music School, which at that time was located in the house on Vilnius Street 25. Nachman Rachmilevich, a public figure and politician, lived on the same street, in building number 27.
Over 100 books in Yiddish and Hebrew were published in this printing house. In 1830, the Bible was printed here; in 1835, publishing of the Talmud began.
The Jewish poet Moyshe Kulbak, who glorified Vilnius in his work, lived in this house in the 1920s.
A special monument marks the place where the Jewish cemetery in Šnipiškės once was.
Sculptors: Goichi Kitagawa, Vladas Vildžiūnas. 1992
Near the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, there is a monument dedicated to the Righteous Among the Nations, the Japanese consul Sempo Sugihara who gave about 6,000 Jews transit visas in 1940.
In 2001, on the right bank of the Neris River near the White Bridge and next to the National Gallery of Arts, an alley of 200 Japanese Sakuras, also known as Japanese Cherry Trees, was planted. They are a gift to Vilnius from the Japanese Government for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Chiune Sugihara, a man who, during the Second World War, saved thousands of Jews from Lithuania, Poland and Germany. On the monument located near the entrance to the garden, it is written that these cherry trees are a gift from the Japanese to Lithuania, dedicated to strengthening ties between the two countries.
During the Second World War on Vilnius Subačiaus Street, which now houses buildings 47 and 49, there was a labour camp known as HKP 562. Some 1,000 Jews were transported to this camp after the liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto.
This camp is distinguished from the whole world by the fact that, after the war, it was neither destroyed, nor turned into a museum. People still live in these two simple apartment buildings.
This street was named after Ona Šimaitė, a Vilnius University librarian who helped Jews during the Second World War. It stretches along Old Vilnius (near the Saffian Market) near the former Jewish Ghetto.
To this day, it is possible to discover places where old Jewish inscriptions can be seen on buildings in Vilnius. There is an old sign in Yiddish and Polish on Žemaitija Street in the Old Town. These signboards advertised a shop that sold kerosene lamps, salt and cigarettes. These signboards in Vilnius have been recently restored.
Before the Second World War, there were 135 synagogues in Vilnius. For the Jews of that time, they were not only prayer houses, but also important centres where they worked and studied. Most of the Jewish prayer houses were located in the Old Town of Vilnius, around the Great Vilnius Synagogue and its surroundings (Vokiečių, Gaon, and Stiklių Streets). Unfortunately, to this day, none of these buildings in the Old Town have survived; they were destroyed. Other buildings were erected in their place and some of the spaces were reconstructed.
Of all the synagogues in Vilnius, only one, the Choral Synagogue on Pylimo Street, still functions today. A total of 16 synagogues have survived to this day. One of them, located on Gėlių Street, is currently being restored.
Lithuanian Jews or Litvaks, began dwelling in Vilnius in the 16th century, which is comparatively later than their establishment in other Lithuanian cities. In the city’s Old Town, which has also been called the Jerusalem of North, an entire Jewish Quarter was formed where artists, philosophers, priests and ordinary Litvaks lived and worked. In the long run, Vilnius had become one of the largest Jewish cultural centres in Eastern and Central Europe.
Many Litvaks can be considered the pioneers of global Lithuania; they began to spread the word about Lithuania and especially Vilnius throughout the world in the 19th century. Litvaks left their traces in the United States, Russia, Germany, Poland, France, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina.
The Litvaks left an especially deep trace in Israel – a significant part of Vilnius’ Litvaks helped create the State of Israel. Many Litvaks have become prominent politicians and cultural actors in Israel. From 1919 to 1940, almost 10,000 Litvaks moved from Lithuania to Erec Israel. After 1948, the desire to repatriate to Israel was significantly strengthened; although it was very difficult to leave the Soviet Union, many people managed to do so. When Perestroika began, repatriation to Israel among Litvaks was massive. Among those who went to Erec Israel are prominent religious figures, scholars and politicians.
Vilna Gaon Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797) is one of the most prominent Litvaks and Jewish spiritual leaders who helped Vilnius become the centre of Jewish intellectual, cultural and political life. For god-fearing Jews, the name of Gaon is holy. On his grave, like on the Jerusalem Wailing Wall, many believers hang notes asking for the Lord’s help. For the Jews of the world, the name of Gaon is also holy – they consider Gaon the most emblematic Litvak, a symbol of Jews, and their lives.
Samuel Bak was born in Vilnius in 1933 and organised his first exhibition of paintings at the age of nine in the Vilnius Ghetto. Having thankfully survived the Nazi occupation, he found himself in a displaced persons camp in Germany, before immigrating to Israel and later Western Europe. In 1993, the artist settled in the United States where he continues his creative journey. Bak creates in the allegorical realism style; his work raises issues of historical and moral justice.
Mark (Mordkukh) Antokolsky (1843–1902) was a famous Jewish sculptor born in Vilnius. His early work depicts Jewish history and everyday life. His first recognition, a second-degree silver medal, was awarded to the young sculptor for his bas-relief created in Vilnius entitled Jewish Tailor. In 1871, Antokolsky created his famous sculpture Ivan the Terrible, which brought recognition to the artist and made him rich. This work was purchased by the Alexander II of Russia and transferred to the Hermitage. Spinoza (1881), Mephistopheles (1884), Yaroslav the Wise (1889), Nestor the Chronicler (1889), and Yermak Timofeyevich (1891) are among his other well-known works that have received global recognition. Antakolsky’s work, which treated a wide variety of topics (antiquity, Christianity, history and ethnic subjects), was presented at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1890 and received the highest award – the Legion of Honour.
Romain Gary (1914-1980) was a French writer and diplomat of Jewish origin, born in Vilnius, who lived there for four years. Gary (whose real name was Roman Kacev) wrote more than 30 literary works. The author signed his works with two names: Romain Gary and Emile Ajar.
The writer became famous thanks to the novel European Education, which takes place during World War II in the German-occupied Vilnius region and Vilnius, which at the time belonged to Poland. The prestigious Goncourt Prize was awarded to the writer for his book The Roots of Heaven (1956). The writer received his second Goncourt Prize for the novel The Life Before Us, which he signed using his Emile Ajar pseudonym. This book has since become one of the most precious French novels of the 20th century.
Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) is one of the most famous violinists of the 20th century, a virtuoso and a wunderkind, born in Vilnius, which belonged to the Russian Empire at the time. Heifetz, who is often referred to as the king of violin or the Paganini of the 20th century, first took up the violin at the age of three. The young violinist organised his first solo concert when he was just 8 years old, and had already performed in Germany, Austria and Scandinavia by the time he was 11. The violin virtuoso also made his own compositions, plays for violin and piano, and many recordings.
There are 898 righteous people from Lithuania.
The Righteous Among the Nations (also known as the Righteous of the World) are the heroes recognised for saving, hiding and otherwise helping the Jewish people escape the brutal Nazi regime during World War II.
In 1941-1944, hundreds of brave and noble Lithuanians (from Lithuanian presidents, intellectuals, and artists, to ordinary villagers and Lithuanian workers) risked their lives and the lives of their relatives rescuing the condemned ones. Some of them did not even know the people they saved personally, and risked their lives even when the members of the Gestapo walked the streets with machine guns ‘hunting’ Jews.
The Medal for the Righteous Among Nations reads ‘If You Save One Life, You Save The Whole World’. The Jerusalem Holocaust Institute of Yad Vashem commemorates the Jewish rescuers with the title of Righteous Among the Nations and this medal. The people of Israel, with great responsibility, choose the righteous among the nations of the world. All Holocaust survivors have the right to nominate non-Jewish people who helped them. Under the chairmanship of one of the Supreme Court of Israel members, the Special Committee reviews each candidate and the evidence presented (first and foremost, testimony of witnesses), and only then makes its decision.
The names of Lithuanian citizens who saved Jews and were awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations are engraved in the garden of the Yad Vashem Museum. Currently, 898 names of the Righteous of the World from Lithuania are listed there.
Ona Šimaitė (1894–1970) was a librarian at the University of Vilnius who used her office to rescue Jews during the war. On the orders of the former university rector Mykolas Biržiška, Šimaitė worked at the library only a couple of hours a day in order to help the Jews of Vilnius being persecuted by the Nazi government. The library director requested that Ona Šimaitė go to the ghetto to search for books that Jewish students borrowed from the library and didn’t return. The Germans did not suspect anything and signed the permit, which lead to the librarian becoming the ghetto messenger. She brought her letters to the ghetto, made illegal passports, hid refugees, searched for hiding places for children, carried weapons and ammunition, essential supplies and food, which she bought using her own salary. Each time, Šimaitė carried out valuable archival materials from the ghetto: documents, manuscripts and valuable books.
Ona Šimaitė was one of the first Lithuanians to earn the title of the Righteous of the World, which she was given in 1967. In Jerusalem, there’s a tree, dedicated to Šimaitė. Moreover, a memorial plaque dedicated to Šimaitė can be found in the Simonas Daukantas Courtyard of Vilnius University.
Juozas Rutkauskas hid Jews in his apartment in Vilnius and made them new documents so they could to leave the country. Juozas Rutkauskas was shot dead for helping Jews in Lithuania. In 1996, Yad Vashem recognised him as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. The memory of Juozas Rutkauskas is immortalised in Vilnius with a street named after him
Juozas Stakauskas (1900–1972), a director of the Vilnius archive, teacher Vladas Žemaitis (1900–1980) and nun Marija Mikulska – sister Benedikta (1903–1994), acted together in the former Benedictine Monastery on St. Ignatius. In 1941, the trio organised a shelter where they hid and saved 12 Jews from the liquidated Vilnius Ghetto. Among the saved people was the future prominent painter Samuel Bak.
In 2000, on the eve of the day dedicated to the genocide of Jews in Lithuania, a memorial plaque to
Juozas Stakauskas, Vladas Žemaitis and Marija Mikulska, who received the title of Righteous Among the Nations, was unveiled in Vilnius on St. Ignatius Street 5.
Karl Plagge (1897-1957) was a member of the Nazi party and major of Hitler’s Army, who after seeing the horrors of the Holocaust, changed his attitude about Nazis and rescued hundreds of Jews.
Plagge distributed a massive amount of permits to Vilnius’ Jews, proving that they were mechanics and useful to the German army and could produce instruments for them. Most of the Jews who received these permits did not really have any technical education; they received their permits to avoid being murdered. Work permits issued by Plagge in 1941–1944 saved more than 1,000 Jews from death.
In 1944, when the Nazis retreated and wanted to exterminate all the Jews of Vilnius, Plagge transported the Jews who worked for him to the labour camp on Subačiaus Street, which he oversaw. Over 1,200 Jews were transferred to the camp and eventually, about one fifth were rescued from it.
The title of the Righteous Among the Nations was posthumously awarded to Plagge in 2005. A documentary film entitled The Good Nazi was made about him; the famous artist Samuel Bak, who also spent his days at Plagge’s labour camp, acted in it.
Anton Schmid (1900-1942) was an Austrian citizen and sergeant in the German army, who saved about 300 Jews from the ghetto in 1941-1942. Schmid transported Jews from the Vilnius Ghetto to other ghettos in Bialystok, and Voronovo, employing them with forged documents in various workshops. He hid two Jews in his apartment. Schmid was convicted and executed by the Nazis for his traitorous activities. Having saved so many Jews, Schmid was called a traitor by the Nazis, but was buried in the Antakalnis Cemetery as an ordinary civilian, not a military man.
In 2011, the Righteous Among the Nations of the World immortalised Schmid at the Antakalnis Cemetery in Vilnius. In 1972, the movie entitled Feldwebel Schmid about this hero was made.
The tradition of celebrating a day-off at the end of the week came from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), which proclaims that God created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh day. At the same time, Shabbat is a holiday commemorating when the Lord saved the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It is forbidden to work during Shabbat; however, ceasing work does not imply complete inactivity. Shabbat is a day dedicated to spending time studying the Torah and Talmud, which parents often do with their children.
Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year, is one of the most important Jewish holidays, in which, according to the Jewish tradition, God decides the destiny of each person for the coming year. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated in early autumn – on the first and second of Tishrei, the first calendar month. This month focuses on human thoughts and concentration. The month passes by ‘the repayment of the soul’ and repentance before God. Throughout the month, which is also known as the ‘month of mercy’, people apologise to those they may have harmed during the year, and in turn, forgive those who ask for it. On the first day of the year, people traditionally go to the water, read prayers and shake the pockets of their clothes, symbolically freeing themselves from sins, which are taken by the water. During this period, special attention is paid to charitable acts as well as visiting the graves of the dead, and of course, the celebration also includes a traditional festive dinner.
Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year in Judaism and is celebrated ten days after the New Year. This period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as ‘10 days of repentance’. This is a serious period that demands concentration before a festive mood can prevail. The culmination is reached on the 10th day, on Yom Kippur. This day is dedicated exclusively to the spiritual and divine domain. Everyone, except for young children and sick people, fasts around the clock and refrains from drinking water. It is also forbidden to work, wash oneself, put on leather footwear, use cosmetics, or engage in intimate relationships. People wear white clothes, a symbol of purification and hope, and spend the whole day at the synagogue.
Sukkot (Hebrew: tents) is celebrated in September or October. It is dedicated to the Jews’ release from Egyptian slavery and their subsequent journey through the wilderness to the land of Israel. Sukkot begins on the 15th of Tishrei and lasts for a week. During this period, you have to live or at least eat and spend more time in a tent – a carcass construction made of any material, in a tied building with an open roof so you could watch the sky. This temporary structure symbolises life ‘between heaven and Earth’. Another tradition of the celebration is related to four plants symbolising the four ‘types’ of Jews: the palm tree branch, myrtus, willow and lemon.
Simchat Tora (Hebrew: rejoicing with/of the Torah) is celebrated right after the end of Sukkot. This holiday is a tribute to Judaism’s most sacred text, the Torah, and marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings, as well as a new cycle. The ritual of Torah testifies that Jewish life is based on the law of the Torah.
Late autumn or early winter, Hanukkah (Hebrew: Dedication) is celebrated for eight consecutive days. This holiday is dedicated to the victorious Jewish revolt against the Hellenistic government at the beginning of the second century BCE. The uprising was provoked by the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, during which local residents were persecuted because of their religious beliefs; Shabbat and other feasts were prohibited. There was an uprising; the national army liberated Jerusalem, took back and once again sanctified the Temple of Jerusalem, and expelled the conquerors from Judea. Hanukkah thus serves as a reminder to the Jewish community, first of all, not about the military victory of one army over another, but about spiritual victory. It’s about faith against violence, spiritual light against the darkness of oppression, and Judaism against its persecutors. During Hanukkah, people usually eat pancakes, doughnuts and other oil-based dishes (for Lithuanian Jews – traditional potato pancakes). Children play the game Wolfe, where small amounts money is shared between them. This custom actually inspired the tradition of giving children money on Hanukkah.
In the spring, Jews celebrate the cheerful and beloved Purim (Hebrew: lots). The history of this holiday is described in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Esther, which recounts the extermination that threatened Jews living in Persia, as well as the miracle that saved them, which could not have happened without the efforts of Esther. The Jews were not only saved, they also defeated their enemy – the adviser to King Haman, who chose that day to destroy the Jews by lot. Therefore, on Purim people gather in the synagogue to read the Book of Esther. Children bring special rattles to the synagogue, the noise of which drowns out the name of Haman. Carnival processions and feasts where you can drink alcohol are prepared. Gifts are distributed to the poor and community members send each other holiday treats as part of the celebration.
Passover, or Pesach, is the holiday celebrating the liberation of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery and their journey from Egypt to the land of Israel; it is also called the spring festival, the ‘time of our freedom’, and matza day. The holiday, during which miracles and faith in God are declared, is celebrated in spring and lasts a whole week. In Lithuania, this feast was erroneously called Easter, as it takes place around the Christian Easter. Preparation for the holiday begins with matzas – an unleavened flatbread – eaten for seven days. Matza reminds believers of the imminent departure of Jews from Egypt, when the dough did not have time to rise. As such, throughout the holiday, people do not eat bread containing yeast or any other products containing yeast, for that matter. The first, second and last evening of the holiday are celebrated with a special dinner called a Seder. People adhere to strict traditions, starting with specific dishes (hot herbs, hard-boiled eggs, horseradish and other symbols of slavery) and ending with prayers and chants.
Shavuot is celebrated seven weeks after Pesach as a remembrance of the revelation at Sinai and the handing over of the Torah to the Jewish people. On the day of Shavuot, the Ten Commandments are sung at the synagogue. Therefore, the situation is recreated, when the entire Jewish people, standing on top of Mount Sinai, listened to the words from the mouth of God himself: “I am your Lord God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me.”
In ancient times, Shavuot, like Sukkot and Pesach, was a pilgrimage celebration. Entire families and communities travelled to Jerusalem on foot that day. Like other religious Jewish holidays, Shavuot is associated not only with the history and religion of the nation, but also with the cycles of nature and agriculture.
Along with the traditional religious Jewish holidays, there are also a number of significant modern non-religious festivals and commemorations related to the State of Israel. Several new official memorial days are currently observed in Israel: Holocaust and Heroism Day (27 Nissan), Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism (celebrated on 4 Iyar, on the eve of Israel Independence Day), Israel Independence Day (celebrated on 5 Iyar) and Israel Day (27 Iyar).
Jewish communities in Israel and abroad are not homogeneous, so it is not surprising that there are different attitudes toward secular celebrations. For example, ultra-orthodox Jews do not celebrate Israel Independence Day; they believe that the Messiah must create the state of the Jews. Meanwhile, many secular Jews celebrate global holidays, but their opinions about old religious feasts are a little different; they celebrate without sticking to all the rituals.