I am an American who thinks of himself (interchangeably, with increasing degrees of specificity) as an Eastern European Jew, an Ashkenazi and a Litvak, but this self-identification, I have to acknowledge, is strange. It is true that my grandparents were born in Lithuania: my father’s parents in Kovna, my mother’s in Vilna. But they left for America sometime in the early 1890s, and, with a single exception, it was more than a century before anyone in my family returned for a visit.

My grandparents must, in any case, have had very little stake in staying in Lithuania: they were young and poor, and they had relatives who had already ventured off to the New World and sent back encouraging reports, along with money to help pay for their passage. I have no doubt that they wanted to maintain their religious identity: they lived out the rest of their lives as reasonably pious, observant Jews, keeping kosher homes, going to shul, sending their sons to cheder, saying Kaddish for their dead.

To be sure, my grandparents lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood – now a predominantly African American – and they attended a shul whose chants and customs greatly resembled what they would have known in Lithuania. At home they spoke their fantastically expressive Yiddish, rich in curses, charms to ward off the evil eye, and terms of endearment. The women cooked the heavy, heart-attack inducing food – flanken, kreplach, tzimmis, zoyas, blintzes, and chicken soup glistening with droplets of schmaltz – that had delighted and killed off their own parents and grandparents.

–Stephen J. Greenblatt, The Inevitable Pit

Prof. Greenblatt is a fellow Litvak.  My father’s father was from Vilna.


A Meeting of Joyce and Proust: