I first heard of the situation regarding Dariaus Udrio resignation from LALB about a week ago. I was sad that he felt the need to resign, but I was more frustrated about the responses to his resignation, both in private emails forwarded to me and in public arenas. Once I saw JAVLB president Vytauto Maciūno official response to Udrys, I had the textual foundation on which to build a response/critique. So I wrote one and submitted it.
And now it’s been published in Lietuvos rytas.
I originally wrote the article in English (for Lithchat), and then next came the translation into Lithuanian. Lietuvos rytas then cleaned it up even more and converted it into the journalistic/punchy small paragraphs that I had forgotten to write in. They also made a few questionable edits—changing my description of Lithuanian history from “katastrofiška” to “sudėtinga,” but whatever.
Either way, now that it’s in print, I can publish here my English version. But I’ll also include a link to Udrio latest interview on the subject. OK, now the article:
A count in 1909 of the inhabitants of Vilnius, a city then of about 200,000 inhabitants, found that nearly 40% of the population was Jewish. Lithuanians, on the other hand, accounted for not even 2% of the population of their future capital. The blood of the 20th century has profoundly altered the ethnic makeup of Vilnius, but a century later, as the city prepares for its turn onstage as the Cultural Capital of Europe, the cultural contributions of those 80,000 odd Jews of 1909 Vilnius—of whom there remains only a handful—stay obscured in the cultural lives of Lithuanians in America.
The germination of this piece was obviously made possible by the current situation regarding Dariaus Udrio proposal to the Tautinių šokių komitetas for the 2008 Šokių šventė in Los Angeles regarding having a space in the program set aside for a performance by a Yiddish Lithuanian dance group. I’m saddened to see that Udrys felt it necessary to resign his post of chairman of LALB after his proposal was rejected, but I’m more saddened by the circumstances that led to his needing to make the proposal in the first place, as well as the response his proposal has caused.
First, it is a pity that it took someone like Udrys to suggest the idea of including ethnically Yiddish dances at Šokių šventė in the first place. The idea should have grown within the komitetas itself, a komitetas one would hope was committed to pursuing an expansive and innovative cultural program for their šventė. It is a continued obscenity (and I use the word with all its weight) that the diaspora community continues to show a simple incuriousness about the population that rubbed shoulders with their ancestors on the roads of Russian-occupied Lithuania. That on the largest stage available to it in North America (the Šokių šventė), the Lithuanian-American Community (JAVLB) should actively avoid incorporating Litvak contributions boggles the mind. The gains are astounding: the profile of the Šventė would rise, especially among the large Litvak community in Los Angeles, the gate receipts would climb, the dancers would be exposed to different manifestations of Lithuanian culture, goodwill would ring out, and the Lithuanian-American Community would have made a tangible gesture at softening the tension between the two Lithuanian ethnic groups. And as great as the gains would be, the losses would be few. I can think of no negative result of having a Yiddish dance or song at the Šventė. This inclusivity should have been a goal of the Šokių šventė from the getgo, not a novel idea that appears 50 years into the tradition.
Second, and more importantly, are the troubling implications that grow out of JAVLB pirmininko Vytauto Maciūno response to Udrio resignation. Instead of highlighting the cultural diversity of the dances, Maciūnas writes about the cultural diversity of the dancers (a diversity that is sadly still a binary one in which the world is split into those for whom the designation “lietuvių kilmės” is appropriate and those for whom it is not). Yet by highlighting the individual diversity, he forces the reader to remember that culture, itself, is not a monolith. We see and appreciate this ourselves at every Šokių šventė, bewildered by the myriad patterns and color combinations in the various tautiniai drabužiai. If we are willing to grant such a pluralism to the costumes worn at Šventė, why not grant the same pluralism to the very dances that are danced?
It is important to understand here, then, that the issue is not that some sort of Yiddish usurpers will arrive at Šventė and dance a wholly inappropriate non sequitur of a dance, say, a samba. The issue is that what the Yiddish group would dance is already a “lietuvių tautinis šokis.” That is, it falls under the criteria that Maciūnas himself sets out as the proper content of a Šokių šventė. The Litvak culture is a part of the messy, uncontained whole that is “lietuviška kultūra.” Lithuanians pride themselves on the variegated nature of their culture. They keep alive differences in accent and dialect, expressing wonderment at how so small a group could have such distinct linguistic differences; they tease each other based on their regions. On a quotidian basis, the fully-actualized Lithuanian understands that there are aspects of her adopted culture that are wholly foreign to her, as well as aspects without which she would cease to understand herself. Why must it be, then, that when given this opportunity to try to celebrate that cultural mišrainė, the leadership of JAVLB and the Tautinių šokių komitetas hides behind an implausible and offensive notion of a monolithic Lithuanian culture in which Jewish cultural artifacts—though developed in the Lithuanian milieu—are unacceptable? Have not Lithuanians, excluded from the cultural world for so long, learned only too well the lessons of tyrannical cultural exclusion?
The continued profane silence of the Lithuanian-American diaspora population regarding the role of strident nationalists during World War II remains an evergrowing, unconscionable offense. I can only hope that it would not be, as Maciūnas fears, the Jewish community that gives itself over to Udrio provocations, but rather the Lithuanian-American Community itself. I can hope that it be JAVLB that finally reaches a point of being able to look back, like Walter Benjamin‘s Angelus Novus, at the catastrophe that is Lithuanian history to see that in order to make the history total—to make Lithuanian culture total—they must, simply, make space for the Litvaks, for their contributions, and for their voices, shattered by the march of xenophobia.