Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on March 14th, 2008
Borat visits Lithuania.

Borat visits Lithuania.

A sign: if one promises to write a three-part post and can barely push the first part out in a timely manner, that post should probably be dropped. So considering that since V-16, Kovo 11 has come and gone without my finishing my article on why V-16 is not a holiday I’m particularly eager to celebrate, I’ll put those ideas aside and move to a few other things that have been bubbling in my head.

Just before Lithuania’s second independence day , Lietuvos rytas printed an interview with Erran Baron Cohen, a musician whose brother, Sacha, is better known to the world as the mastermind behind Borat. Erran explained that he had just recently found out that his great grandfather was born in Kaunas. From there, his family moved to Wales, where Baron Cohen’s grandfather was born. When I pointed this out to a friend of mine, he said that he wasn’t surprised to learn of Baron Cohen’s Lithuanian ancestry, waggishly adding that Borat’s “Running of the Jews” was just a reformulation of the Shrove Tuesday “Užgavėnių paradas.” And it is this cultural intersection that I’m writing about after the flip.

But before getting to Borat again, a quick recap of what, had it been completed, the second part of the V-16 post would have discussed, which is the price paid by Lithuania’s Jews for agreeing to support Lithuanian independence. The short version is this:

Jews, who made up the entire middle class in Lithuania up to the end of the 19th century, started suffering from competition from new (ethnically) Lithuanian merchants and tradesmen as Lithuanian nationalism grew. Patriots writing in Vincas Kudirka’s newspaper Varpas encouraged Lithuanians to buy only from Lithuanians, thereby reducing the monopoly on capital enjoyed by the Jewish merchants.

In comparison to the rest of the Russian empire, Jews knew that they had it best in Lithuania. No pogroms, no widespread, systematic prejudice. And instead of living agrarian lives scattered through shtetls (the model in Fiddler on the Roof), the Jews in Lithuania formed the potential urban financial backbone of the future state. So they supported independence in 1918, for the most part, feeling that just as they were entitled to a Zionist nation-state, so the Lithuanians were entitled to their own state, too.

And in independent Lithuania, though detached from their cultural local capital of Vilna, the Jews continued to do reasonably well. They built schools and engaged in widespread national assimilation. Grandparents still spoke primarily Russian and/or Yiddish, but the youngsters growing up spoke Lithuanian. But then the ideological nationalism of the nation-state could no longer support the burgeoning multinational state of Lithuania, and problems arose as German-influenced anti-Semitism gained a stronger hold in public life, casting into doubt how worth it it was to lend political (and financial) support to the Lithuanian soldiers and politicians during the fight for independence.

Now I can get back to Borat, and the tension between the “Running of the Jews” and the claim of no “widespread, systematic predjudice” against Jews in Lithuania before the end of the 19th century.

The first part of Eidintas’s Jews, Lithuanians, and the Holocaust (review) begins with a rather familiar history of cultural interaction between Jews and peasant Lithuanians before National Revival. From naming the chapter “Mūsų žydeliai” (“Our dear, little Jews”), Eidintas sets up a monstrous mountain to climb—usually you know the going will be rough if the very title is footnoted to explain the connotation of one of the words, so as not to seem patronizing.

But he takes the task and pushes it through. Lithuanians and Jews intermingled lots via commerce, but they kept themselves apart, too. But that difference could be largely attributed to class separation (farmer Lithuanians from Jewish tradesmen) that gets reinterpreted as cultural distinction. And Eidintas is not shy to point out the (to contemporary ears) offensive coloring radical cultural distinction makes. The question “Who is that outside, a person or a Jew?” he repeats often to show how, to the Lithuanian farmers, Jews were so radically othered as to be even denied humanity.

To the farmers, everything the Jews did was opposite: they wore their hats inside… they wrote right to left… Furthermore, they were involved in a different economy, a different religion, a different language, a different residential space, and had, even, different holidays.

This radical difference became, then, as it often does among ignorant people who are threatened by the unknown, causes for occasional skirmishes and violent acts, sometimes being very serious indeed. But the Lithuanians also felt victimized by violence—a missing girl was assumed to be kidnapped by the Jews, which would spark reprisals.

Eidintas is very adamant about pointing out that these incidents were scattered, occasional. There is no doubt that locally (for the parties involved), the incidents were very serious—Eidintas’s primary sources for a lot of incidents are police files, showing that the state got involved. But the violence had no systematic support from the state or the church (unlike pogroms, which were state-driven anti-Semitic efforts covered with an illusion of spontaneity), and it is possible to read the acts as anti-Jewish (in that the violence was perpetrated against Jews because they were Jews), but not as anti-Semitic (which I mean here as more a systematic effort to ostracize and erradicate Jewish populations).

I’m not sure I can agree with this conclusion, but it is hard to decide without doing more research. Or, rather, it is hard to tell if Eidintas is maybe sugar-coating a bit, either to try to exculpate Lithuanians of a centuries-long history of anti-Semitism or to demonstrate how incongruous the Lithuanian eagerness to join the ranks of war criminals was once the NSDAP assumed power in Germany.

But Eidintas, as a historian, has the luxury of slow time on his side, meticulously collecting rates of incidents of violence in Lithuania. If one were to watch Fiddler on the Roof, one might be tempted to use the events that befall Anatevka as indicative of an Pale-wide attitude of state-supported anti-Semitism. But to do so is to fall into the anecdotal fallacy. On the other hand, it feels somehow wrong to treat all instances of crimes against Jews before National Revival as simply the acts of bullies (another form of violence we see in Fiddler…). Eidintas seems content to lay the blame at ignorance. I might add class resentment, too, which certainly does become treacherously fueled by anti-Semitism after National Revival.

In any case, part of the expression of fear and uncertainty over the others living in the towns of Lithuania gets expressed in violence. Another part is expressed in the folding of Jews into the folkloric space previously reserved for goblins, gnomes, and other non-/quasi-human creatures (recall the earlier question about who is going down the street). And this is where the Užgavėnių paradas makes, if not a justifiable sense, than one slightly less appalling (though still totally appalling).

Dressing as a Jew.

Dressing as a Jew.

Haaretz reprints an article describing the recent Shrove Tuesday parade, giving a description of the festivities that does not differ much from the one Eidintas gives of 19th century pre-Lenten celebrations. It’s like Twelfth Night, and everyone does things opposite. Men dress as women, and women as men. And how better to recreate the image of the opposite than incarnating the ultimate Other, the Jew? Dressing as Jews and adopting Jewish mannerisms becomes a key component of the festivities: people speak Lithuanian with Yiddish accents and try to sell damaged goods. Eidintas does the reprinted article one better by describing the relationship of Jews with the morė, which is the giant female effigy that is torched at the end of the celebration. On the one hand, the morė symbolizes winter. On the other hand, she is understood as the anti-Earth mother, and, further, as the mother of the Jews.

That’s right: the traditional pre-Lenten Lithuanian festival of Užgavėnės closes with burning a giant representation of the mother of the Jews.

It would take a folklorist with a very, very delicate touch to unwind the relationships here, to try and make a very strong claim of how the Užgavėnės celebrations are not just systematic anti-Semitism. And that folklorist would certainly have to have a better touch than I or Eidintas have.

So what now, then?

While reading Eidintas’s history, especially the part about mocking Jewish affectations, I often thought back to minstrelsy. Reading accounts of African-Americans from the nineteenth century is often wrenching because they, too, were once not counted even as people. Uncle Tom’s Cabin stands as a testament to this: it took a work of sentimental fiction to humanize African-Americans to the degree where white Americans could begin to see the inhumanity of slavery from a new perspective, and, in so doing, understand it as inhuman and something that needs to be stopped.

As such, I kept waiting, while reading Eidintas’s book, for a similar moment. When would the people finally say, “Ok. Our tradition dictates this and that, but it is inhuman to continue doing this and that. So we’ll stop”? The Haaretz reprint proves that we are not even close to that point, yet. I am not certain why that is the case, though in less charitable moments, I am inclined to blame the victimology of Lithuanian exceptionalism. But either way, Lithuanian culture (not just in Lithuania) clearly still is largely (and now systematically) incapable of representing (or understanding) Jews as people.

So in other words, while we are laughing at the “Running of the Jews” in Borat, it should be the uncomfortable laugh of someone who has just been caught red-handed doing something they know they should not be doing. The United States should teach (I say this archly) tolerance of a sort, but my experience among the Diaspora has been one of constant exposure to nauseous levels of intolerance. From the casual anti-Semitism I hear, where “žydukas” is used as a negative epithet for anyone, down to rampant cultural representations of Jewish othering, it all has to stop. Yesterday.

Eidintas might succeed in describing the actions against Jews in the 19th century as gestures made by ignorant and frightened farmers. But, after the Holocaust, Lithuanians (there and here)  have no such excuse. Dressing as a Jew for Užgavėnės in 1808 was anti-Jewish and ignorant. Now it is anti-Semitic and obscene.

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One Response to “Borat is Lithuanian”

  1. your friend is silly. there is no obvious jewish reference in uzgavenes in LT today unless you “look into it.”

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