Litvaks and Galitzyaners

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Bernard Wasserstein’s On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War tells the story of interwar European Jewry, the rapid decline from tradition following World War I. In the process, Wasserstein describes the many kinds of Jews of the period. Here are two types (pp. 24-26):

Jews often preached unity but no less often they meant different things by it. Though the European Jews shared many social and cul¬tural characteristics, they were riven by deep divisions. Historically, the most fundamental was between Ashkenazim (Jews of German origin) and Sephardim (descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century)…

Ashkenazim, who constituted at least 90 percent of the Jews of Europe, were themselves deeply divided: between Litvaks and Galit-syaner, between Hasidim and misnagdim, between western (particu¬larly German) Jews and Ostjuden (emigrants from eastern Europe), as well as among orthodox, liberal/reform, and secularized Jews, not to mention crosscutting political differences.

The Litvak and Galitsyaner were both types of Ostjude but each had its own stereotype, which was applied to inhabitants of the areas in question as well as to emigrants from them and even to their descendants. The Litvak originated in Lite, an area broader than interwar Lithuania, stretching as far east as Vitebsk and as far south as Minsk and Bialystok. The Litvak was “smart, analytical, learned, worldly, skeptical, proud, stubborn, dynamic, and energetic.” “He was also dry, rational, and unemotional. By contrast, the Galitsyaner, a Jew from the southern Polish province of Galicia, was warmhearted, sly, witty, sharp, stingy, ibergeshpitst (crafty), and something of a trickster. He had a “peculiar mix of shrewdness and heartiness.” “To be called a . . . Galitzianer was for long not much of a compliment. . . It denoted folksy backwardness and at times also a petty mercantile mentality and moral shiftiness.”‘ The two types spoke different kinds of Yiddish: the Lithuanian version was regarded as more cultivated; Polish/Galician Yiddish was homespun and earthy. The split was also partly culinary. The Litvaks prepared their gefilte fish savory rather than sweet and their farfl (egg noodle dough cooked in broth) as small pellets rather than rolled into flat sheets that were then sliced, as was the custom among Galitsyaners.

The division between Litvak and Galitsyaner followed, in large measure, the lines of division between Hasidism and its enemies, the misnagdim. The greatest opponent of Hasidism in its early phase had been Eliyahu ben Shlomo-Zalman (1720-97), the gaon (a high rabbinic title) of Vilna. But Hasidism had some adherents in Lite, in particular the followers of Shneur Zalman of Lyady (1745-1813), founder of the Chabad movement, better known, from the small-town location of the rabbinical court of the second rebbe of the dynasty, as Lubavitcher Hasidim. Even in Galicia, however, the overenthusiastic, dancing, singing Hasidim were often viewed with a raised eyebrow. The writer S. Y. Agnon recalled that in his home shtetl of Buczacz the Hasidic prayer house was called the laytsim shlikhel (the little synagogue of clowns).

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

19 comments

  1. “Jews often preached unity but no less often they meant different things by it. ”

    True today as well-usually when I hear someone preachimg unity it is on their terms.

  2. laytsim shlikhel (the little synagogue of clowns).

    shouldn’t it be shilikhel ?

  3. Father Galitzianer (not from chassidim, but heavily influenced by one chassidish rebbe and a lot of Litvaks at YU), mother Litvak (Chabad a few generations back, but otherwise Mizrachi misnagdim). We do OK. 🙂

  4. My father’s family are litvaks and my mother’s galitzyaners. I like to think of myself as a litvak, but I just can’t break the sweet gefilte fish habit. (you wouldn’t believe how much sugar was in my (maternal) grandmother’s fish.)

  5. “Ashkenazim, who constituted at least 90 percent of the Jews of Europe, were themselves deeply divided: between Litvaks and Galit-syaner…”

    Some readers may wonder, where do others, such as Polish, Russian, and Hungarian Jews for example, fit in this scheme?

    That is partially answered by a later passage, namely “The Litvak and Galitsyaner were both types of Ostjude but each had its own stereotype, which was applied to inhabitants of the areas in question as well as to emigrants from them and even to their descendants”.

    Hungarian Hassidim came from Galicia. For many years before WWI, Galicia and Hungary were both part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and bordered upon each other, which made migration easier for Galitzianer seeking opportunity (e.g. economic) to migrate through the mountains to the neighboring area of Hungary (Unterland, as opposed to Oberland, upper Hungary, which was populated by non-Hassidic Jews at that time).

    Polish Jews (non Galitzyaner and non Litvish) were not in the Austro Hungarian empire, so they didn’t go to Hungary.

    Russian Jews are in the (broadly speaking) Litvishe category.

    The stereotypes are just that and subjective. For example, there were Galitzyaners who viewed themselves as cosmopolitan, related to their connection to the Austro-Hungarian empire, which was seen as more progressive and cultured than the Slavic areas where other Jews lived. In Galitzya the German language, the leading language of science and culture at that time, was used more as well, also due to the Austro-Hungarian empire.

    Another important thing to note here is that there was much Litvak-Galitzyaner ‘intermarriage’ after emigration to other lands with many Jews from other places, such as in New York in the last century. I think we don’t hear that much about Galitzyaners today due to that, as well the general melting pot effect, in which such labels are downplayed. Hungarian Hassidim, have, in many ways, assumed the place formerly occupied by Galitzyaner.

    I would like to see the book, sounds interesting.

  6. I am surprised to see 4 paragraphs like this in a book by a serious historian. It’s a précis of the stereotypes, but not much else. Hope the rest of the book is better…

  7. Reuven Brauner

    3/4 Galitzianer, 1/4 Yekke.

    However, Al Pi Din, Yekke is not Botl B’Shishim.

  8. I am singularly unimpressed by the prejudiced attitude of the writer towards Jews from Galitzia. If the rest of the book is similar, then it’s not worth reading. By the way, although I am not a proponent of the Galitzianer dialect (despite my family origins), the Litvish dialect is similarly encumbered – albeit, practically non-existent these days. A ‘real’ Litvak doesn’t pronounce a ‘shin’ or an ‘oi’ (‘o’) vowel sound. Hence, he would say, “..sik zohn di yesua, masiach zol soin kumen” and toirah(torah) would be ‘teirah’. The form of Yiddish that was near-universal in the US prior to the mass arrival of post-war refugees was the Russian dialect.

  9. Reuven Brauner on April 23, 2012 at 8:38 am

    3/4 Galitzianer, 1/4 Yekke.

    However, Al Pi Din, Yekke is not Botl B’Shishim.

    true that, Famous punchline.. “a Yekke Bleibt a Yekke”

  10. I am the proud descendant of Litvaks from my father’s side and central Polish (NOT Galitziyaners!)Kielce geberneh on my mother’s side. Actually my paternal grandfather, the Litvak became a supporter of the Tolna chassidim when he migrated to the USA.
    It is interesting that Rav Kook ZTZL was from mixed parentage, Litvaks on his father’s side and Chabadnikim from his mother. This explains perhaps why Rav Kook exemplifies the analytical lomdishe view of the Litvak (after all he was an ilui in Yeshivat Voloszhin) along with the total emotional involvement of the chassidishe outlook. He imbibed it with his mother’s milk so to speak.

  11. Chabad *are* Litvaks. They blend that themselves. (Well, they did.)

    Technically, there were no Russian Jews, by the way.

  12. Nachum/David Tzohar

    when i was in school i was taught that chabad was closest of all the hasidim to litvish intellectualism.

  13. Mother Litvak (Kovno, Suvalk, one grandmother from Moscow, no idea where they came from before that), father Galitzianer. Well, from Proskurov, which is in Ukraine/Podolia, which was part of the Kingdom of Galicia.

    My mother’s father was watching a Yiddish movie on TV one day. When someone came on speaking a Galicianer yiddish, he jumped up and shouted “Galitzianer horse thief!”

  14. Capsule history of Galicia:

    In modern times, the Habsburg crownland of Galicia became one of the most mythicized and tragic parts of Europe. But for Empress Maria Theresia von Habsburg-Lothringen it was an accidental acquisition. In 1772, when she seized most of the territories she would name “Galicia” from the waning Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, her main concern was the rising power of neighboring Prussia. Thirty years earlier, Prussia had contested Maria Theresia’s right to inherit the Habsburg crowns, and had taken from her the wealthy province of Silesia. In 1772 her realm was extended as a result of another burst of Prussian aggression. Prussia and the Russian Empire took the lead in arranging the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with Maria Theresia joining reluctantly in the plunder.

    Her new, formerly Polish territory, christened Galicia, ran from Oświęcim (which she called Auschwitz) in the west to Lwów (which she called Lemberg) and its Carpathian hinterlands in the east. It was roughly divided by the San River into a western, primarily Polish half and an eastern, Ukrainian half. Her successors extended Galicia to the north, incorporating the ancient Polish capital Cracow in 1846. Like Auschwitz, Cracow became the namesake of an Austrian duchy, but both in fact lay within Galicia.

    From: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/nov/10/core-european-tragedy-diversity-fantasy/

  15. The same article, btw, contained what was a shocker to me:

    Galicians wishing to emigrate [to the New World in the 1890s] passed through Auschwitz. As Fredro had wished half a century before, Auschwitz was the train station that permitted Galicians to travel the province from east to west, to Germany—and so to the Baltic Sea, and the wider world. The main shipping companies had offices in Auschwitz; the Hamburg line, Hapag, used a hotel across the street from the Auschwitz train station, located in a neighboring settlement called Birkenau. Those who passed through the town found it hard to leave Auschwitz without booking passage to the New World. People who looked like peasants were arrested by the bribed police, taken to the Hapag offices for a mock interrogation, strip-searched, deprived of whatever money was found on their persons, and given a ticket that they usually could not even read.

  16. IH, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s why the camp was built there- railway access.

    My mother occasionally “corrects” my father’s Yiddish (it’s a mother tongue for both, although they were born in the US). I think he thinks she’s right- all those rebbeim. 🙂

    None of this is to be confused, of course, with Galicia in Spain, ancestral homeland of, among others, the Castros. Similar etymology, from the Gauls.

  17. A ‘real’ Litvak doesn’t pronounce a ‘shin’ – Y. Aharon

    Not entirely correct. It wasn’t across the board and varied by region so that some litvaks did pronounce the shin.

  18. Ukrainian Jews were called Russian Jews.Lithuanian jews werre called litvakes, or litvishe Yidden
    There were other Lithuanian Chassidic groups besides Chabad like Koidenov and Slonim as well as Stolin-Karlin.
    The primary distinctions between jews of various regions were in the follwoing : Clothing (hats, kapotes) cooking, Yiddih spoken and groooming (peyos). Even in Galicia there were many Orthodox non Chassidic Jews.

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