Discovering Jewish heritage through language
The idea behind the ‘Bagel Shop’ tolerance campaign in Lithuania is to welcome the wider public into the Jewish community. Our colleagues in Human Rights Monitoring Institute went to meet students in a Hebrew language class to find out more.
The article reproduced below was originally posted by the Human Rights Monitoring Institute (http://nvoprograma.lt/) – the NGO Fund Operator in Lithuania.
My first interviewee, Mrs Frida Vitkauskienė, lives in Vilnius. Having attended Hebrew classes for two years, she doesn‘t hide her admiration for the teacher nor her enthusiasm for the subject:
“Every time the teacher discusses each letter, touches a new story, a new, unknown world opens up. It is truly interesting.
“My two daughters live in Israel. I also have grandchildren. I often go to visit them and I need to understand Hebrew in order to talk to my son-in-law who doesn‘t speak either Russian or Lithuanian,” says Mrs Frida.
She reveals that even though she has been assigned to the advanced group, she always voluntarily stays after her lessons to continue studying with another group – the one for beginners:
“One 45 minute lesson is too little for me – I want more. It is too simply too nice here,” she smiles.
Another student of the advanced group, also an inhabitant of Vilnius, is Mrs Iga Makutėnienė. Even though she doesn‘t have Jewish blood, Mrs Iga considers herself a real member of the Jewish Community, and, just like Frida, always stays for an extra class:
“Working as a guide, I have lots of tourist groups, including tourists from Israel. I speak English and Russian, and now I’ve decided to learn Hebrew,” she explains.
Whilst she admits that it can be challenging to learn [the language], a good teacher and a friendly environment help.
“Today, I’m also staying for the second lesson. I always stay if I can. Learning a language is a great pleasure.”
After the lesson I find out that Mrs Iga has another bond with the Lithuanian Jewish Community. Her grandmother was awarded the title of ‘Righteous among Nations’, because of her brave actions during World War II where she risked her own life as well as those of her relatives to save Jews from the Nazi genocide.
Open to all
“I always come half an hour earlier so that I can talk to my students“, says Yehuda Vagner from Haifa, the third biggest city in Israel, situated on the Mediterranean coast.
Yehuda tells us how happy he is to see so many people from different nationalities and backgrounds coming together in the classroom. He claims that this is the reason of his arrival to Lithuania – to have the chance to talk about Jewishness, Jewish traditions and language to all those interested in Jewish and Israeli culture.
When asked whether the courses cost money, Yehuda, who has been voluntarily teaching for two years, smiles: “How could we take money for something which is our duty and pleasure?”
“Language is a direct way to get to know each other,” he adds simply.
Lessons – more than words
We had the pleasure of taking part in a Hebrew lesson during one of the most beautiful Jewish festivals, Hanukah. We had heard that Yehuda‘s lessons were special and it didn’t take long to see why. Following the ritual, he began by putting on a kippah (a small cap – traditional head covering for male Jews), then taking matches turned to the Hanukiah (candlestick with nine branches), placed on the windowsill. Then he sung a prayer, slowly lighting one candle after another and putting them in the candlestick. Another prayer is sung. Everything happens in Hebrew, with the women in the class sitting, while the men stand. The room becomes filled with light and warmth.
The lesson is a constant exchange. New words are repeated out loud and written on the board, teacher and students discuss and joke. The lesson ends with assigning homework – to write how everyone celebrates Hanukah at home, and with a wish to celebrate it joyfully and meaningfully.
„Bagel shop“: tolerance campaign against anti-Semitism and public hatred
Lithuanian Jewish Community
Type of Institution:
Grass root initiative (NGO)
Statistical data of 2010 indicate that 17% of pre-trial investigations concerning hate crimes were directly related to anti-Semitism and/or xenophobia. It is likely that even more hate crimes remained unreported because NGOs possess low capacity to look after the entire public space, including e-space, while society lacks knowledge in identifying and reporting occurrence of hate and intolerance driven expressions. Project aims to implement promotional campaign for democratic values, tolerance towards ethnic minorities and against xenophobia as well as enhance capacity in identifying hate and xenophobia driven expressions in public space. To achieve this project promoter intends to create social space “Bagel shop” designated to hold various types of events and raise public awareness of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. To make this social space visible “Bagel” awards “For tolerance promoting behaviour in society” are intended to be established. Project promoter will also create a tool and methodology for monitoring public space in regards to tolerance and xenophobia driven expressions. Target groups: ethnic minorities, NGOs, media, society at large.