Vilnius Jews work to rekindle their citys cultural life, Lithuanian leader says in S.F. visit

Jewish cultural life in Vilnius peaks every May. For a week during that month, crowds pack the Lithuanian capital's fanciest music halls for concerts featuring klezmer music, Yiddish favorites and works by classical and contemporary Jewish composers. Often, the pieces are performed by prominent musicians from around the world. But these days, the annual International Jewish Music Festival isn't the only Jewish cultural event Vilnius can boast.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, a core of Vilnius Jews has worked to reestablish the city's position as "the Jerusalem of Lithuania." Now the city maintains a government-sponsored Jewish museum, Jewish schools and several Jewish children's clubs. Vilnius also hosts celebrations for nearly every Jewish holiday, and sponsors frequent lectures on Jewish cultural topics.

"We have something going on every week," said Boris Borisov, chair of the Jewish community of Vilnius. "We are trying to revive Jewish tradition in Lithuania."

In the Bay Area last week to visit his son Igor, a doctor who lives in Daly City, Borisov spoke in an interview about the revival in which he has played a crucial role.

A composer and professor of composition at Vilnius' Lithuanian Academy of Music, Borisov — who, filled with local pride, calls himself a "Litvak" — has written special arrangements of old klezmer tunes so that symphonies and operas can perform them.

He also helps organize the May festivals.

"Jewish people are proud of these festivals," said Borisov, who delivered several lectures on Lithuanian Jewish life while in the Bay Area. "This way we can fix our existence in Lithuania."

Much awaits repair. Following World War II — during which more than 90 percent of Lithuania's Jews were killed — communist rule prohibited all Jewish activities, including the speaking of Yiddish and Hebrew.

Today, only 6,000 Jews remain in the country, according to Borisov. Most live in Vilnius. A large number are elderly and survive on state pensions of only $30 a month. In Vilnius, Borisov said, elderly Jews are a priority for the Jewish community, which helps them by raising funds and organizing free daily meals.

"We have to support our elderly people," asserted Borisov, a soft-spoken 58-year-old casually dressed in jeans and loafers.

The support for Vilnius' elderly Jews goes beyond the material world, however. While Jewish cultural events are aimed at awakening younger generations to Judaism, these events also emphatically feed seniors' souls.

"We are proud of our elderly people," Borisov said. They "survived a very difficult period in ghettoes [and] concentration camps," and Jewish cultural events bring them great joy. For that reason, admission to the international music festival is free to all — though funding is tight and the event is supported almost solely by donations.

A conviction that Lithuanian Jews must care for each other and for their culture inspires Borisov and his Jewish compatriots to stay in their homeland. They do this despite the country's faltering economy and a situation in which, he said, the government "tolerates" Jews and in which Jews, while they coexist peacefully alongside other ethnic groups, are repeatedly blamed for Lithuania's economic and political woes.

Borisov finds himself in an ironic position: eager to help his community, yet also able to emigrate from Lithuania if he chooses.

But "if all people like me … leave for other countries," he said, "then the Vilnius Jewish community will die."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.