I am an American who thinks of himself (interchangeably, with increasing degrees of specificity) as an Eastern European Jew, an Ashkenazi and a Litvak, but this self-identification, I have to acknowledge, is strange. It is true that my grandparents were born in Lithuania: my father's parents in Kovna, my mother's in Vilna. But they left for America sometime in the early 1890s, and, with a single exception, it was more than a century before anyone in my family returned for a visit. No one seems to remember the precise year of their departure or even the precise occasion, though there was somewhat vague talk, when I was growing up, about the need to escape a tsarist Russification scheme that centred on drafting eligible young Jewish men into the Army for 25-year terms of military service. I know that the Russian Government lurched between wanting to isolate Jews in a carefully demarcated Pale of Settlement, as if they were a dangerous virus, and wanting to swallow and absorb them by destroying their separate identity. Twenty-five sounds suspiciously like a mythic number, but Russian reality has often had a mythic quality, so it is possible that some such scheme at one time existed, and even a much shorter term of military service would have seemed almost unendurable, particularly to anyone who was committed, as were both my grandfathers, to observing Kashrut and keeping at least a reasonable number of the other commandments.
LRB 21 September 2000 | PDF Download