MONTREAL — It’s a city that’s at once multicultural and medieval, complex and cosmopolitan. Formerly called the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” it teems with spires and the spirits of Jews who are no more.
The city is Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, which from July 19 to Aug. 2 will be the site of a first-ever Jewish Lithuania Program, the brainchild of Concordia University academic Mikhail Iossel.
The program will be self-contained but will be run as part of a series of annual summer literary seminars that Iossel, an author and associate professor of creative writing, founded about a decade ago.
The first summer seminars, a program of intellectual exchanges among prominent writers, took place in St. Petersburg, Russia (Iossel is also Russian by birth), but they have since expanded to Italy and Kenya, and this summer they will also come to Vilnius.
Iossel, who before coming to Canada in 2004 was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at California’s Stanford University, believes that Vilnius – known for centuries to Jews as Vilna – is an inspired choice both for the literary seminar and Jewish Lithuania Program.
“I asked myself: ‘Where would I like to start a program?’ And the answer was Lithuania,” he said.
He described Vilnius – once home to more than 100 synagogues, as well as the fabled Vilna Gaon – as a “strange” kind of place, “kind of still undiscovered.
“It’s not Estonia or Finland or Latvia. It’s not gothic and definitely not Russian-Orthodox,” he said.
“It’s all those things, and above all else, you can walk around and it’s strictly from a [Marc] Chagall painting, a strange city that disappears into the landscape.”
Yet despite the influence on the country of narrow-minded nationalists, its Jewish influence resonates, Iossel said, and it’s a multicultural and multilingual place seeking to resist the forces of intolerance.
Lithuania, he said, was the world’s centre for fervent Jewish intellectual and religious life prior to the Holocaust, and it contains much “missing content” for Jewish writers of eastern European and Russian descent who have not taken full grasp of their Jewish identities.
Vilnius “was the teeming centre of Jewish rabbinical thought… and then it was no more,” Iossel said.
“The very realization that it used to be there was almost enough [to choose Vilnius],” he continued. “I thought it would be important to bring people to this Atlantis of Jewish life, as it were.”
Iossel said the key figure in the summer literary seminars’ Jewish Lithuania component is Dovid Katz, research director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and one of the world’s leading Yiddishists and experts in the eastern European Jewish Diaspora.
Iossel had been in contact with Katz, an American and the son of the late, award-wining Yiddish poet Menke Katz, after being bowled over by Dovid Katz’s book Words and Fire, a history of Yiddish over 1,000 years.
“I started corresponding with him, and he said he would like to become part of our program, because he said he wanted to expand from teaching Yiddish to place it in a larger cultural and literary context,” Iossel said.
Katz is the one who is actually developing the Jewish Lithuania Program, and he’ll moderate it.
“It is my idea, but it could not have materialized without Dovid Katz being there,” Iossel said. “I was aware of him being at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, and I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity.”
Both the literary seminar and the separate Jewish Lithuania Program component, which is more focused on the culture and history of Jewish Lithuania but also addresses literature, promise an embarrassment of riches (they will be conducted in English with simultaneous translation provided when necessary).
Among the prominent figures already confirmed to attend, Iossel said, are U.S.-born poet and translator Peter Cole, who lives in Israel; Hofstra University prof. Phillip Lopate, and Prof. Michael Kimmage of Harvard University. All three are well-known in intellectual and academic circles.
The Jewish program will see the participation of leading eastern European experts in various aspects of Jewish Lithuania, as well as personalities such as a man raised in the culture of the shtetl and a Holocaust survivor who was an actual part of the “Hebrew culture movement” and Zionism in prewar Vilnius, which was known as Wilno when it was under Polish sovereignty.
“These people are all Jewish Mohicans of a rapidly disappearing generation of prewar personalities,” Iossel says on the seminar website, www.sumlitsem.org.
The larger literary seminar is also much anticipated, because it will give local writers an opportunity to “expose their literature to the West,” he said.
“There is a thriving and very hungry literary community in Lithuania who don’t want to be isolated, and right now they’re isolated,” he said. “Their own language will not be learned by lots of people, so I’m looking forward to the interaction between the writers.
“They’ve never has such high-profile writers there in such numbers,” and the news of the summer event is attracting interest from local media.
Iossel said plans are also in the works to bring the Summer Literary Seminar to Israel.
“I would love that,” he said. “I’m thinking 2010.”