The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Partitions of Poland. Boundaries shown are ca. 1795.

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(pl., Litvakes), Yiddish term for a Jew of historical, or “greater,” Lithuania. The Litvaks’ territory of origin is significantly larger than the borders of both the independent Lithuanian Republic of the interwar period (1918–1940)—which did not include the center of Litvak culture, Vilna (Vilnius)—and the contemporary state of Lithuania. From a Jewish cultural and historical perspective, Lite (Yiddish for Lithuania; Heb., Lita) includes large swaths of northeastern Poland (notably the Białystok and Suwałki regions), northern and western Belarus (notably the Grodno [Hrodna], Minsk, Slutsk, Pinsk, Brisk [Brest Litovsk], Shklov, Mogilev [Mohilev], Gomel [Homel’], and Vitebsk [Vitsyebsk] regions), southern Latvia (notably the Dvinsk [Daugavpils] region), and northeastern Prussia (notably the region of the Baltic port city Memel [Klaipėda]). This expansive definition of Lithuania in Jewish historiography and culture corresponds roughly to the large territory under the jurisdiction of the Lithuanian Jewish Council (Va‘ad Medinot Lita), which governed Lithuanian Jewish communal affairs from 1623 to 1764.

While, from a Litvak perspective, minor cultural and linguistic subdivisions are drawn between “purebred” (Yid., gerotene; lit., “fine-looking”) Litvaks of the central Kovno (Kaunas), Vilna, Shavli (Šiauliai), and western Zamut (Žemaitija) districts and those areas of Lithuania that were, for much of their history, annexed to Poland, Prussia, or Russia, certain distinctive characteristics have historically been attributed to all Litvaks, who are commonly portrayed in Jewish folklore as cold, calculating, lacking in emotional depth, overly rational, skeptical, and prone to heretical thinking—all in contradistinction to their warmer, more emotive, naive, and pious Jewish coreligionists to the south. Although Litvaks are thus portrayed as being very different from the Jews living throughout southern and western Poland, Hungary, and Romania, the most common stereotypical contrast found in Yiddish literature, music, theater, and folklore is between Litvaks and Galitsianers (Galician Jews), who are viewed as polar opposites in their emotions, intellectual sensibilities, speech, food, dress, and religious demeanor.

Litvaks are most readily and objectively identified by their distinctive Yiddish dialect, one that differs in several key respects from the spoken Yiddish of the large majority of other East European Jews. The two most prevalent distinctive features of Lithuanian Yiddish are its pronunciation, in certain regions, of the letter shin as sin (some Yiddish linguists argue that the sounds of these two consonants are conflated, not confused, by Litvaks) and the differing pronunciations of most Yiddish vowels. For example, while the Galitsianer eats kigel on Shabes, the Litvak eats kugel on Sabes. Because of these divergent vowel pronunciations, Litvaks are, to this day, mockingly referred to by Hasidic Jews of Polish and Hungarian origin as Lootvaks, while Litvaks reciprocate the mockery by referring to Polish Jews as Paylishe (instead of Poylishe) Yidn.

Despite the linguistic contention among Litvaks and Polish and Galician Jews, and although Litvaks always made up a relatively small minority of the East European Yiddish-speaking Jewish population (on the eve of World War II there were approximately 1.3 million Litvaks out of some 7.5 million Yiddish-speaking Jews in Europe), the Litvak pronunciation of vowels was almost universally recognized as the correct one, and was the standard used for Hebrew and Yiddish instruction in Jewish schools throughout Poland, Galicia, and the Russian Empire from the late nineteenth century. The notable exception was the Litvak enunciation of oy as ay (e.g., Tayreh, instead of Toyreh, for Torah).

The stereotypical Litvak is portrayed as unemotional, withdrawn, intellectual, and mercilessly critical; he challenges authority and is by nature skeptical, stubborn, and impatient with, and suspicious of, others. The Litvak’s commitment to tradition is suspect; his Judaism purely intellectual. Hyperbolic expressions of the stereotype maintained that even when he is studying Torah, the Litvak has one leg out the door of the bet midrash (study hall), on his way to inevitable apostasy. He studies Mishnah, Talmud, and halakhic codes publicly, went the stereotype, while at the same time furtively glances into Christian scripture or reads Marx and Tolstoy. The Litvak was called, derisively, tselem kopf—meaning, split the head of a Litvak and you’ll find a cross. There was widespread suspicion among Polish Jews that Litvaks somehow lacked a yidishe neshome, an authentic Jewish soul, and that there was something inherently flawed, “goyish” and lacking in authentic Jewish flavor (yidisher tam), about them—the latter confirmed by the Litvak’s austere diet, which contrasted with the sweeter and more complex foods of Galitsianers. While Polish, Galician, and Romanian Jews would typically sweeten the most popular Jewish staple foods (e.g., gefilte fish or kugel) with sugar, cinnamon, raisins, and the like, Litvaks prepared their food with salt and pepper—appropriate, according to the stereotype, to their bitter personalities. “The Galitsianer’s gut is too big, but he has a small head,” wrote Mendele Moykher-Sforim; “the Litvak’s gut is too small, but he has a big head.”

Most of the traits attributed to Litvaks grew out of, when they were not defined by, developments in East European Jewish history after the late eighteenth century, the most far-reaching of which was the widespread opposition to Hasidism among Lithuanian Jews and the emergence of Vilna as the intellectual capital of East European Jewry. Litvaks, who for the most part were Misnagdim, rejected Hasidic religious enthusiasm and emotionalism and all forms of mystical superstition. In contrast to Hasidim, who maintained a worshipful and unquestioning attitude toward the tsadik or rebbe, the Misnagdic Litvaks tended to question all authority, a tendency encouraged and reinforced by the culture of the yeshivas, where critical learning was prized above piety or blind faith, and no one was above criticism.

Still, explanations regarding the etiology of Litvak culture vary. Lithuanian Jews’ relative poverty, their land’s cold climate and austere terrain, and its proximity to Prussia and later to Germany are referred to as contributing factors. But the towering influence on Lithuanian Jewry of the Gaon of Vilna, Eliyahu ben Shelomoh Zalman (1720–1797), is, according to most historians, responsible for many, if not most, of the distinctive aspects of Litvak culture. The Gaon’s critical approach to Talmudic studies, which rejected the fanciful casuistry of pilpul; his vociferous opposition to the nascent Hasidic movement; his personal asceticism; and his interest in metarabbinical disciplines such as geometry, geography, and astronomy are all said, by both the Gaon’s disciples and his detractors, to have planted the seeds of all major developments in Lithuanian Jewish thought and culture for the century and a half following his death, until the liquidation of Lithuanian Jewry during the Holocaust.

The creation in 1803 of the fabled yeshiva in Volozhin by Ḥayim ben Yitsḥak of Volozhin (1749–1821), one of the Gaon’s leading disciples, and the subsequent emergence throughout Lithuania of numerous eminent yeshivas modeled after Volozhin (for example, in Kelem, Mir, Slobodka, Slutsk, and Telz [Telsiai]), established Lithuania in the late nineteenth century as the world center of advanced rabbinical scholarship, and had the net effect of strengthening the image of the Litvak as being overly intellectual and critical. The subsequent emergence in Lithuania, toward the end of the nineteenth century, of the deeply ascetic and spiritually demanding ethical school known as the Musar Movement, founded by Yisra’el Lipkin Salanter—and the eventual spread of yeshivas with an austere Musar orientation (the most famous being the large network of Novaredok [Nowogródek] yeshivas), which trained their students in a particularly rigorous form of self-abnegation—only served to deepen the image of the severe, overly self-disciplined, and unforgiving Litvak. In contemporary Israel, the Hebrew term Lita’i is automatically understood to designate a member of the ultra-Orthodox Misnagdic yeshiva community, headquartered in Bene Berak.

From the mid-nineteenth century on, Lithuania was the region of Eastern Europe most receptive first to the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) and later to the Jewish socialist movement and to Zionism. Many of the most prominent and influential East European maskilim, among them leading Haskalah writers and poets such as Avraham Mapu and Yehudah Leib Gordon, were of Lithuanian origin. This had the further effect of confirming the image of the Litvak as a freethinker or heretic.

During the interwar period, Lithuanian Jewry was divided among Poland, the Belorussian Soviet Republic, and the independent Lithuanian Republic. The Litvaks of both Poland and Lithuania maintained the highest levels of advanced Jewish education in Europe throughout the period. In the state of Lithuania alone, there were three Jewish school systems that operated more than 200 Jewish day schools along with dozens of yeshivas, among them the famous yeshivas of Telz and Slobodka. More than 80 percent of Lithuanian children, the highest proportion in the world, were enrolled in Jewish elementary schools. In the formerly Lithuanian territory annexed to Poland, a similarly high level of Jewish education, both secular and religious, was maintained. The yeshivas of Baranovichi, Mir, Kletsk, and Slutsk attracted students from all across Europe and North America. All of these developments combined to reinforce the caricature of the cold and cerebral Litvak.

Suggested Reading

Gedalyah Alon, “The Lithuanian Yeshivot,” in The Jewish Expression, ed. Judah Goldin, pp. 452–468 (New York, 1970); Noyekh Yitskhak Gotlib, Lite, mayn haymland (Montreal, 1945); Avraham Kariv, Lita, mekhorati (Haifa, 1959/60); Dovid Katz, Lithuanian Jewish Culture (Vilnius, 2004); Dov Levin, The Litvaks: A Short History of the Jews of Lithuania, trans. Adam Teller (Jerusalem, 2000); Elijah J. Shochet, “The Nature of Lithuanian Jewry,” in Ha-Gera u-vet midrasho, ed. Mosheh Ḥalamish, Yosef Rivlin, and Raphael Shuchat, pp. 71–90 (Ramat Gan, Isr., 2003), some essays in English; Jehuda Leib Zlotnik (Yuda Elzet), Der vunder-oytser fun der yidisher shprakh, 2 vols. (Warsaw, 1918–1920).