Litvaks and Galizianers

12 Oct

Back in a previous post/response to “Jewish London‘s” comment on “Tishabuv” I made a reference to the difference or self-categorization among Eastern European Jews as “Litvaks” and “Galizianers.”  Here’s a map of Europe in 1648.

(have to click)

Between the beginning of the Crusades and the end of the religious wars in the German states in around 1648, a giant wave of the majority of the world’s Jews moved eastwards from German-speaking lands to Eastern Europe, preserving their form of late medieval German (Yiddish, which just means “Jewish”) in their new countries, like Spanish Jewry preserved late medieval Castillian (Ladino, but which Sephardim themselves usually refer to as “Kastelyano”) throughout the Ottoman sphere and general Mediterranean area after being expelled from Spain in 1492.  What I’d like to illustrate with the maps above and below is that no Jew ever actually migrated and settled in Russia.  The vast majority of Central European Jewry moved to the united Kingdom-Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, because Poland was perhaps the most progressive and open and tolerant state in Europe at the time and welcomed them gladly.  Jews later ended up in Russia and Austria when Poland was finally partitioned between those two empires and Prussia in the eighteenth century.  Otherwise, what Jew in his right mind would have gone to live in Russia?  Which was then a backwards, mediaeval theocracy — as, arguably, it still is.


The term “Litvak” refers to those Jews who lived in those territories of northeastern Poland centered around Vilna, Minsk, Bialystok and eventually Warsaw — regions more advanced or somehow “modern” than the rest of the Polish kingdom.  “Galizianer” refers to those Jews who lived in the southeastern areas of Poland — and after Partition — Austria and Russian Ukraine.

“Litvak” refers to Lithuania obviously, but mostly derived its prestige as an appellation from the central role of Vilna* in rabbinical and Jewish scholarship; as a reverse honour-indication of that role, Salonika was known as the Sephardic Vilna.  Galicia, what’s now southeastern Poland and Western Ukraine, roughly round the twin urban poles of Cracow and Lwow became, and remained into the twentieth century, one of the most overpopulated and impoverished parts of Europe — so much for enlightened Austrian rule.

One can take it from there in obvious ways: Litvak was more modern and sophisticated; Galizianer was more backwards and isolated; Litvak was more open to the modernizing influences of the German Jewish Enlightenment; the Galiizianer was more closed and isolated in his shtetl life; the tragically aborted explosion of Yiddish-language literature and theater and cinema in the early twentieth century was Litvak — with its center now moved to Warsaw; many of its themes, however, were the tales and mysticism and Hasidic other-worldliness of the Galizian south.  Opposites but complimentary.  Sholem Aleichem was a Litvak who wrote about Galizianer themes.  Renaissance and Enlightenment Jewish scholarship was Litvak; klezmer and Der Dybuk and Fiddler on the Roof are Galizia.  Helen, the receptionist for take-out orders at my dad’s coffee shop in the 70’s used to say she wouldn’t eat the store’s pastrami and corned beef because they were delivered by a “dirty Galizianer,” but she and an insurance salesman who used to have lunch there — and kinda used to hit on her — used to kid about he would never trust a “sneaky Litvak” like her; by that time, both of them were joking.

The differences mean even less today, except for that, due to New York Hasidim, Galizianer Yiddish is the most alive form of the language.  But even young New York Jewish kids know what the two words imply.  For what that was worth…


*Lithuanians — yes, I get hits from Lithuania — please do not write me and tell me the name of the city is Vilnius.  For Jewish purposes it’s Vilna; for Polish, Wilno.  See: Names: Istanbul (not Constantinople)

Note: Roumanian Jews and “Bessarabtsy” (Moldavian) Jews were kind of a separate category, though I suspect that linguistically and culturally they were pretty similar to Galizianers, aside from a reputation for being especially humourous and quick-witted and high-livers and partiers, and for introducing pastrami to New York, a linguistic and culinary kin to pastirma, one of the many ways that Roumania has always been a bridge between Ottoman and Eastern-European-Russian worlds.


One Response to “Litvaks and Galizianers”


  1. Litvaks and Galizianers II | Jadde-ye-Kabir - October 8, 2019

    […] an old post I try to give gentiles — or non-New-Yorkers, or New-Yorkers under 50 — a sense of the […]

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