Ben-Tsiyon Klibansky – The Golden Age of the Lithuanian Yeshivas

Describe your book

Among all Nobel Prize winners, about 22% were of Jewish origin. This percentage is very surprising and even more amazing knowing that this rate is a hundred times higher than the rate of Jews in the world population! One of the explanations for this fascinating phenomenon is the scholarship that characterized Judaism during its existence in exile for two thousand years, and especially in the last fifteen hundred years, in which Jewish study was concentrated on the Talmud and its interpretations. The studying of Talmud, which is full of countless questions and investigations about every assertion and old convention, is probably what developed creative thinking among the Jews and coined the concept of the “Jewish Genius.”

The Talmud was usually studied in groups of tens or even hundreds of students in yeshivas (Jewish academies) throughout the exile period. In the modern era, from the beginning of the 19th century, the study of the Talmud was led by the yeshivas that arose in the former territories of the Duchy of Lithuania. The publication of these Lithuanian Yeshivas in the Jewish world reached its peak in the interwar period of the 20th century, and my book deals exactly with this period, which I called “the Golden Age of the Lithuanian Yeshivas in Eastern Europe”. The book describes these educational institutions, which operated in Lithuania, Poland and Latvia, in all their aspects, from the economic and organizational to the educational, and from the characteristics of their heads to the origin of their students.

The last two chapters of the book, probably the most fascinating, describe the amazing events that happened to the yeshivas from the outbreak of World War II until their extinction in the Holocaust. However, even though the Lithuanian yeshivas were completely wiped out in Eastern Europe, the organizational and educational standards they had left behind enabled their few graduates who survived to restore the yeshiva world on a similar basis, except this time – in Israel, Western Europe and America.

Why did you decide to publish it with a university press?

Indiana University Press is known for publishing books in the field of Jewish studies, so I approached this publishing house and offered to print my book there. After accepting the book in principle, they defined an orderly production process, with a strict schedule. Indeed, I was not disappointed. The schedule was strictly observed, and the book was published about a month before the predetermined date.

Why did you decide to write the book?

Lithuanian Jewry had unique characteristics that distinguished it from other Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. One of the salient characteristics was rationalistic scholarship, and indeed, the image of the Lithuanian Jewry as a learned-rationalistic one was widely expressed in the Jewish press and literature in the neighboring countries. This rationalistic scholarship found its most distinct expression in the Lithuanian yeshivas, where Talmud was studied without any orientation towards rendering legal decisions or professional preparation for the rabbinate but for the sake of pure learning. Since my general research is concentrating in the Lithuanian Jewry and its characteristics, I thought it appropriate to begin with this distinct and main characteristic of the Lithuanian Jewry and with the institutions where it was mainly expressed.

What is the last thing you read not for research or work?

A month ago I received a gift from my sister: a new translation to Hebrew of the book of David Fishman, The Book Smugglers. This book describes a Jewish underground in the Vilna ghetto that was involved in rescuing Jewish books and archival material from shredding. Since I was born in Vilna, I found it particularly interesting to read this book. I learned that a considerable part of the material saved by the underground from destruction was sent by the Nazis to Germany for the purposes of the Institute for Research on the Jewish Question, established in Frankfurt by the Nazi Minister Alfred Rosenberg. After the Allied victory over Germany, the US Army found the materials from Vilna, and transferred them to the Jewish YIVO Archives in New York. When I did the research that formed the basis of my book, my main sources were found at the YIVO Archives, and they were exactly the materials that were transferred from Vilna to Germany, and from there to the U.S.A. It is very possible, therefore, that without the dedicated work of the Jewish underground in the Vilna ghetto, this material would not have been saved, and I would not have been able to write my book.

What is the best piece of advice that anyone has ever given to you?

My late father once told me about an incident that had happened when he had entered the house of the head of his yeshiva, Rabbi Simcha Gittelevich, in Kovna. While standing at the door he heard his rabbi shouting at his little and naughty son. My father thought it would be right to leave the place at those moments, but the rabbi noticed him and called him. And so he said to him: “You saw me now shouting at my son. One day you will be a father as well, and you too will have situations of anger with your child. In those moments of sudden anger, my advice to you is to immediately put a smile on your face, and in that moment your anger will disappear completely.” In his memoirs (which I published in the past) my father added that he did follow his teacher’s advice, and I can truly testify that he never shouted at me. This is therefore the best advice I have received.

It is interesting that when I started researching the world of the Lithuanian yeshivas, I found that at the end of the 19th century and in the 20th century, a daily study of ethic theory was added to the curriculum. The goal was to bring the students to correct their bad traits, including the trait of anger in daily study work. I therefore concluded that Rabbi Gittelevich’s advice to my father fitted in well with the concept of ethics taught in the yeshivas, about which I also wrote in my book.

Who inspires you?

The greatest researcher of the Lithuanian Jewry in the previous generation was Professor Dov Levin, who himself was a native of Lithuania, a survivor of the Kovna ghetto and a partisan-fighter during WWII. Once, my late mother attended one of his lectures, and later she told me that during the lecture he called on the Jewish younger generation of natives of Lithuania to investigate what happened to the Lithuanian Jewry and to write articles and books on this subject. At the time I was busy in a completely different field, as a senior electronics engineer (M.Sc.), but this call by Prof. Dov Levin slowly seeped into my consciousness, and I became more interested in the Lithuanian Jewry. I read his researches, and learned that this Jewry, which was one of the most famous in the Jewish world, was almost completely annihilated (96%) in the Holocaust. I understood that this total destruction prevented the establishment of a generation of researchers, who would tell the complete and unique story of this Jewry. I therefore began to feel a kind of mission to take on the role, and to research aspects of the unique characteristics of this Jewry. I began to study Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, and within several years I completed my doctoral dissertation there. Since then I have really been engaged in historical research of the Lithuanian Jewry, fulfilling the call mentioned by Prof. Levin.

What’s next?

My book has a tendency towards a more general attitude, especially examining common processes, and only rarely identifying uniqueness of some of the yeshivas. I think it’s time to concentrate on monographs of some of the more unique and “colorful” yeshivas, and research them more deeply. My ambition is that this will be my next book.

Ben-Tsiyon Klibansky is a lecturer at Efrata College in Jerusalem. A native of Lithuania, a senior electronics engineer, and formerly an innovative technology–intensive projects manager, he is an editor and researcher in the history of the Lithuanian Jewry. He is the author of The Golden Age of the Lithuanian Yeshivas (2022), published by Indiana University Press.