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Strangers and Sojourners: The Politics of Jewish Belonging in Lithuania, 1914-1940


This dissertation investigates how Lithuanian Jews positioned themselves vis-�-vis Lithuanians and the Lithuanian state in the era of democratic nation building and, after a military coup d’�tat in 1926, under an authoritarian regime. Across these dramatically different interwar political contexts, Lithuanian Jews honed different strategies to advance the idea that they belonged to Lithuania, leaning on historical, political, cultural and even linguistic evidence. At the same time, they negotiated a contradictory public discourse about them that held that Jews were integral to, and yet conditional participants in, the Lithuanian national project. I argue that, at its core, Lithuanian Jewish belonging consisted of two parts: the Russian Jewish liberal tradition and a deep-seated sense of localness, if not indigeneity. These traditions sometimes worked in tandem but were often in tension.

I trace the arc of Lithuanian Jewish political self-fashioning by looking closely at sources including the Yiddish and Lithuanian daily press, memoirs, literary production and public celebrations. I begin by looking at a group of Jewish cultural activists who, from the 1910s to 1920s, made significant inroads with Lithuanian intellectuals to advance the cause of Jewish indigeneity in a multiethnic Lithuania. In the early years of statehood, democratism, rights and the system of cultural autonomy for minorities were important vehicles for Jewish integration, and yet they were contested concepts within the Jewish community, which was fractured between Jewish parties including, most significantly for this dissertation, Zionists and Folkists. To that end, I analyze debates between party spokespeople, especially Jacob Robinson and Yudl Mark, including an exchange over the meaning of the Yiddish term "doikayt," or "hereness." I follow how Jewish supporters of democratic rights reformulated their ideas and positions under Antanas Smetona’s authoritarian government, which required Jews to present as unified and loyal, despite rising anti-Semitism among the Lithuanian middle class. By the 1930s, some Lithuanian Jews came to support Smetona’s project and the Jewish place in it, while others continued to demand the rights they were promised in the wake of World War I. Finally, I look at the phenomenon of the Jewish study of Roma and the Romani language, which I argue was a way for Jews to demonstrate their relative rootedness.

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