Interesting Posts #1: Support the Jewish Library in Vilnius

Grassy field

Wild Grasses

I am going to adopt the style of Life in Israel and Parshablog and number my lists of interesting posts. I’ll start with number one, even though it’s not the first.

  1. A  Soldier’s Mother with a video on Israel’s unique role in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti.
  2. The OU’s marriage satisfaction survey claims that overall marriages are healthy, with 70% of respondents claiming they would remarry their partners. The most dissatisfaction appears around 20 to 30 years after marriage, but those who stick it for longer are happy.
  3. Rabbi Joshua Waxman of Parshablog responded to my post on Genetic Testing. Lion of Zion pointed me to a post he wrote on the topic and which linked to Conversations in Klal. They give opposing views on Dor Yesharim, the organization that tests without giving direct results.
  4. Not a link, but a comment received by email: “R Tendler’s words sound good but in fact the decision making by individuals based on “information” is not very good. Stigma is not the only issue. So I am willing to be paternalistic on this one. As long as the decision is made reasonably — a big if — at the time or just before the shidduch, this is a good solution in my book. I mean that the outcomes will be better overall. If there were a rebbe to add arbitrary reasons for saying No, the stigma would be less still.”
    This reader makes a good point. Even if we have the ability to choose wisely, that may not true for everyone. And we may not like it, but there is value in participating in a plan that works for the whole community.
  5. Miriam Shaviv on Jewish life in Britain.
  6. Things aren’t so great in the US either. Orthonomics on tough decisions about Jewish day school and family size.
  7. Haveil Havalim #? is up at Jack’s.
  8. On Twitter I met a man with a plan, Wyman Brent. He wants to build a Jewish library in Vilnius, Lithuania, once known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” He is asking for physical letters in support of this project, to the address below.This is a great activity for your kids.
    Mission Statement: The purpose of the Vilnius Jewish Library is to help strengthen Jewish culture in the Jerusalem of Lithuania. There were more than 100 synagogues and prayerhouses in Vilnius before the war. There was also the YIVO Institute which did so much to promote knowledge and education. Now there is one functioning synagogue here and, YIVO has moved its operations to the USA. Since the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, there has not been a proper center of Jewish culture.

    Another focus of the library is to promote tolerance and understanding. There remains lingering anti-Semitism which is visible in the national media and within the Lithuanian government. The idea is to create a center which puts the spotlight not just on Jewish religion and culture but also upon the amazing accomplishments of Jews throughout history.
    The question is how to accomplish these lofty goals.  To open a library in which all the books are in Hebrew and Yiddish is to guarantee failure. There is a small Jewish population in Vilnius.  The purpose is not to convince Jews of the special nature of Judaism and Jewish culture.  I am hopeful that they already know.  So what will be done to guarantee the success of a Jewish library where there are not many Jews?
    1. Have approximately 100,000 books in English written by any Jewish author on any topic, both fiction and non-fiction. This will guarantee that there is the widest possible range of books.  That means that everyone who will walk through the door will find something which appeals to them.
    2. Keep in mind that English is not the first language of Lithuanians. To help with reading comprehension, the library will be stocked with around 20,000 dictionaries and encyclopedias.  Any reader who has trouble understanding a word or concept found in a book will have access to dictionaries covering everything from archaeology to zoology.  In addition, there will be CDs and DVDs designed specifically to help students learn English.  With a large collection of everything from children’s books to the most scholarly, there will be something for every reading level.
    3. Include other media. Many believe that the time of libraries is past.  After all, there are satellite dishes for television and high speed internet for computers.  To draw people into the library, there will also be a big collection of CDs and DVDs.  The music CDs will cover everything from the Beastie Boys to KISS to Streisand to Gershwin, Mahler, and the Klezmatics.  This will be another way to highlight the significant contributions which Jews have made to popular culture.  As for the DVDs, every Jewish library should have a copy of Schindler’s List directed by Stephen Spielberg. However, since Spielberg is Jewish, I also will have Jurassic Park and Jaws. Harrison Ford is Jewish so there will be Star Wars included as well as any Ben Stiller film. Yes, there will be serious documentaries as well as thoughtful films made about the Shoah.  The incredible variety of books, CDs, and DVDs is to show to the world the incredible breadth and depth of Jewish life and culture. I believe this is something which has never been attempted beneath one roof.
    4. Attract visitors with different events each night. There will be poetry readings, concerts, lectures, art exhibtions, as well as film nights.  These events can be done by any person for any reason.  The creator need not be Jewish and what they are doing need not have any Jewish connection.  The idea behind this is that it will get people in the door who might not have otherwise considered visiting a Jewish library.  Once through the door, they will be able to see for themselves the incredible array of material available to them.  If everything mentioned so far seems still inadequate to bring them in, there will also be a cafe offering coffee, tea, and snacks.
    It is one thing to open a Jewish library in a city where there are large numbers of Jews.  This is not London or New York or Tel Aviv.  This is Vilna which was the Jerusalem of Lithuania.  Many will say that the time for Jewish culture in Lithuania is past.  They will argue that all the Jews still here should move to Israel.  I believe that the Jews here feel the same as I do.  First, this is their home which nobody can deprive them of.  Second, is that for Jewish culture to die in Lithuania is to provide a posthumous victory for the nazis.  I will do all in my power to promote Jewish culture in Lithuania for as long as I am able.
    Wyman Brent
    Vilnius Jewish Library
    Send letters of support to: Wyman Brent
    Ausros Vartu 20-15A
    Vilnius LT-02100


  1. A waste of money. The man has no preparation whatsoever for his goal, not to mention that he is out there alone, not associated with any stream, in Vilnius. Most likely he is unemployed or retiree. If the jewish absence there is not a clear sign, I recommend mr. Brent to consider relocation or even better instruct himself on what means to be jewish and start practicing some judaism. The post is far from interesting.

  2. Abe wrote: “The post is far from interesting.”
    Sorry to disappoint you!

  3. I think that a non Jew working for ‘tolerance and understanding’ is certainly not a bad thing and worth a few moments of my time.
    Even if he is wasting money, it is his own money that he is wasting.
    Why on earth should he start practicing Judaism if he is not even Jewish himself?

  4. I was quite impressed with this project,myself. I admire the humanity of this person and wish there were many more non-Jews with his attitude. Preserving Jewish heritage means preserving the history of Jews wherever they lived – a very important matter.

    And by the way, is there anything wrong with being unemployed or a retiree? Even if the man gets to pay himself a salary out of all that effort, eventually? No one else is doing the work.

  5. I don’t know enough about the Jewish library effort, so I’m thankful for your post. It’s not a goal I would personally go out of my way to endorse though. I am all for promoting tolerance and understanding of what being Jewish is all about, but personally, I think setting up a huge library with no Jewish community around it is a waste of money. Maybe a small club instead?

  6. Wyman Brent says

    First, I want to say thank you for posting this here. Every opportunity to get the word out is very welcome. One thing I notice is that some do have the attitude of why create something Jewish where there are so few Jews. It seems to be the ruling logic far too often is that Jewish institutions should only be built in locations where there are already millions of Jews. Does it really make sense to only build Jewish organizations in the USA or Israel? I think of that as the Starbucks philosophy. If a Starbucks on one corner is a good thing, then even better if you add another across the street.

    There is a Jewish community in Lithuania. It is small but it is growing. There is the Jewish Museum, a JCC, Chabad, a Jewish Cultural Center, a Jewish school, the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, and an active synagogue. Are these people to be lauded for keeping the flame of Jewish culture not only alive but growing in the Jerusalem of Lithuania? Or are they to be called fools and met with demands that they all emigrate to Israel? Who really benefits from the end of Jewish culture in the home of the Vilna Gaon?

    How does one fight anti-Semitism? How does one promote tolerance? Does one do so by creating a small meeting hall which only the Jews will visit but nobody else will? Or perhaps one creates an institution which will not only benefit every student and scholar. I truly love the Jewish libraries I have visited. However, they are designed for Jews by Jews with little thought given as to perhaps bringing in Gentiles. The books are beautiful! I will be the first to say that. I own more truly Jewish books than most people have ever put their hands on.

    A Jewish library designed with no desire to appeal to non-Jews works very well in places like Los Angeles and Tel Aviv. After all, there is a Jewish bookshop or restaurant or synagogue almost everywhere you turn. How about we just open another Jewish library in Jerusalem? It all comes back to the question of why support a Jewish community that is so small. I not only think but know in my heart and soul that the Jews of Vilnius and all Lithuania are amazing people. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything that I see and hear. However, how can I not admire a people who went through so much under the nazis and then the Soviets and came out battered but whole on the other side?

    I have visited with Shoah survivors in Vilna. I have been to their homes, drank tea, eaten ice cream with them. I have cried at their stories as well as laughed with them. I was the final speaker at the ceremony two years ago honoring Righteous Gentiles in Lithuania. I was invited to speak by Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum deputy director Rachel Kostanian. She herself is a survivor. Was I worthy of such an honor? I don’t think so but I was deeply moved by her faith in me.

    I stood there in front of the audience and I will tell you what I said. I said that Lithuania was not built by Catholics. Lithuania was not built by Jews. Lithuania was built by all Lithuanians working together. That is something which was proven over and over again for centuries. Should the Jews who so bravely fought to not only maintain but strengthen Jewish culture after the Shoah now be told that they are wasting their time? Or maybe just maybe we can all reach out and give them that well-deserved round of applause that they deserve. Am I worthy of being accepted by such people as the Jews in Lithuania? I can’t say but accept me they have. That is all the honor I need or crave.

  7. First – thanks for the link to my site and post.

    Second – I think what you are doing is amazing. The detail above is such an ambitious plan. I hope you succeed. It will be an inspiration to all who come. May you from strength to strength and find support in all directions.

    I would like to donate some books from our publishing house that may be of interest and I hope others will donate books and resources as well!

    Kol Hakavod – all honor to you, for this inspiring and dedicated idea.


  8. Cal Desmond-Pearson says

    Even though I’m not Jewish myself I believe that what Wyman is doing a good thing re the library – what is wrong with a non-Jew doing something like this? Too many people complain about the intolerance and hatred and disunity in the world, yet when someone tries to do something like this he gets shot down. The library could be a resource not just for the Vilnius area but for the wider world – for both jews and non-Jews.

  9. To clarify: I have no problem with anyone being Jewish or non-Jewish. I would treat this exactly the same way were you Jewish.

    My concern is that such a huge library as you plan will not be justified by the number of people visiting it. Building and maintaining a library is extremely expensive. Will it benefit enough people to justify the expense? Jewish or gentiles, it makes no difference to me. Have you ran any kind of survey in the region as to who might be even remotely interested in using the library?

    Also, you mentioned a collection of books by modern Jews and Israelis in English. Look, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see why modern Israeli writers should have that privilege automatically. Some of them are good, some suck – like any authors. What about Israeli Muslim and Christian writers? I just don’t like “Jews only” anymore than I like “Whites only”. Again, maybe it’s just me.

    I admire your dedication in this project, and your good will and attention to the holocaust survivors living there. I am sure they benefited a lot from your visits. All I’m saying is that with so many causes in this world, investing money and energy into establishing a Jewish-only library where it may not get a lot of use, is not something I prefer to be a part of. I still wish you the best of luck with your plans 🙂

  10. Wyman Brent says

    IsraeliMom does make very good points. Let me first address the modern Jewish writer topic. I absolutely agree that some of the latest writers, Jewish or not, put out some real garbage. I tend to come from the old school where people told tales without need to disgust or prove how much foul language they can fit on each page. Oh look, another curse word on this page. That makes 27 so far. For me, that is not writing.

    Having said that, there are books which shock which can change the world in a very positive way. An example is “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair which helped make food consumption safer for all. His book was considered scandalous at the time. Who among us is to say which book is worthy of being in a library? In the USA there have been thousands upon thousands of attempts to ban or censor books. Everything from Mark Twain to Harry Potter has been subjected to thought control by those who want to others to only read what their own narrow vision of a good book is.

    How many of you know that Herman Melville died in obscurity. His book “Moby Dick” did not achieve its immortal status until after his death, a death which came 40 years after the publication. I truly enjoyed reading that book when I was younger and will recommend it to anyone. However, not all classics are classics to everyone. I have read “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Again it was a book that did not become popular right at once. Now many consider that book a true classic. Frankly, it bored me too tears. Am I right in saying Melville wrote a classic and Fitzgerald did not with those two books?

    Who is to say or know which book or books will change someone’s life? This library is at the point it is now thanks to Rabbi Small, a fictional Rabbi and sleuth created by Harry Kemelman. Many among you who read this will scratch their heads and say, “Harry who?” Each Rabbi Small mystery was a light and fluffy whodunit. The good Rabbi would find himself in the middle of some mystery that he would finally solve in a series of not very thick books.

    I brought home a Rabbi Small book which I wanted to read. This was before I had the idea of creating anything Jewish. I read it and the person who shared my flat read the book. Then my friend who was not overly interested in Jewish culture before that time decided that she wanted to know more. She wanted so much to know more that she approached a Rabbi in Tijuana, Mexico and interviewed him and his congregation. That article appeared in the Jerusalem Post. My bringing a light mystery story inspired her and in turn she inspired me to create the library. The library is as far along as it is today thanks to Harry Kemelman. So now someone please tell me which Jewish authors I exclude from the library.

    As for who will use the library, another excellent point. After all, far too many think libraries in general are near an end. Nobody will go into a library when there is the internet, satellite television, audiobooks, and now Kindle. I am not against any of the above. I am sitting here using the net to write this. I have audiobooks for the library. Having said that, all of those things do not bring people together face to face for the most part. Yes, it can be arranged over the net but it is the meetings in person which people crave.

    This library will become not just a repository of books. There will also be thousands of CDs and DVDs for people to use. In addition, there are going to be regular cultural events taking place inside. Almost any person for any reason will be able to hold a music concert, lecture, art exhibition, or poetry reading. The person will not have to be a Jew and the subject matter will not need to have any Jewish connection. The idea is to get people into the library who might not normally visit a Jewish library or any library for that matter. They can walk in and see the beautiful collection of books and other materials. They will see artwork on the walls by people the likes of architect Richard Meier and Leonard Nimoy. A library can’t be just books on the shelves in this day and age.

    Who might be interested in using the library? Apparently there is a lot of interest here. I have been interviewed by Lithuania’s largest newspaper, Lithuanian National Radio, Lithuania’s most popular internet site, Lithuania Today magazine, Baltic Times newspaper, and told people on the streets and in cafes about what I am attempting to do. There has been lots of very positive feedback. Yes, there were some anti-Semitic comments left but that was a tiny number in comparison to the good. Last night I was having dinner in a pizza place. I started talking to a waiter and telling him about my plans. I am not at all shy about telling people what I do. The waiter is not Jewish but he holds the Jewish people in very high regard. He was talking about how Jews built up so much of Vilnius. He promised he would certainly come to the library. I have been stopped on the street several times by people after they saw my interviews. All of the comments were positive.

    Perhaps Lithuanians will come in to use what will become one of the best ESL (English as a Second Language” centers in the world. With a planned goal of 100,000 books by Jewish authors or with some Jewish connection, that is a lot of English under one roof. In addition, there will be approximately 20,000 dictionaries and encyclopedias. There will also be plenty of material on CD and DVD to help people begin or improve their language skills. Yes, I have stated this all before but I am making the point that this will be a true cultural center of which Lithuanians can actually find a reason to visit.

    Finally, on to why a “Jewish” library. It is designed at the heart to promote tolerance. Yes, we all know very well that stamping out anti-Semitism entirely is an impossible task. Now just imagine someone coming into the library and watching Harrison Ford in Star Wars and learning he is Jewish. Watch a Ben Stiller comedy or take in Jurassic Park by Steven Spielberg. Listen to Gershwin, Mahler, Mendelsohn, Copland, Barbra Streisand, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan. Maybe just maybe the person listening and watching will pause and think that there are some pretty cool Jews. That is all I can hope for.

  11. I’m enjoying these comments.
    If you succeed, Wyman, the library could become the largest center of Jewish culture in Europe. I like that the focus will be on past and current Jewish life, scholarship and culture and not just the Holocaust. And while in some ways it serves the same purpose as a museum,it has a more positive connotation.
    I can see it being a destination for all kinds of groups.

  12. Wyman Brent says

    Mother in Israel,

    You are right that this can become a destination for many. My hope is that it becomes a popular center of Jewish culture in Europe. The Jews that are in Europe are planning to stay. Let’s start building with that in mind. The library is designed to remember the past while keeping one foot very solidly in the future.