Steve Sterns most recent book, The Book of Mis­chief, is now avail­able. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I had fun in Vil­nius, despite my low tol­er­ance for fun. Not to men­tion that fun in Vil­nius seemed like a betray­al of every­thing sacred. So what was I doing in Lithua­nia? A good ques­tion, and hav­ing trav­eled all the way to that small East­ern Euro­pean nation to teach Eng­lish-speak­ing stu­dents the same stuff (cre­ative writ­ing) I rou­tine­ly taught at home, I asked my class at our first meet­ing, What the hell are we doing in Lithua­nia?” But the truth was that the ques­tion was disin­gen­u­ous. I knew per­fect­ly well why I’d come. When first invit­ed to teach there in the Sum­mer Lit­er­ary Sem­i­nars, I instant­ly declined. I don’t trav­el well; I like to hang on to my desk with my teeth — that was my default reply. Then I remem­bered that I am a lover of Yid­dishkeit. What rep­u­ta­tion I have is as a writer inspired by Yid­dish cul­ture and folk­lore, and old Vil­na once boast­ed the moth­er lode of that cul­ture before it was utter­ly erased. So I com­plained to every­one I knew that I’d had a chance to go to Lithua­nia and blown it. Even­tu­al­ly I received anoth­er email from the pro­gram, say­ing, We hear by the grapevine you might be hav­ing sec­ond thoughts.” I con­sid­ered my bluff called.

It’s a beau­ti­ful city, Vil­nius, a hard place in which to imag­ine the unimag­in­able. Espe­cial­ly when you’re strolling ser­pen­tine streets flanked by blue and yel­low hous­es, some squat as toad­stools, oth­ers nar­row as the spines of books, most sprout­ing scroll­worked bal­conies. The baroque church­es look like pink cup­cakes, the hid­den court­yards beck­on like grot­tos, and the women (Sab­ri­na, I can look) are whip-thin and sleek as cats. It was a sto­ry­book milieu, com­plete with an argosy of hot air bal­loons over­head, and it daz­zled me to the point where I for­got to miss what was miss­ing. What was miss­ing? Only about 1000 years of the most vibrant Jew­ish life to be found any­where on the plan­et. It was here that the Vil­na Gaon sprang from the womb recit­ing Tal­mud, and the poets of Yung Vilne kept the print­ing press­es busy until the plates were melt­ed into bul­lets for the resis­tance. Here the shelves of the YIVO archive and the Strashun Library groaned from the gath­ered weight of the Dias­po­ra, and the caul­dron of con­flict­ing ide­olo­gie—Hasidim vs mit­nagdim, bundists vs Zion­ists — boiled over in the streets. Here Chaim Sou­tine and Jacques Lip­chitz plied their vision­ary trade with­in earshot of Jascha Heifetz’s vio­lin. All that remained of that world, how­ev­er, was a hand­ful of memo­r­i­al plaques, some busts and a cou­ple of signs inform­ing the tourist that his­to­ry was once here but had since moved on. Not that I’d expect­ed more; though I’ll con­fess to a roman­tic hope that, if I con­nect­ed my pas­sion for Yid­dish cul­ture to its source, sparks would fly and the streets swarm again with Jews. Instead there was only a sput­ter­ing of my good inten­tions before the impulse fritzed out and expired. Then it was eas­i­er to brood over what was absent than to try Grande syna Vilnaand recov­er what was lost.

So I aban­doned my role of ama­teur Yid­dishist in exchange for pro­fes­sion­al mourn­er. I gave a fic­tion read­ing in an old church out­side of which the first Jew­ish vic­tim of the Nazi occu­pa­tion (a woman) was shot. It’s won­der­ful to be here in a city where you can pic­ture a Jew hang­ing from every lamp­post,” I quipped, embar­rass­ing every­one. The audi­ence, com­prised of Vilnius’s tiny Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty come to hear a con­cert of Yid­dish music for which I was the open­ing act, sat in dead­ly silence. When I was done, a man like a steam­er trunk in a tuxe­do marched to the stage and, accom­pa­nied by a clas­si­cal pianist, belt­ed a med­ley of Yid­dish folk­songs that exor­cised the chapel of my sar­casm. He end­ed with a Kad­dish that rocked the foun­da­tion of the church. Chas­tised, I too dropped a tear into the over­flow­ing buck­et of Jew­ish grief and tried to hold that thought. But the music was tru­ly cathar­tic, and after­wards, exhil­a­rat­ed, I went off with col­leagues to drink too many beers in side­walk cafes, in cafes tucked away in vault­ed cat­a­combs, in cafes with ter­races over­look­ing the riv­er, where I wal­lowed in guilty pleasure. 

Steve Stern is the author of sev­er­al works of fic­tion, includ­ing A Plague of Dream­ers, The Frozen Rab­bi, and North of God. His hon­ors include two New York Times Notable Books, a Push­cart Writer’s Choice Award, an O. Hen­ry Prize, and the Edward Lewis Wal­lant Award for Jew­ish Amer­i­can Fic­tion. Stern was born in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee and now lives in Sarato­ga Springs, New York.