Ear­li­er this week, Steve Stern wrote about embark­ing on a quixot­ic jour­ney and his deci­sion to teach cre­ative writ­ing in Vil­nius. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

There’s a dis­trict in Vil­nius called Užupis, which has seced­ed from the rest of Lithua­nia and estab­lished its own repub­lic. To get there you cross over a riv­er on a bridge fes­tooned in pad­locks engraved with the names of lovers. On the river­bank below the bridge is the stat­ue of a mer­maid. It’s a bohemi­an neigh­bor­hood with its own whim­si­cal con­sti­tu­tion (“Every­one has the right to under­stand noth­ing,” Every­one has the right to encroach upon eter­ni­ty,” A cat is not oblig­ed to love its mas­ter, but it must help him in dif­fi­cult times,” and so on) mount­ed on a wall in a dozen lan­guages. There’s a café in Užupis with a ter­race over­look­ing the lit­tle riv­er, where I sat drink­ing beer with some Lithuan­ian poets. They were impres­sive com­pa­ny, the poets with their chis­eled Slav­ic fea­tures, who recit­ed their poems from mem­o­ry and, unlike Amer­i­cans, made no apolo­gies for their art. The sub­ject of con­ver­sa­tion was Lithuan­ian iden­ti­ty and the nation­al nar­ra­tive the cit­i­zens were strug­gling to cob­ble togeth­er since gain­ing their inde­pen­dence from the Sovi­et Union. It was a nar­ra­tive the Jew­ish com­po­nent had been most­ly edit­ed out of.

You peo­ple are so lucky,” I sub­mit­ted. You’ve been per­se­cut­ed for cen­turies by the Rus­sians, the Poles, the Ger­mans, where­as I’ve had to pun­ish myself all these years.”

Under­stand, I’m a cheap drunk, and the beer in Vil­nius is very good, espe­cial­ly the dark Baltic vari­ety with its tinc­ture of caramel. Well past my lim­it (of a sin­gle beer) I was inclined to pre­sump­tion. Also, I wasn’t espe­cial­ly sym­pa­thet­ic to the Lithuan­ian nation­al iden­ti­ty cri­sis, hav­ing recent­ly vis­it­ed their Muse­um of Geno­cide Vic­tims. This is the muse­um housed in the old KGB head­quar­ters, a for­bid­ding­ly grim build­ing where thou­sands of Lithuan­ian par­ti­sans were impris­oned, tor­tured, and mur­dered by the Sovi­ets. With its pun­ish­ment cells and exe­cu­tion cham­ber, it’s a chill­ing mon­u­ment to inhu­man­i­ty, and there’s no ques­tion that the Lithua­ni­ans suf­fered dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly at the hands of the Rus­sians. But I was more than a lit­tle uncom­fort­able with call­ing their par­tic­u­lar tragedy a geno­cide.” I remind­ed the poets that the Jews had con­sti­tut­ed near­ly half the pop­u­la­tion of Vil­nius before the war, that theirs had been arguably the rich­est Jew­ish cul­ture in Europe. I called the roll of Jew­ish genius­es from Vil­na — the Gaon and the Cha­zon Ish, Moishe Kul­bak and Chaim Grade, the schol­ar-rab­bis, the Yid­dish authors, actors, and artists — and sug­gest­ed that, if the Lithua­ni­ans were so des­per­ate for a nar­ra­tive, they could do worse than to appro­pri­ate that of the Lit­vak Jews. After all, while the offi­cial iden­ti­ty of Vil­nius had long been Russ­ian, the pub­lic life was large­ly Pol­ish, and the real fla­vor of the streets was dis­tinct­ly Jew­ish. The scant native Lithuan­ian pop­u­la­tion was, at least until recent­ly, neg­li­gi­ble and ghost­ly.

I wait­ed for my remarks to revive some atavis­tic form of anti-Semi­tism among my lis­ten­ers, who mere­ly reg­is­tered then dis­missed the sug­ges­tion; my rep­u­ta­tion as a nudge had pre­ced­ed me. Lithua­nia, they explained, was the last nation in Europe to be con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty. In the late 14th cen­tu­ry, when the rest of the con­ti­nent was build­ing its high goth­ic cathe­drals, the Lithua­ni­ans, it seemed, were still wor­ship­ping trees. In their zeal­ous quest for iden­ti­ty many of the young were now look­ing back to the mist-shroud­ed pagan past. Shikkered from a sec­ond beer, I recalled an item of graf­fi­ti I’d seen on a crum­bling wall ear­li­er that day. It was a more or less stick fig­ure with a pro­tract­ed mid­dle limb and a leg­end chalked above it read­ing in Eng­lish: Long Dick Boy. It struck me in ret­ro­spect that what I’d seen was a pagan scrawl from the Lithuan­ian Stone Age, pos­si­bly the image of some trick­ster god. I pre­sent­ed my the­o­ry to the poets, sup­port­ing it with impro­vised episodes from a cycle of tales about Long Dick Boy: how he stole bor­sht from the gods, las­soed a drag­on with his sch­long, etc. And a lit­tle known fact,” I added as a post­script, Long Dick Boy was cir­cum­cised.” I think the Lithua­ni­ans were as glad to see the back of me as I was to go home, but I cher­ish the sou­venir hang­over I brought back from my time in Vilnius.

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 twoNew York TimesNotable 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.

Stern’s fic­tion, with its deep ground­ing in Yid­dish folk­lore, has prompt­ed crit­ics such as Cyn­thia Ozick to hail him as a suc­ces­sor to Isaac Bashe­vis Singer. He has won five Push­cart Prizes, an O’Henry Award, a Push­cart Writ­ers’ Choice Award and a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. For thir­ty years, Stern taught at Skid­more Col­lege, the major­i­ty of those years as Writer-in-Res­i­dence. He has also been a Ful­bright lec­tur­er at Bar Elan Uni­ver­si­ty in Tel Aviv, the Moss Chair of Cre­ative Writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mem­phis, and Lec­tur­er in Jew­ish Stud­ies for the Prague Sum­mer Sem­i­nars. Stern splits his time between Brook­lyn and Bal­ston Spa, New York.