Earlier this week, I discussed my surprise in learning that my mother’s family home, the town of Tarnow, was defined as a shtetl on a Jewish genealogy site. I hadn’t previously traced my ancestry beyond sophisticated Vienna, and the notion that my origins were Yiddish-speaking and roof-fiddling took some mental adjustment.
I next decided to try to put Tarnow into a larger European Jewish context. More surprises. Tarnow, I learned, was in Galicia, a province that was part of a long-standing internecine conflict I’d only vaguely been aware of: The Galitzianers vs the Litvaks.
A Little Geography/History Lesson
I have spent the last few days poring over maps, trying to find one that would make it clear where the Lithuanian Jews (aka Litvaks) lived in relation to the Galician Jews (aka Galitzianers) — with little success. The borders of today’s Lithuania don’t represent those of 18th-century Lithuania, the period during which the conflict arose. But at least I can show you where Tarnow and Galicia are in relation to the rest of the Austro-Hungarian empire (1867-1918), including to its capital, Vienna.
And I can tell you that the Litvaks and Galitzianers were neighbors. The former lived to the northwest of Galicia in present-day northern Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. Indeed, if I am interpreting this Wikipedia entry correctly — I found it hard to get past the sentence “after Boleslaw-Yuri II was poisoned by local nobles in 1340, both the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland advanced claims over the principality” — Galicia and Lithuana had once comprised the Principality of Galicia–Volhynia.
So, although it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Galicia was far closer, ethnically and historically, to Poland and Lithuania than to Austria. The Galician and Lithuanian Jews were also closer to each other linguistically than they were to the other Jews of the Austro-Hungarian empire. I mentioned in my last post that there was a hierarchy of Germanic languages among European Jews, with the German spoken in Germany at the top of the ladder, Viennese German — as opposed to rural Austrian German — a rung below, and Yiddish at the bottom. Both Litvaks and Galitzianers primarily spoke Yiddish, albeit with different accents and colloquialisms.
Definitely a family feud.
The Very Religious Vs. the Differently Very Religious
As so often happens, the differences that caused the rancor between these two otherwise closely related groups of Jews were religious ones, an 18th-century schism between the followers of the Vilna Gaon (pictured to the left) and the Ba’al Shem Tov (pictured in the heading of the post, 1698-1760). The Jewish Virtual library discusses the theological rift.
In brief, the Litvaks founded institutions of higher education known as yeshivas, where they had rigorous debates over the meaning of religious texts. Their style of prayer was restrained. The Galitzianers came under the influence of a mystical, charismatic form of Judaism called Hasidism. The Hasidim dubbed their less emotionally oriented brethren Mitnagdim (opponents).
Doctrinal differences aside, the Hasidim considered the Mitnagdim persnickity cold fish, while the Litvaks thought the Hasidim were meshuggenah holy-rollers.
This seems to me akin to the difference between talking-in-tongues Pentecostals and the more traditionally church-going fundamentalist Protestants. But what do I know? I grew up in a predominantly Jewish and Italian neighborhood. Until I was about 12, I had never met a Christian who was not Catholic.
Galitzianers Who Behaved Like Litvaks
In theory, then, my mother’s family, the Kornmehls from Galicia, should have been Hasidic. But they weren’t, not even the very religious ones.
I’ve already introduced Rabbi Nuchim Zvi Kornmehl, who blessed Barton’s chocolate — in addition to his other rabbinical duties in the U.S., where the Nazis forced him and his family to move in 1938. He was born in Ryglice, Poland, in the province of Tarnow, where his father, Mordechai Motel Kornmehl, was also a rabbi. Rabbi Mordechai Kornmehl’s family moved to Vienna in 1914. Nuchim, who was somewhat of a prodigy, attended yeshiva — a Mitnagdim institution. He must have grown up speaking Yiddish; according to a family biography, “He taught himself German and read the works of Kant, Freud, Goethe, and Schiller.” This was also a Mitnagdimish thing to do.
What does it mean, then, that the family roots were Galitizianer but that the Kornmehl rabbis were Litvak-style Mitnagdim? Or that I grew up near Crown Heights in Brooklyn, the heart of a Hasidic sect called the Lubavitchers, but never personally knew a Hasidic Jew?
I can only speculate on the fluidity of borders — Tarnow was close to Litvak territory — and the dangers of stereotyping. As the disciples of a Viennese doctor with Galician roots might say, What do you think?
I am far better qualified to discuss the Litvak/Galitzianer culinary divide — coming up next.