Sunday, January 13, 2013

An impression of Jewish Vilna from the 1840s

This appeared in the Jewish Chronicle July 15, 1861. This is Max Lilienthal's account of his first impression of Vilna, which he first visited in 1842. This isn't a particularly obscure account; it is reproduced in Philipson's  Max Lilienthal, American rabbi: life and writings. However, it is interesting because here we see a  carefully chronicled support for the Lithuanian tradition of both velvet and leather yarmulkes.


  1. Interesting, thanks for digging up and sharing.

    Can you elaborate on the velvet and leather yarmulkas tradition? Interesting how they spell it Jarmekes by the way.

    There is no mention of men learning in koyllel? In Yerushalayim de'Lita?? Okay, maybe it wasn't a Chareidi paper. ;-)

    Also noteworthy are the women minding the stores and the 'enormously long arba kanfos'. Any idea what is meant by the second?

    1. I'm kidding. In the circles I grew up in, where clothing did indeed signify general allegiance to a kind of way in which a type of Orthodox Jew wished to be identified, on the frummest end of the spectrum one could wear a velvet yarmulke (or be a little offbeat and wear one made of black cloth). On the more modern end of the spectrum, one of leather or suede. If you were off the charts and a Zionist and practically a chazer-fresser, a croqueted one. So my joke was that in Vilna people wore one that was made of velvet or leather. I know, funny, right?

      Actually, the "Yerushalayim d'Lita" thing is interesting, because here we see that Lilienthal heard it in 1843. I've seen it in German Jewish newspapers from the same period. It would be interesting to see just how early we can document that appellation and when, and how, and if it was connected with Napoleon. Immediate question which pops up is, well, what was the Jerusalem of Austrian Poland? Surely there were other cities that would have impressed one as being so Jewish.

      My guess about the arba kanfos is that by the 1840s the German Jews wore smaller ones. You can see this today, some people wear ones that almost go down to their knees (and I am talking about the begged, to say nothing of the tzitzis). Realize also that in 1842 long coats were still the traditional dress among Jews in Lithuania. I realize that manual laborers were not wearing long coats while they worked, but perhaps that style had something to do with the length of the tzitzis.



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