Yes, I'm the Loud American: Stranger in a Strange Land
Updated: Mar 3
Before you even ask: yes, I'm the loud American at the restaurant. I'm the loud American in the bar. I'm the loud American in the park. And I'm definitely the loud American in the museum. (Sorry!)
I've heard that Lithuanians are more social creatures than Latvians and Estonians, and my friend groups are certainly a testament to this. We're animated. But still, it's easy to feel like a stranger in a strange land during a Jewish spring festival in a country that used to practically spill over with Jews, with culture, with life. We all know what happened there - and yes, I'm still absolutely obsessed with Ken Krimstein's inter-war graphic novel When I Grow Up. Read it if you can.
But, I'd be lying if I said I haven't been feeling a sense of cognitive dissonance around my own strangeness this week. With all my Jewish friends out of town, I had my own tiny little Seder with The Scientist, my family's first in Lithuania in four generations. And while that was incredibly holy and healing in its own right, I'm used to be surrounded by people at Passover, and I had a hard time finding matzah, the traditional unleavened bread. I'm so used to finding matzah in my neighborhood grocery store that I didn't even think twice about locating some, but now I know better. Did I find any in time? No. No, I didn't. In the Jerusalem of the North. Sigh.
It seems like I come across former Jewish life every time I walk out the door: a former Jewish cemetery on an Easter Monday walk through hundreds of blue-tinted flowers, another Jewish cemetery on a lake peninsula in Daugai, a Yiddish plaque here, Yiddish writing on an old inter-war building there. It's everywhere.
And maybe it's the recent spring rain, but I'm kind of sad about it all right now, if I'm honest. I want so fiercely to honor the lives of the Jewish people who lived and thrived in Lithuania before they got executed in nearby forests. I feel like that's part of my duty, joy, and purpose in being here. So, I'm going to fight for that - the honor it is to be here, to honor them.
And you know what? I did actually end up getting matzah from a new Jewish American friend just passing through Vilnius. He happened to have some leftover matzah, so I became its new owner. It's hilarious that we had our own Sisterhood of the Traveling American Matzah moment, and my hard-earned matzah tastes even better with cream cheese than normal. (I also really enjoyed my thirty-minute exchange with him in a downtown coffee shop, not only speaking in fast American English, but an even zippier version of Jewish American English. Seriously - a treat.)
Because while I may not be the most practicing Jew, neither were all of the Jews in Lithuania throughout time. There were secular Jews, spiritual Jews, observant Jews, cultural Jews, progressive Jews, you name it. So maybe...
Maybe I'm not so much a stranger in a strange land as much as I'm coming home to a strange land. And maybe, this loud American will quiet herself enough to honor the people who used to live here, my ancestors included. Truth be told, I've had an amazing week with Jewish friends, with friends welcoming us into their home for Easter, walking through forests that are slowly waking up.
Maybe what I've said in the past is true: just by being here, I'm honoring my ancestors, and honoring the lives of the people who I see on plaques, on tombstones, for the forgotten Jewish lives.
There is power in planting new seeds on old ground.
Hineni - הנני - here I am.
“In our daily meditations, we pray to the Divine who fills the world, and fills our hearts, and moves us from rung-to-rung, until we arrive at where we have always been. And then we take another step so that the soul can come to encompass the vastness of the knowable as well as the unknowable.” ― Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Gate to the Heart: A Manual of Contemplative Jewish Practice