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Scary costumes: Jews on parade

by Brad A. Greenberg

February 9, 2008 | 11:37 pm

Lithuanian Catholics have an incredibly odd, and I would say bigoted, Lent tradition of dressing up as heavily stereotyped, grotesque Jews—haggling peddlers with big noses, sidelocks and hideous features. The Forward has the story, and some photos, and reports that Jews in Vilna don’t complain because they don’t want to cause conflict.

During Carnival — or Uzgavenes, as it is known in Lithuania — Catholics from around the world congregate for a feast of foods prohibited during Lent. The festival usually involves a parade or circus, with attendees in masks and costumes. But in Vilnius — commonly known to Jews as Vilna — participants traditionally dress and act “as Jews,” a feat that generally calls for masks with grotesque features, beards and visible ear locks and that is often accompanied by peddling and by stereotypically Jewish speech.           

Perhaps even more shockingly, the “festivities” extend beyond the parade itself and into a Halloween-style trick-or-treating. When Simonas Gurevicius, the 26-year-old executive director of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, opened the door to his house during last year’s Uzgavenes, he was greeted by two children dressed in horns and tails, reciting a song that translates as, “We’re the little Lithuanian Jews/We want blintzes and coffee/If you don’t have blintzes/Give us some of your money.” (It rhymes in Lithuanian.)

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Diana, a 20-year-old Jewish medical student from Vilnius who did not wish to give her last name, was surprised to learn that Lithuanians dress as Jews during Uzgavenes. “It’s not the most pleasant thing, but it could be worse” she said, adding that “they could be smashing menorahs” — a reference to protests surrounding the erection of a large menorah in the Lithuanian town of Siauliai last December.

Last Saturday, hundreds gathered in front of city hall in the capital to celebrate. The Web site of the Vilnius City Municipality promised that during Uzgavenes, which is an official holiday in Lithuania, “creatures wearing different masks — devils, witches, deaths, goats, Gypsies, and other joyful and scaring characters — hang around.” Claiming to be dressed as a Jew, one woman tried to convince spectators to buy dirty handkerchiefs.

Although typical costumes include farm animals and monsters, masquerading is sometimes broadly referred to as “eiti zydukais,” or “going as Jews,” regardless of how one dresses.

The Roma do not fare better. Participants who masquerade as “Gypsies” wear gaudy makeup, hold babies and ask bystanders for money.

Last Friday, Vilnius’s Center of Ethnic Activity hosted an exhibition of Uzgavenes masks and screened archival footage of past celebrations. Masks of Jews were displayed between those of witches and animals, and shown with no apparent compunction to cultural delegates from Latvia and Denmark. In a video shot in Vilnius last year, a man dressed as a Jew carrying a briefcase full of toilet paper haggled with cab drivers as he led a group of people made up as beasts through the streets.

And I thought Mardi Gras was a strange, unholy tradition.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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